Environmental portrait of Muer Yang taken on Friday, April 12, 2013 on the Minneapolis campus of the University of St. Thomas.

2015 Susan E. Heckler Research Excellence Award: Muer Yang, Ph.D.

On Friday, May 8, Muer Yang, Ph.D., a professor in the Opus College of Business Department of Operations and Supply Chain Management, was awarded the Susan E. Heckler Research Excellence Award. This award recognizes outstanding faculty achievement as a researcher and a mentor of young researchers. It is given in honor of Susan E. Heckler, Ph.D., an accomplished researcher and professor at the Opus College of Business who maintained personal, caring relationships with students and was generous with her time in service roles at all levels. Dr. Heckler died after a brief illness in January 2011.

Professor Yang earned his Ph.D. in operations management from the University of Cincinnati. His research applies novel aspects in simulation and optimization models to areas of high impact, such as public policies and health care management. In particular, he has examined methods to improve voting operations in terms of equity and efficiency; and he applies simulation models to improve patient flow and staffing levels in hospitals.

He teaches at the undergraduate and MBA levels and he focuses on the translation of knowledge into practical skills that bridge the classroom and real business environments.

We asked Professor Yang to share some of his thoughts on how improving service operations can directly impact public policies and health care operations, what he’s working on now and how to spark curiosity in the classroom.

The Susan E. Heckler Research Excellence Award is given to a faculty member who is conducting top-tier, groundbreaking research. Much of your research examines ways to improve efficiencies and equity in areas like health care and public policy. Could you describe some of the work you’ve done in these areas in more detail?

My general research interest is in the application of quantitative methods to service-operations settings, particularly in public policies and health care operations. Specifically, my most recent research focuses on improving voting operations for local and national elections and developing admission policies for cardiothoracic intensive care units.

During the 2004 U.S. presidential election, some voters waited more than 10 hours to cast their ballots. Reports of long queues of voters at polling locations continued throughout the 2006 and 2008 elections. Even more disturbing were the post-election allegations that systematic policy decisions turned out to suppress certain voting segments in key states.

In a collaborative project with University of Cincinnati Professor David Kelton, Professor Michael Fry and the Ohio State University associate professor Theodore Allen, we sought the optimal allocation of voting machines to provide voters equal waiting time (hence equal access to the election system) regardless of polling locations, creating a proxy for “equity” in the voting system.

This research provides new tools that can be shared with local election boards. We used 2008 presidential election data from Franklin County, Ohio, and found that, under simulations, our allocation method shortened the average voter waiting time by 36 percent and could have made 23,000 fewer people who had to wait for more than 30 minutes in that election. Our work was conducted jointly with elected officials at the Franklin County Board of Elections, who are receptive to the use of mathematical models in guiding policy decisions. We even were directly involved in rewriting the legislation – the House Bill #260 that was passed by the Ohio House of Representatives in November 2009 addressing many of the concerns with operational issues in elections.

My research in health care originated from challenges faced by the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. The hospital seeks optimal ICU admission policies to maximize profits and improve patient care. Policy makers are struggling to match the ICU capacity with needs of patients. The available ICU beds must be allocated wisely, taking into account both the known and potential surgeries to be performed each day. Working alongside Dr. Corey Scurlock at the cardiothoracic ICU and UC professor Michael Fry, we developed a dynamic admission policy, which can reduce the maximum patient waiting time to be admitted into the ICU by four days compared to the current admission policy.

What projects are you currently working on and excited about?

One of my current projects is “Managing Tele-ICUs: A Service Factory for the Critically Ill.” The term “tele-ICU” is defined as “a centralized or remotely-based critical care team networked with the bedside ICU team and patient via state-of-the-art audiovisual communication and computer systems” (Goran, 2010).

The demand placed upon ICUs is increasing due to an aging population; it is projected that 35% of the requested demand for ICUs will not be filled by 2020 (Society of Critical Care Medicine, 2012). Tele-ICU is proposed to be one way to solve the ICU crisis.

Collaborating with a leading tele-ICU provider in the U.S., this project attempts to identify more specifically the efficacy of staffing models and processes of tele-ICUs. We would like to solve the following two questions:

  1. to determine the trade-off between dedicated staff and flexible staff, and
  2. determine the required capacity (physicians and nurses) to meet the mandate intervention requirements.

To the best of our knowledge, this project is one of the earliest research studies focusing on the managerial side of tele-ICUs rather than the clinical outcomes.

What initially attracted you to this field? Why operations management?

I always wanted to become a researcher who contributes to academics and also makes an impact on our daily lives. My educational background, particularly in the methodological areas of optimization and simulation, has further kindled my passion for research and for the application of knowledge to practice. I believe that combining optimization and simulation techniques can help us solve a wide range of practical problems with societal impact.

The field of operations management offers a wide range of practical problems with academic challenges and potential high societal impact. Although the field originates with optimizing inventory levels in a manufacturing plant, it has expanded to almost anywhere in the business world, notably health care management and humanitarian logistics. Research with high impact always excites me.

The criteria for this award is not only being an innovative researcher but also a mentor for students. How do you spark enthusiasm and curiosity in your students and inspire them to undertake their own projects?

Solving real problems and making impacts is always exciting, at least to me. I believe students will also find it cool.

In the first class of my course “Statistical Methods for Decision Making” for the Health Care MBA program, I present two projects completed by previous students. Both projects are real problems with real data, and related to the students. One is serious, which is developed from their own job, and the other one is for fun, which is developed from the NFL. This not only motivates the students, but also gives them a clear vision of what they can accomplish after the course.

In the undergraduate level course “Operations Management,” I use my research projects (i.e., the voting operations and the ICU admission policy) as examples while I introduce the related chapters. The students can therefore actually see what we can do using the knowledge learned from textbook.