LASER PULSE: IE's Yih improving outcomes, one project at a time
If you were given $70 million, which of the world’s problems would you solve first?
This is exactly the question that brought Yuehwern Yih, a team of researchers and non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders together at the Research for Development (R4D) Conference in Uganda and Colombia in 2019. As they looked over a giant tree of critical issues, including education, food security, migration and economic development, they pinpointed how evidence-based research can impact policy to assist countries suffering from conflicts, disasters and hunger.
As academic director of LASER PULSE, Yih embeds system framework and engineering principles in designing and managing programs to best utilize funding provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
“Working with USAID is like a dream come true," Yih said. "I wake up every day realizing, ‘Wow, I am doing this.’”
An avant-garde career path
Rewind to 1989 when Yih was a fresh PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Two weeks after graduation, she landed in Purdue’s School of Industrial Engineering as an assistant professor.
Explaining that she was a bit ahead of her time with her dissertation topic — leveraging AI technology in real-time scheduling in the manufacturing setting — she struggled to get her research reviewed in either the manufacturing or AI journals because neither research community understood it well enough to claim it. Eventually, her dissertation was published in the very first issue of the Journal of Intelligent Manufacturing.
Purdue was her No. 1 choice because of its top ranking in both undergraduate and graduate programs and also because she felt that the school appreciated her work.
“Other IE schools may have had one or two people doing what I do. When I joined, Purdue had nine in my group," she said. "The school’s hiring strategy was about obtaining the talent on the market that didn’t overlap with existing faculty. This really grew the school in terms of talent and innovation.”
Other universities throughout the years attempted to lure her away from Purdue, but Yih always opted to stay, becoming the first woman in Purdue IE to be promoted to full professor and the first to receive tenure.
By 2004, having successfully established herself as an expert in real-time scheduling in manufacturing, she took her first sabbatical, a one-year stint at the Richard L. Roudebush Veterans’ Administration (VA) Medical Center in Indianapolis, where she set out to learn about the healthcare process and offer recommendations for improvements.
Having spent 20 years in manufacturing, Yih felt pulled to this different domain. Her friends had described numerous issues they faced in hospital care — issues that manufacturing had solved years earlier.
“I was surprised that healthcare was 20 years behind,” Yih said. “In the U.S., we probably have the most advanced medicines and treatments, but we have many gaps in when, where and how to best deliver them to patients. I was shocked by how easily errors could occur and the delay in every step for people to get care. Both patients and providers felt frustrated and powerless. Those are IE problems. That’s when I decided, I have to do something about this.”
Her plan to shift into healthcare research was not met with encouragement from her colleagues, and in fact, they tried to scare her into changing her topic, advising that this direction was a detriment to her future in academia.
“In some ways, they were right, because I was still a little bit ahead of my time — not many IEs were involved in healthcare at the time,” Yih said.
Ultimately, her passion outweighed her concern, and she would go on to serve as associate director at the Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering from 2016-2020.
At the VA hospital, she shadowed many areas of the facility to better understand the challenges faced by the staff and patients. One of the most significant frustrations was the three- to six-month backlog on appointments that had snowballed over time.
“Patients should be able to see a doctor within 48 hours, with a ‘just in time’ concept,” Yih said. “But to implement it, first they had to get rid of the backlog.”
On her recommendation, the hospital quickly executed a system to do just that.
“The physicians extended their work hours without pay to clear that queue, and they did it on their own. Once this happened, patients could get an appointment within 48 to 72 hours. I have a lot of admiration for the physicians in the VA. Many are veterans themselves receiving flat pay and giving back,” Yih said. “It was amazing to see them making changes so quickly.”
Her work didn’t stop with U.S. healthcare systems.
In a joint effort with Academic Model Providing Access to Healthcare (AMPATH), she established a food distribution system for HIV patients in western Kenya and developed a software system to manage the operation so that those in need could get the intended nourishment. The issue was brought to her attention by on-site physicians who noticed a warehouse full of donated food, but no plan in place for patients to receive it. In one year’s time, the program grew from 2,000 served to 38,000.
Flexing her engagement muscle
In 2015, Arvind Raman stopped by Yih's office.
“I didn’t know him,” she said of the executive associate dean for the College of Engineering. “He said, ‘Listen, I have this project with Catholic Relief Services (CRS). I read your papers on the AMPATH food system, and I think it fits well with your research. Are you interested?’”
She was knee-deep in activities with industry and healthcare providers, but she saw this as another opportunity to help the most vulnerable.
“This is where I made a leap again,” she said.
She accepted the offer — with a caveat.
“The research has to do something that can be implemented,” she said. “It’s not helpful unless it can actually help the people who are doing the work every day. It can’t just be a theory. It’s about addressing the need in the field.”
With CRS, she developed a supply chain management system (E+TRA) for emergency responders. This application enabled them to track supplies from purchasing to distribution. Today, that system is being utilized in South Sudan to assist people suffering from drought and hunger. The funding ran out years ago, but she and her CRS collaborators maintain contact, talking every Tuesday.
Raman made Yih aware of an opportunity with USAID, the Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN). He explained that HESN was wrapping up its “1.0” program and presumably would be rolling out a “2.0.”
“Purdue has the perfect combination of skills to do this kind of work,” she said.
In 2018, Purdue was selected to lead the new $70-million LASER PULSE program, the mission of which is to co-design evidence-based solutions for global challenges through researcher-practitioner collaboration. Purdue won the bid out of more than 100 submissions.
Yih welcomed the opportunity to serve as academic director of LASER PULSE (LP) because the program works with a U.S. government agency to influence policies with research. In this strategic leadership role, she oversees the technical aspects of the program and continues to improve overall system design and operations.
“Another new territory to apply IE principles,” Yih said.
In the beginning, she admits there was quite a learning curve working with USAID, “which is very critical because they want to make sure every penny they spend on this program is worthy of taxpayer money. They understand the challenges and help us navigate in very difficult working environments. But they constantly push us to make sure we deliver the best work possible.”
Yih found herself in a management role supervising professional staff for the first time in her career and helping to design a large program to benefit disadvantaged countries, many suffering from conflicts and disasters.
“With 40-plus research projects and hundreds of researchers, we have to balance the needs of the different stakeholders with different interests and priorities so that you can actually find a solution that is practical and usable. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of thick skin. It’s very humbling,” Yih said.
LP has projects in 19 countries, including Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia, Tanzania, Iraq, Colombia, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
“As a professor, I do research, but I often don’t have opportunities to disseminate it beyond academic publications. The level of engagement that I have now is unreal.”
Her schedule requires a frantic pace that begins at dawn to accommodate different time zones and often stretches into the wee hours of the morning. It’s not uncommon for her to be triple-booked and forced to pick and choose among meetings. But Yih has no complaints and exudes love for what she does.
Life outside of LASER PULSE
On top of her LP responsibilities, Yih teaches two classes per year. In her undergraduate 300-level course, she lectures on integrated production systems in industrial engineering. Each week, she presents a new topic, and students learn how each one fits in a system. She enjoys incorporating her real-life experiences and showing examples of how she applied engineering principles to solve real-world problems.
“After this class, students will have ‘IE common sense’ and think like an IE,” she said.
Yih, a fellow of the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers (IISE), received the Inaugural Faculty Engagement Fellow Award, the highest honor at Purdue in faculty engagement, for her work in Kenya. She is a three-time recipient of the College of Engineering’s Outstanding Engineering Teacher award and also has won the School of Industrial Engineering’s Pritsker Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award six times. She holds one patent on tone curve error reduction for color laser printing with HP and two copyrights for her supply chain applications. Through the Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization, she was twice named a Most Impactful Faculty Inventor. Currently, she is serving as an Engineering Entrepreneurial Ambassador.
Yih also is the faculty advisor for Purdue’s Latin and Ballroom Dance Team. In the mid-1990s, she founded a competition team so students could learn dancesport in addition to social dancing. She and her husband, Daniel Dilley, coach the team each week. In 2010, the group performed on the popular TV show Dancing with the Stars.
Her love of dance bloomed when she arrived at Purdue, and she performed for 10 years with the Lafayette Ballet Company. After receiving tenure, she took her talent to the next level.
“I was a ballroom competitor. I started competing as an amateur, then turned pro before retiring and serving as a judge. My husband and I still find time to enjoy dancing.”
About LASER PULSE
In 2018, Purdue University was selected by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to co-create research-driven solutions for developing countries via LASER PULSE — the Long-term Assistance and Services for Research (LASER) Partners for University-Led Solutions Engine (PULSE). This five-year, $70M program, funded by USAID’s Innovation, Technology, and Research Hub, is one of the largest single research awards to the Purdue College of Engineering. Purdue leads a global consortium of university and nongovernmental partners that supports USAID as it navigates developmental changes, ultimately leading to societal, environmental, educational, and agricultural improvements in partner countries around the world.
Editor’s note: As Purdue enters the fourth year of its five-year leadership role with LASER PULSE, the College of Engineering is publishing a series of stories highlighting the program’s global impact.