ISE Magazine: Humanitarian Supply Chains Get Laser Focus

Author: Keith Albertson
Yuehwern Yih, Professor of Industrial Engineering and Academic Director of LASER PULSE
Purdue educator, IISE Fellow Yih improves logistics for global aid efforts
Note: Article originally published in ISE Magazine, republished with permission.
     The intersecting needs of healthcare, supply chain logistics and humanitarian aid has led an industrial and systems engineering faculty member into a rewarding career path.
     IISE member and Fellow Yuehwern Yih, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Industrial Engineering at Purdue University, where she has served as a faculty member since 1989. She was the first woman at Purdue promoted to full IE professor and first to receive tenure.
     In recent years, she has been involved in applying her ISE skills to assist humanitarian aid organizations to improve their processes while offering assistance in countries stricken by poverty and disasters. She currently serves as academic director of LASER PULSE, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The program comprises a network of more than 3,500 researchers and development professionals in 74 countries seeking to find innovative solutions to overcome global challenges. 
     “Working with USAID is like a dream come true,” Yih said. “I wake up every day realizing, ‘Wow, I am doing this.’”
Yih speaks with attendees of the USAID Summit
Yuehwern Yih speaks with attendees of the USAID Summit.

A journey toward providing aid

     Yih’s academic background began in manufacturing and later healthcare after serving a one-year sabbatical at a U.S. Veterans Affairs medical center in Indianapolis. She went on to serve as associate director at Purdue’s Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering from 2016-2020.
Her attention later turned global when she worked with Academic Model Providing Access to Healthcare (AMPATH) to design a food/nutrition management system to effectively distribute food to HIV patients in western Kenya from 2004-2008. The program grew from serving 2,000 patients to 38,000. For her work, Yih received the Inaugural Faculty Engagement Fellow Award in 2013, the highest honor at Purdue in faculty engagement. 
     Yih’s next project began in 2015 when Arvind Raman, executive associate dean for the College of Engineering, invited her to join another effort. 
     “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?’” Yih said. “This is where I made a leap again.”
     Yih and Dawei Wang, her former Ph.D. student, worked closely with CRS first responders and humanitarian assistance specialists to analyze the workflow. They then developed the cloud-based, multiplatform, supply chain management system called ETRA (Electronic TRAnsparent TRAcking) to connect warehouses across different country programs, request and approve relief materials, check inventory, track materials from donors to beneficiaries and generate accounting and beneficiary reports. The solution supports multiple languages via Google, can assist international nongovernmental organizations and other entities (donors, local partners) for efficient, reliable and sustainable distribution plans that provide near real-time data.
     ETRA aims to track humanitarian commodities more efficiently and accurately to foster transparency and accountability throughout the supply chain. Humanitarian groups used varying methods to document purchases, warehouse and transport goods, often on paper forms and spreadsheets. In many cases, the infrastructure needed to manage food inventory (power, internet, warehouse) was damaged or not fully operative. 
     “This research has to be translational,” Yih said. “It’s not helpful unless it can be used by the people doing the humanitarian work every day. It can’t just be a theory. It’s about addressing the need in the field.”
ETRA was field tested in the Dominican Republic in 2018 and is currently licensed through Purdue and fully deployed in two countries, South Sudan and Ukraine, for humanitarian response. South Sudan in central Africa has the highest poverty rate of 82.30% in the world, according to the World Bank. Since January 2022, ETRA has provided over 11,000 metric tons of food to more than 70,000 people each month over a 10-month period.
     In war-torn Ukraine, Caritas Emergency Appealproject has used ETRA to coordinate donations from multiple organizations and distribute food, hygiene and warming sets to people in need. The project includes four warehouses and 21 humanitarian centers in different cities and has aided 20,000 families and approximately 60,000 people as of March 2023 by delivering 60,000 food and 20,000 hygiene kits and 1,000 warm bed sets. This innovation earned Yih three-time honors as the Most Impactful Faculty Inventors.
     In parallel, Yih joined with ResilientAfrica Network (RAN) at Makerere University and Management Sciences for Health (MSH) developed E+TRA Health to bridge the data gaps in the supply chain of medications and laboratory supplies in Uganda. They collaborated with local care providers in Mukono District to address medication shortages and focus on 13 essential maternal and child health commodities to ensure safe and healthy childbirth. E+TRA Health was deployed in a pilot program in two health centers in 2019 in Uganda.
     Yih’s health supply chain efforts earned an award from the Melinda and Bill Gates Grand Challenge, one of 51 awarded out of 1,500-plus proposals from more than 50 countries. Purdue Ph.D. student Rhoann Kerh won the Global Good by Intellectual Ventures award for her poster on the project at the Purdue Engineering I2D Exposition for Global Programs and Partnerships in Engineering in 2018.

LASER PULSE ‘another new territory to apply ISE principles’

     LASER PULSE – Long-term Assistance and Services for Research and Partners for University-Led Solutions Engine – is a $70 million program funded by USAID’s Innovation, Technology and Research Hub. Purdue University won this award in 2018 over more than 100 submissions. Catholic Relief Services, Indiana University, Makerere University and the University of Notre Dame are consortium partners. Its aim is to provide research-driven solutions to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through cross-sector partnerships, localization and research translation.
     LASER PULSE collaborates with USAID missions, bureaus and independent offices and other stakeholders to identify areas in need of improvement. Its mission is to provide the necessary resources for teams of researchers and practitioners to design development research that is relevant and usable to inform policies and practices. 
     As academic leadership, Yih oversees the technical aspects and system design of this program to continue improving its operations and adapting to unexpected events with a system lens and user-centered design principles as “another new territory to apply ISE principles,” Yih said.
     In addition to outcomes of the research projects, the LASER PULSE program is designed to systematically transform how the research is identified, conducted, translated and disseminated to inform evidence-based policymaking and practices in global development with consideration of sustainability and localization. LASER PULSE currently funds 47 research projects in 19 lower-and-middle-income countries (LMICs) including South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Nepal, Malawi, Iraq and Colombia. The research topics cover a wide variety of USAID sectors, such as nutrition/food security, education, youth development, humanitarian assistance and violence and conflict prevention.
     “With 47 research projects and hundreds of researchers, we ought to balance the needs of stakeholders with different interests and priorities so that we can actually find a solution that is practical and usable,” Yih said. “We work with academic researchers, NGO practitioners, private sectors, local government, USAID and other development partners. It takes a lot of patience and it’s a very humbling experience.”
     This year, Yih was selected for the 2023 Outstanding Leadership in Globalization Award for her commitment to humanitarian aid and global development.
     All this is in addition to her role at Purdue teaching two industrial engineering classes per year. Yih 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.
     “As a professor, I do research, but I often don’t get the opportunity to disseminate it beyond academic publications,” she said. “The level of engagement and the global impact that I have now is beyond my imagination.” 

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