Saturday, September 19, 2009

Dr. Helander on Food Safety, Social Networks, and IBM to Receive National Medal of Technology and Innovation

Yesterday, Dr. Mary Helander of IBM, spoke in our Speaker Series. Since she arrived the evening before and overnighted at the Black Walnut Inn in Amherst, we had a chance to host a reception for her in the Supernetworks Lab at the Isenberg School prior to her presentation on food safety in a global supply chain. The audience for her presentation was standing room only since who does not care about food and staying healthy?! I was so pleased that even several of my undergraduate students in my transportation & logistics class showed up for her talk.

We learned about the initiatives that she is involved in at IBM and such critical issues as visibility and traceability in food supply chains. We also learned about the low margins in terms of returns in food supply chains and what kinds of investments would be needed to ensure a high degree of safety in food supply chains. She discussed concepts of risk and asked whether outbreaks of food adulteration are (or are not) rare events. She also noted how (powerful) companies such as Walmart can raise the stakes for suppliers to provide safe ingredients and products (a member of the audience then added, Walmart is NOT going to be the next FDA). In addition, she spoke on how consumer product companies are rebranding themselves as nutrition companies and how not only analytics are essential in quality control, traceability, and visibility but also food science knowledge. Even RFID technology was mentioned and issues of data analysis and information sharing plus noncompliance brought up.

I was especially intrigued by her statement that perhaps economics could help to identify potential food safety crises (such as the melamine crises, which actually cost, after the fact, millions of dollars) due to different demands for certain supplies. The most valuable asset of a company is its reputation -- something, which it cannot afford to lose!

Dr. Helander even interwove social networks and their importance in the context of supply chains and, speaking of social networks, her first paper based on her doctoral dissertation, supervised by Professor Rajan Batta at the University of Buffalo, appeared in a book edited by Professor Ed Kaplan of Yale; Professor Batta's advisor at MIT had been Professor Dick Larson, and the Head of Dr. Helander's Mathematical Sciences Division at IBM is Dr. Brenda Dietrich. Drs. Larson, Kaplan, and Dietrich had all spoken in our Speaker Series! We had also hosted Dr. Grace Lin and Dr. Robin Lougee-Heimer of IBM in our Speaker Series and their talks were also outstanding.

Dr. Helander gave the kind of talk that will stimulate discussions for a long time to come!

And, as for the "icing on the cake," and we very much enjoyed the lunch and dessert at the University Club after Helander's talk, President Obama yesterday announced that IBM is the recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. You can read the press release here. There was clear serendipity in our scheduling of Dr. Helander's presentation on the same day as the announcement of this truly prestigious award for IBM!

We thank Dr. Helander for the time that she took to come and speak at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. It was also the perfect first lecture for the Fall 2009 Series since the Department of Resource Economics has now joined the Isenberg School of Management and the Chair of the Department, Professor Julie Caswell, could even join us for lunch (and then had to host another speaker, who was giving a lecture on dynamic pollution taxes).