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Food for thought: Future professor’s interest finds its way into doctoral research

Photo of Esma Birisci

Esma Birisci is a graduate student in the IMSE Department. After completing her doctorate, she will return to her native Turkey to accept a teaching position.

In February 2015, Esma Birisci was featured in the Columbia Daily Tribune when she joined two friends to cook food from her home country — Turkey — for the reporter. Birisci is studying for her doctorate in industrial engineering, and in her studies, she also manages to incorporate her love of food.

Her research focuses on food waste, specifically how to reduce food waste on campus. Her research uses data from one campus dining hall, Mark Twain dining hall, and looks to reduce food waste generated by overproduction. If a system can be developed, it could be put to use in other dining halls on campus.

“So you can understand how much I like food,” she joked.

“My co-adviser Dr. [Christine] Costello is working on food waste over all of the university. We’re trying to help the dining halls decide how to forecast production.”

What they’re trying to find or define is the optimal margin of error between how much food they think will need to be prepared versus how much actually does need to be made. They’re also looking at a timeline for leftovers, with a “first-in, first-out” approach.

“We’re calling it a ‘leftover usage’ policy,” Birisci said.

They collected five weeks of data and are looking to create a system that covers that period of time, because the dining hall menu rotates on a five-week schedule. The data includes looking at the amount of food that had been prepared and the amount that had actually been served. They are also looking at the day and time of day (lunch or dinner). The forecast will then try to predict how much of what type of food needs to be produced for that day and during which meal.

Birisci said the research could benefit more than just the Mizzou community.

“It can go campus-wide,” Birisci said. “Schools, hospitals and military services have lots of food waste. They can implement this logic to also minimize food waste.”

Birisci is from Trabzon, Turkey, where she received her undergraduate degree in statistics and computer science at Karadeniz Technical University. She received government support to further her education at an American university. However, she didn’t know any English.

“I first came to Boston for language classes,” Birisci said. “But Boston was very expensive.”

She returned to Turkey for six months, during which time, she married her husband Salih. Looking for a less expensive place to live and study, she applied and was accepted to MU. She arrived by herself in January 2010. She earned her master’s degree in statistics in December 2011, and Salih joined her in Columbia two years later.

After she earns her doctorate, Birisci will return to Turkey, but this time to Bursa, a city in the northwest part of the country. Part of her educational funding agreement means she will return to Turkey to teach. A position is awaiting her at the University of Uludag where she will teach statistics.

As for what she will miss most when she leaves Columbia, Birisci knew exactly what she would and wouldn’t.

“I wont miss the summers here,” she said, laughing. “I will miss my friends and advisers. Life is so peaceful here, and people are so nice. People in Turkey are always hurrying, and they don’t take the time to understand you.”