Q&A: Questions for Maria Mayorga

Original Article by Engineering Communications. Photo Credit Ian Price

Maria Mayorga is the new director of NC State’s Operations Research Program, founded in 1970. It offers four degrees and includes faculty members from 16 departments. She is the Goodnight Distinguished Chair in Operations Research, a University Faculty Scholar and professor of personalized medicine in the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering with a joint appointment in the Department of Business Management in the Poole College of Management.

Operations research (OR) is a discipline of problem-solving and decision-making that uses advanced analytical methods to help improve systems, processes or organizations. The key is the decision-making piece. OR builds on the basic understanding of the functioning of complex systems of technology and management through mathematical models for the purpose of not only predicting system behavior but, beyond that, optimizing system performance under economic and technological constraints.

This is a huge strength of the program. In addition to the wide range of courses students can count toward their degree, it offers faculty members a way to advertise new courses to students who may be interested. Special topics courses change all the time and can be agile to new trends in the discipline.

For Ph.D. students, it means their advisor could come from literally any department. This leads to a diverse range of dissertation topics, from analyzing NASCAR driver and pit crew communication to studying OR applications for the U.S. Army aviation air movement operations. Our seminar series invites speakers from many different backgrounds, and we bring in industry speakers and alumni so that students can see the places where they could work after graduation.

As the permanent director, I will focus on three key areas with short-term and long-term goals for each. The first area is recognition, so increasing awareness about the program outside NC State and making sure the faculty and students know about available resources. The next is relationship building, which includes community building between faculty members and students, but also reaching out to industry and alumni. Last but not least, I will focus on reputation, which differs from recognition and speaks to our excellence and impact.

As a community-building example, short term, I would like to host events for alumni to meet each other as well as our current students, but long term, I would like to establish an advisory board that includes alumni, industry partners and other stakeholders.

Engineering and OR are intimately related. Engineering provides us with a host of application areas or “problems,” as well as some of the domain-specific knowledge and methods needed to solve those problems. For example, from civil engineering, we may be interested in long-term planning of water infrastructure. We would need to understand how the facilities operate and the costs and objectives from civil, but we could apply optimization methods from OR to help recommend decisions.

If you like math, statistics or computer science, OR is a great option. Even if students do not have a STEM background, if they like to analyze problems and devise systematic ways to solve them, they can come up to speed.