Graphic with Ronald McGarvey portrait.Engineers develop tools to solve big problems such as food production, pollution and pandemics. But it also takes engineering expertise to best use these tools to accomplish goals efficiently. Meet Ron McGarvey, an operations research expert with a mathematical mind and a head for public policy.

McGarvey is an associate professor in Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering with a joint appointment in the Truman School of Government and Public Affairs. He’s co-director in the Center for Excellence in Logistics and Distribution (CELDi), a coordinator of the PhD program in public affairs and winner of the 2018 Junior Faculty Excellence in Research Award from Mizzou Engineering.

And his research spans disciplines. McGarvey has studied diabetes management and renewable wood-based power generation. He’s helped assess the impact of urban agriculture on achieving localized food systems in Chicago.  He evaluated disparities in access to obstetric services for American Indian women in Montana.

The through-line? Operations research.

“Operations research tries to identify, given a level of people, equipment, resources and dollars, considering the objectives an organization has, and given all of the real-world constraints you have to work under, what would be the most effective way to use these resources to achieve the greatest good,” McGarvey said. “The greatest good could be anything from making maximum profit for a company to maximizing the number of people who receive a COVID vaccine.”

Applying the math

Operations research began during World War II. Engineers had helped design sophisticated ships, tanks and airplanes, but they needed to develop strategies to best utilize that equipment.

“Some mathematicians and engineers started to think ‘What if we use the tools of engineering not only to design an airplane but to determine how we’re going to utilize the airplane. What would be the best way to achieve the larger objectives?’” he said. “All of the concepts we use in engineering to design items can be turned on their head a little bit to suggest how we should use those items.”

And that’s what drew him to engineering and, ultimately, Mizzou.

McGarvey was studying mathematics at Indiana University of Pennsylvania when he first discovered the field. He found the prospect of using math to tackle big problems exciting.

Rather than being its own program, operations research is typically offered within engineering and business programs. One of his professors suggested McGarvey take the engineering route, which he did for his graduate studies at Pennsylvania State University.

After earning a PhD, McGarvey went to work for the RAND Corporation, a global research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges. There, he served as a senior operations researcher and worked with doctoral students at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. There, he thrived—in 2012, McGarvey was recognized with a Gold Medal Award, given to just eight researchers out of RAND’s 950 research staff members.

After about a decade there, McGarvey was looking for a career change when he saw the opportunity to combine his interests with a joint appointment at Mizzou.

“The opportunity to continue working with one foot in engineering and one foot in the Truman School of Government and Public Affairs is really what attracted me to come here,” he said.

‘Pretty exciting stuff’

At Mizzou, McGarvey uses his own experiences to get students excited about operations research. That means giving them a foundational understanding of theories while also demonstrating how those concepts apply in the real world.

“What’s most exciting for students is seeing the applications,” he said. “I show examples where you can use what you’re learning to save lives or increase profits. That’s pretty exciting stuff.”

He also believes in the power of teaching students how to solve problems. Rather than trying to memorize formulas, he hopes students think back to his examples when faced with similar challenges over their careers.

Working with students, he said, is the best part of the job.

“They’re inquisitive and excited,” he said. “Most students get into engineering because they want to make the world a better place. Being around people like that is invigorating.”

Infinite Possibilities

McGarvey is part of an interdisciplinary team that recently received National Science Foundation funding to study solid waste management. In this case, the group is looking specifically at the management or organic wastes such as food scraps and yard trimmings.

These wastes contain ammonia, which is used to make fertilizer that eventually washes into the Gulf and creates algae that harm fish and wildlife.

Technologies are being developed that could allow ammonia to be recovered from organic wastes. The challenge for smaller cities is that organic wastes aren’t currently separated into green recycling bins, which means they end up in landfills.

Separating them from other solid wastes would require new facilities, trucks and other resources. And that involves a lot of people with differing opinions and goals.

McGarvey’s collaborator, Damon Hall — an assistant professor of biomedical, biological and chemical engineering with a joint appointment in the School of Natural Resources — is charged with soliciting the various preferences from those who would be involved in such an undertaking. Once the team understands needs of various audiences, they can develop models that meet multiple objectives.

“So in this case, we have multiple goals,” McGarvey said. “We want to help the environment, save money and maximize convenience.”

Recently, a speaker at a CELDi conference piqued McGarvey’s curiosity about meat production. The speaker addressed challenges of production, especially after the pandemic disrupted the supply chain.

“I’d never thought about it before, but a complicated ballet is required to get pork chops to the grocery store,” he said.

While McGarvey isn’t currently involved in research around that problem, it’s another example of where operations research would come in handy.

But you don’t even need an external scenario. Individuals apply operations research to their daily lives without even thinking about it, McGarvey said. Most people form a plan to maximize their time by running errands and completing chores in the most efficient way possible.

“That’s what keeps me motivated in terms of research,” he said. “Everything I hear and read and think about, there’s room for improvement. What’s great about operations research is, if you want to think about how we use people and dollars and resources to achieve an objective, that’s literally applicable to everything you can ever imagine doing.”

Want to imagine new ways of applying research? Check out the Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering Department at Mizzou Engineering!

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