All Systems Go
Since Julie Swann joined NC State in 2017 as the A. Doug Allison Distinguished Professor and head of the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, the university’s Think and Do mantra has continued to resonate with her.
After all, as a systems engineer, it’s what she does: Think about the system, think about how to make a difference, then execute.
And right now, Swann’s Think and Do expertise is in high demand.
Swann focuses primarily on health systems, including infectious disease modeling, health policy and humanitarian supply chains. For more than a decade, she has worked on pandemic disease spread and interventions, including 2009’s H1N1 pandemic. Her current research involves taking models built for previous potential pandemics and updating them for COVID-19.
Though the modeling is similar — involving agents interacting in households, workplaces, schools and communities and moving throughout large and small geographical areas — Swann’s experiences with H1N1 and COVID-19 have differed.
In the case of the former, she lent her expertise as a science adviser to the federal government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, weighing in on vaccine and logistics decisions.
“We were fortunate with H1N1 that it didn’t turn out to be as bad as had been feared, and we were able to get a vaccine out that saved a lot of lives,” Swann said. “For COVID-19, it’s very different because there’s no end in short-term sight. It will be a while before we have a vaccine, and there are real challenges in determining both how to protect the population and to allow people in society to do what they need to do.”
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As information about the novel coronavirus has continued to evolve, Swann believes that it’s important for scientists and researchers to participate in conversations about making good decisions and educating the public. This time around, instead of working with the CDC, she has played an active role in the media, providing an expert perspective and authoring opinion pieces.
One of the reasons Swann was able to shift so quickly into focusing on COVID-19 is the support she receives from the A. Doug Allison Distinguished Professorship.
Before the pandemic, resources from the professorship helped her seed a new effort in the department: participation in a data innovation challenge with the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services. The extra support has also funded students doing analytical work around advanced methods for predicting admissions to hospitals and adverse events. Now it’s fueling Swann’s work on COVID-19, helping sustain her research, ensuring she can support student researchers and opening new lines of inquiry.
Distinguished professorships not only allow faculty members to take risks or pivot their research with flexibility, but these and similar funded faculty positions play a key role in recruiting a diverse applicant pool.
“One important thing in addition to distinguished professorships are awards we can grant at other levels,” which demonstrates the department’s commitment to providing opportunity at every stage of a career, Swann explained. “It is a priority of ours to recruit and support women and groups who are underrepresented, at all levels — from campers in summer programs, to undergraduate students, to graduate students, to faculty, to staff, to advisory boards.”
Currently, ISE’s 23 full-time faculty comprise a variety of backgrounds and one-third are women — a reflection of the department’s student body. Fostering an inclusive environment has been and continues to be a priority, and donor support is one of the ways ISE continues to grow as a more equitable space.
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“I’m so grateful for professorship donors and for gifts from our alumni to our students and to our enhancement fund, which allow us to respond dynamically to needs as they arise — like creating safe research labs during COVID-19, supporting students in financial need and promoting mentorship opportunities,” Swann said.
In an effort to further advance engagement and foster connections, she has focused on building relationships with ISE alumni. One of her favorite questions to ask is what path their careers have taken since graduating from NC State.
ISE serves as preparation for a number of career fields, including consulting, manufacturing, supply chain, energy, healthcare, transportation, military, academia, entertainment, entrepreneurship and more — which means there are just as many opportunities for alumni to stay connected through meaningful engagement with current students and research projects.
“I’ve had the fortune to be able to connect with alumni through our advisory board and department activities,” Swann said. “There are really quite a lot of them who have been influential to me personally, giving of their time and expertise.”
That includes Edward P. Fitts Jr., a generous philanthropic partner who also gives freely of his time and expertise to NC State; the Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering is named in recognition of his support.
Fitts is one of two ISE alums whose commitment has helped make the College of Engineering’s newest building possible. Thanks to the generosity of Fitts and Edgar S. Woolard Jr. — along with many other college alumni and friends — Fitts-Woolard Hall will be completed this fall.
The building existed as only plans on paper when Swann joined the faculty, and she’s enjoyed seeing it grow from a plan to a construction project to reality on Centennial Campus. One of Fitts-Woolard Hall’s innovative features will be the engineering on display labs, which will showcase some of ISE’s innovative work for the public.
She views the signature building as a powerful recruitment tool and a symbol of what NC State can do with public-private partnership. “There’s something special about walking into a building that you’ve helped make happen.”
It’s a connection Swann made when she was a student at a public engineering school herself, and from her experiences as an undergraduate to her current role leading a department, one thing has been consistent: Donors are critical to state universities. She believes there has never been a more vital time for NC State to put its Think and Do motto to work.
“We are in an unprecedented situation, from financial challenges that could be as significant as the US faced in the 1920s and ’30s, to a pandemic as big as the one in 1918, to the quest for change related to racial issues and civil rights like the country saw in the 1960s,” Swann said.
“For donors who are able and willing, universities need you right now and students need you right now.”