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Emerging Scholars: The Thrill of Discovery

The Thrill of Discovery

Operations Management/Business

Shona Morgan
Title: Assistant Professor, Operations Management, School of Business
and Economics, North Carolina A&T State University
Education: Ph.D., Operations Research, North Carolina State University; M.S., Industrial Engineering/Operations Research, North Carolina State University; B.A., Mathematics, Spelman College
Age: 32

Dr. Shona Morgan says it gets lonesome being the only Black woman at most of the national conferences she attends. “I do stick it out,” she says, “but there needs to be a greater effort to recruit and retain minority women in the field.” Operations research, or OR, is an interdisciplinary field involving elements of engineering, math, computer science and business, Morgan explains. The goal of OR professionals is to create analytical methods and tools that aid in decision-making. She says her undergraduate experiences at Spelman College gave her the foundation to excel. The college was exceptionally supportive and helped her transform her lifelong talent for mathematics into a satisfying career.

“I have always had a strong affinity for numbers,” Morgan says. “For me it’s all about the thrill of discovery, the sense of accomplishment. Solving math problems can give me the same kind of thrill as when one finds that one missing sock in the dryer.”

As an Andrew Mellon scholar at Spelman, Morgan worked with a faculty member whose background was in operations research. That experience sparked an interest in the field for the young scholar.

“It is the perfect marriage — math skills and something applied,” Morgan says about operations research. “I wanted to see how math could be used in the real world.”

OR problems, Morgan explains, are the classical “traveling salesperson” problem, or the “mail person” problem.

“What is the best way for the salesperson to make sales calls or the mail person to deliver the mail and then return to their original locations?” she asks. OR attempts to create mathematical models and algorithms that take into consideration all the constraints and stipulations for each situation in a problem.

According to Morgan, the field was originally developed to address military logistical issues such as effective troop deployment and efficient supply lines. The research methods they devised were eventually declassified and applied to the corporate world. Morgan’s current work is particularly significant to the telecommunications industry. She’s working to analyze and design heuristics and algorithms for combinatorial optimization problems.

“A combinatorial optimization problem,” Morgan says, “is one where there are so many solutions, a combination of solutions, and it is very difficult to march through and find the best solution. With algorithms it’s possible to find good enough solutions.” A research paper by Morgan and a colleague, “Algorithms for the Model Configuration Problem,” will soon be published in IIE Transaction, arguably the premier peer-reviewed journal in the field.

“Teaching is in my blood,” says Morgan, whose grandmother was a teacher and whose mother is the chairwoman in the biology department at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Her father, an artist, worked for the military and taught art. “I love the students,” she says, “I love the discipline. And I love the light bulb moment with students — it’s almost like sharing in their thrill of discovery.”

Morgan shares her love of the academy with the love of her life — her husband, Dr. Jonathan Morgan, an assistant professor in the school of government at the University of North Carolina. “He has brought peace and calm to my life,” she says. “He is my rock. He understands everything I am going through.” One of the things Morgan is working toward is to develop ways to recruit more minorities into the academy. She is currently working to develop more extensive minority case studies for schools of businesses.

When asked about her long-term goals in her discipline, Morgan says she wants to make a contribution by allowing students and others to see the power of tools she employs in her work and how they can aid in making better decisions, especially in business schools. “I want to communicate the breadth, the importance and the power of operations research and show that this discipline has relevance.”

By Crystal L. Keels

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