In this Q&A, Julie Simmons Ivy, the Department Chair at the University of Michigan Industrial and Operations Engineering (U-M IOE), discusses her vision for the future of industrial and operations engineering and how Michigan Engineers will play a role in that.
How did getting your PhD at Michigan Engineering impact your career moving forward?
It set the stage for my career. My advisor was Steven Pollock, he taught a class where he brought people in to present real-world challenges and we would have to figure out how to model it and ultimately create a solution. I loved that class because I liked learning about the tools industrial and operations engineers have at their disposal. The way I look at the world is distinct because of the real-world training I received at U-M IOE.
As a Southeast Michigan native, how do you hope Michigan Engineering can have an impact in your home state?
I am excited to see how Michigan Engineering can continue to impact its surrounding community. I love Detroit, as an African-American female growing up there, it was an empowering place because everyone around me was doing great things and they looked like me. I think Michigan Engineering has the opportunity to be a positive force in working with Detroit and the complex challenges that are present there. I don’t think Detroit always gets as much visibility as it deserves for the innovative things they’ve created, I mean Detroit is quite literally the birthplace of the car, that’s huge.
Additionally, as Michigan Engineers we serve the entire state of Michigan and beyond. We need to think about partnerships, collaboration and network building with companies and alums. These partnerships should not only give students experience but serve as a way for our students and alumni to give back to their communities. At a place like a food bank, you can do more than just sort food, you can help the food bank with software, data and decision-modeling too. We have a lot of alums around the state and we need to bring them into our classrooms and embed them into our department. We can use their strengths to influence our teaching as well as state-wide decision-making and innovation. There’s a lot of opportunity here at U-M IOE and our alumni will be a key part of that.
You’re the first female and the first African-American U-M IOE Department Chair. Do you have anything you want to say about this milestone?
I am happy to be the first but I am super excited that I’m not going to be the last. Representation matters, as a student I was often one of few or the only one. If you had told me as an undergrad student that I’d be the chair of the department I would have told you “no way.” If you had told me as a PhD student I still would have said… “seriously, no way.”
I want to create environments that are welcoming for everyone because people need to be able to see themselves everywhere. Someone once said to me that inclusion means instead of just being a guest in the house you own the house, and you live there too. So I want our students to feel like they live here, they’re not guests, this is a place built for them.
Can you discuss your research and how you found your passion for people-centric research?
From the start, I was interested in uncertainty, particularly from the perspective of informing decision-making. During my time at the U-M Ross School of Business, I participated in the Decision Consortium where every week we’d discuss parts of the decision-making process. One week we discussed breast cancer and the next week we talked about prostate cancer. When we talked about women and breast cancer the group discussed surgical removal as a means to prevent disease. However, when talking about men and prostate cancer the discussion leaned away from taking such invasive measures. It made me wonder in the decision-making process how these problems could be looked at differently based on bias and how that guides our decision-making.
From there I started looking at breast cancer and how physicians should prioritize scheduling mammograms to identify breast cancer as quickly as possible. My research during my PhD was in machine maintenance. I looked into how machines deteriorate over time and how we maintain them, given that you can’t see the deterioration from the outside. And so the models I used for machine maintenance I repurposed for thinking about health and how cancer progresses. That helped me make the transition from machines to people because I’m interested in looking into problems that could ultimately help people. In addition to breast cancer, I also research disparities in maternal health and the factors that race brings to the table.
I also do a lot of work in hunger, specifically looking at food bank operations and how we can use data to inform decision-making during that process. There’s a belief by many that hunger isn’t a problem of scarcity but about getting the right food, to the right places, at the right time, in the right way. So it’s really about connecting resources, which is what we do as IOEs. It’s important as engineers that we’re looking at these problems because the work we do can have an effect on people with food insecurity.
The third area I work in is education, specifically student performance over time and looking at student dropout rates. The idea is we can learn using machine learning methods, simulation and optimization on how to intervene to prevent dropout.
Healthcare, hunger and education are all intertwined and these human-centric areas can all use modeling and data to help inform decision-making and improve outcomes for our communities. This involves partnering with our communities and trying to not use our people as subjects but as real people to collaborate with. As industrial and operations engineers, humans are at the center of what we do and how we look at the world. I’m not saying other fields don’t have potential but IOE has the overwhelming ability to consider people in our methods and approaches.
How do you think the industrial and operations engineering field will evolve in the next 10 years?
I believe that the area of behavioral operations research (OR) where we think about how people interact with systems and machines and how people make decisions is going to be important moving forward. Healthcare will continue to be something we focus heavily on, as well as issues around the environment and sustainability which we can uniquely contribute to because of our training in creating solutions for complex systemic problems. As industrial and operations engineers we look at how all things are connected and therefore we’ll be able to have an impact in nearly all sectors of industry and education.
What is your leadership philosophy?
I believe a leader is there to help great people do great things. I hope to create an environment where everyone can excel, so as a department, we can do great things, while being inclusive of all members. I’ll strive to create the kind of environment where people feel welcome and can bring their whole selves to the workplace and have that be accepted.
We think of engineering as people-first at U-M. What do you think about the capacity of industrial and operations engineering to better serve all populations and help drive social change?
IOE is people-first. It matters for us to be inclusive of all populations as we develop models because we’re the ones who inform decision-making with the data we collect and with that power comes a lot of responsibility.
The challenge with data that we’ve historically seen is that often we have samples that only include one population and we assume that population is representative of everyone. If we aren’t inclusive of the populations that are being served by the work we are doing we can make bad decisions. For instance, if I look at a group of people 65 and older and try to apply health decisions from that group to teenagers it’s probably going to look very different. If we don’t think carefully and inclusively when we create models then the recommendations we’re making and the way we’re influencing policy could have strong, potentially damaging implications. You can’t do everything but we have to be clear about what we did do and what might have been missing which is a challenge.
What was your favorite memory as a U-M student?
I have two favorite memories; the first are my nights at the ELRC, at the time known as the Engineering Learning Resource Center. We stayed up all night studying and working with people there was always so much fun. I also pledged Delta Sigma Theta when I was a senior and I loved that time. U-M’s chapter recently turned 100 years old and when you think about that means it’s really powerful. There were African American women at U-M 100 years ago who decided they were going to create this long-standing organization for powerful women and it’s still here today. The sorority is filled with amazing women who have gone on to be nationally and internationally recognized for their impact. To me, it’s not only a memory I love but it’s still a community that I’m very much a part of and love so much.