3° with Jennifer Ryan

by Michael Mullaney on July 11, 2011

Jennifer Ryan is a professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Rensselaer. We ask Jennifer about her work:

Q: You’re an expert in inventory and supply chain management. Tell me a little bit about it.

A: Supply chain management is the process of managing the flow of goods from raw material to end-customer. In other words, it is the management of the resources and processes involved in getting products to the market. A key aspect of supply chain management is managing and optimizing the inventories within the supply chain, including inventories of raw materials, work-in-process and finished goods.

What does your research entail?

My research focuses on how firms can make better decisions regarding what products to stock, where to stock them, and in what quantities. This is a very challenging problem, particularly in global supply chains, which can consist of thousands of different products and dozens of manufacturing and distribution locations, with significant uncertainty regarding demand – i.e., what products will be needed? And when?

Is there such a thing as a “perfect” supply chain? Or is there always room for improvement?

While many companies – such as Walmart, Dell, and Zara – have, at one time or another, been cited as having a state-of-the-art supply chain, I’d have to say that there really is no such thing as a “perfect” supply chain, for a couple of reasons. First, supply chains need to be customized for the particular product involved, as well as for the competitive strategy of the firm(s) involved in the supply chain. Thus, there is no one-sized-fits-all supply chain. Second, today’s competitive environment is highly dynamic, with new generations of product being introduced almost continuously. This means that, in order to be successful, a firm’s supply chain must be constantly adapting to meet the market’s current demands.

Who are more challenging to teach, undergrads or grad students?

Both can be challenging, but I like being able to teach both sets of students. I teach the same topic to both groups. With the undergrads I get to focus more on the basic concepts and solutions, while the grad students delve much deeper into the theory and mathematics behind the concepts and solutions.

A key facet of your research is optimizing systems to make them more efficient. Does this spill over into your non-academic life? Are you super-organized?

I am pretty organized generally – but I don’t usually try to optimize my personal life!

You’ve lived all over the place – from New Hampshire and Indiana, to Dublin and my hometown of Chicago. These places all have nasty winters. Are you a skier?

Dublin’s winters are actually quite mild by our standards – although they did get an unusual amount of snow this past winter! But, no, I am not really a skier. I have skied several times, but not frequently enough to be any good at it.

Me neither! In fact, I’m quite terrible at skiing. Anyway, tell me about living and teaching in Dublin.

In 2006, my husband and I were offered the opportunity to spend some time in Dublin, teaching and doing research at the University College Dublin, which is the main university in Ireland. We spent two wonderful years there before returning to the United States. We had wanted to spend some time overseas, and Dublin was perfect for us since we could teach in English.

When you’re not in the lab or classroom, what do you do for fun and leisure?

I have two young children, aged 6 and 8, so most of my leisure time is spent with them. This time of year, much of that time is spent attending little league or softball games.

Read more about Jennifer here. And be sure to check out our other 3° Interviews on The Approach.