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INFORMS: Perspectives – Banafsheh Behzad on Women in OR/MS

by David Morrison on November 11th, 2014

It’s the elephant in the room that people don’t really like to talk about: the lack of diversity in STEM fields. It’s an important issue, though, because a group of people with different backgrounds and perspectives will always be stronger than a group of people who all have similar stories to tell. So for the past year, I’ve been a student liason with WORMS — the Women in Operations Research and Management Science forum at INFORMS. I believe these are important issues that need to be discussed openly, not only by our female colleagues, but by everyone. I’m not a student any more, so I can’t keep being a student liason, but I’m planning to continue my involvement with WORMS in the coming years. And today, for my entry in INFORMS: Perspectives, I interviewed one of my friends and colleagues, and a prominent voice in WORMS, Banafsheh Behzad.


banafsheh

Banafsheh is an Assistant Professor at the California State University at Long Beach, and in addition to her work with WORMS, she’s had a strong research career. She’s interested in applying game-theoretic techniques to real-world problems, particularly in areas of public health, safety, policy, and social networks. Her dissertation work was at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign with Sheldon Jacobson (another INFORMS fellow!), where she performed a game-theoretic analysis of the public sector pediatric vaccine pricing market in the United States. The results that Banafsheh found are quite interesting: it turns out that pediatric vaccines are sold in the United States at higher prices than what the equilibrium prices from her models suggest. Banafsheh has some connections with researchers in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and her hope is that her research can be used by the CDC to negotiate better vaccine prices in the public sector, and thereby increase the availability of pediatric vaccines in the United States to improve public health.

Banafsheh has quite a few other research projects that she’s worked on in addition to her dissertation work; her graduate advisor refers to these side projects as “bedtime research”—the problems that you’re thinking about as you fall asleep. Banafsheh’s bedtime research has revolved around the obesity problem in the United States; in particular, she’s looked at correlations between obesity and seat belt usage, and demonstrated correlations between obesity and seat belt usage in states with primary and secondary seat belt laws—that is, states where failing to wear a seat belt is a ticketable offense by itself, and states where failure to wear a seat belt can only be penalized in conjunction with another traffic violation.

Banafsheh told me that these research projects have been quite rewarding because of the opportunities that she’s had to directly impact and improve public health and safety. The challenges she’s faced? Mainly they revolve around getting data. She didn’t always have access to the data she needed, and had to make approximations, perform sensitivity analysis, and constantly search for better data sources. But she says it’s important to not let the lack of data inhibit the research progress. “Find a problem that you’re interested in, and try to find the best methodology for that problem. Don’t limit yourself to only the methodologies that you’re familiar with,” she says.

I then turned the conversation to her involvement with WORMS, a topic about which she is equally passionate. Banafsheh has been attending INFORMS for five years, and went to the WORMS business meeting at her very first INFORMS. At that time, she was the only student at the business meeting, and very few people knew what WORMS was or why it existed. She wasn’t even sure if students were allowed to participate in WORMS! Of course, they can, and it’s partly through her efforts that WORMS now has much more visibility and much more student involvement. Over the past year, she’s been a student liason for WORMS, helping to raise awareness of the forum and promote discussion about diversity in STEM. But there’s still much work to be done.

I asked Banafsheh about the most significant barriers to success for women and minorities in STEM fields, and she told me this: “As an undergraduate student, if all of your professors are male, it is hard to imagine that you can succeed in this field.” Banafsheh told me a story of a student of hers who had never considered a career in STEM, because all of the professors in the area were male. But after taking Banafsheh’s class, her student realized that gender shouldn’t be a barrier to success in STEM, and has been talking with Banafsheh about pursuing an advanced degree.

Stories like this are encouraging, but we need more people telling them. “It is the responsibility of all of us (not just women, but also male faculty) to encourage and support women in OR/MS,” Banafsheh says. “If you have more female colleagues, more female students, it will be a healthier environment in your class, in your department. It doesn’t make sense to say that men are more capable—it’s just not true!” she concluded.

WORMS is one way to get more people telling these stories, and despite its increased visibility over the last five years, Banafsheh still meets women faculty and students at INFORMS who have no idea what WORMS is and why it exists. So she wants to encourage people to get the word out: come to the WORMS luncheon at INFORMS (sold out this year with 190 people!), come to the WORMS business meeting, find out what issues women and minorities in our field face, and take responsibility for correcting them. And particularly if you’re a student and want to get involved, there’s no better time! WORMS is looking for more student liasons to help with the forum, so if you’re interested in being a student liason next year, let Banafsheh know!

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