At a school known for the strength of its supply chain and operations management faculty, Saurabh Bansal is considered a superstar. The 39-year-old Associate Professor of Supply Chain Management and Operations Research made this year’s Best 40 Under 40 Professors list both for his strength and pipeline in research and publishing as well as the nearly-dozen strong reviews from colleagues and students.
“I am the faculty director of Smeal’s MBA program. Saurabh is an outstanding teacher, researcher, and colleague,” Lou Gattis said in his nomination of Bansal. “He teaches a very rigorous, technical elective in supply chain modeling. His course is one of the most elected by students and he gets some of the best ratings and receives teaching awards. His teaching material is based on collaborations with companies. He has published extensively in Operations Research – the top academic journal in his field. He focuses on sustainability on agribusiness systems and remanufacturing. He has written cases on both themes that he uses in class. One of his teaching cases won the INFORMS 2019 Case Competition. Saurabh uses this case in a final exam for his supply chain elective course. Saurab has also been a finalist for practice award competitions at academic conferences for agribusiness work that he uses extensively in the classroom. He is an editor at various journals.”
What impressed us most when considering Bansal’s nomination was the passion he has shown for his students and his availability to them, traits described by many of his current and former students.
“Professor Bansal truly cared about the learning of his students,” one nominator put it. “He would consistently request anonymous feedback to gauge the progression of his students. While most students were supply chain concentration MBA candidates, there were several who only had a core course in supply chain and one from a non-business college, Professor Bansal ensured all understood the fundamentals of each course topic. He made himself available at all times to provide additional instruction to those who requested it. During class, Professor Bansal made personal connections to the course material which reinforced material retention. Professor Bansal took the time to explain the principles of software that we used in order for the students to gain a basic understanding of the tools we used. He truly is an exceptional professor, and I wish him the best in this nomination process.”
A true scholar, Bansal said his two hobbies outside of the classroom are reading and “cogitating on walks.”
Associate Professor of Supply Chain Management and Operations Research
Current age: 39
At current institution since what year? 2010
Education: Ph.D. in Risk Analysis from The University of Texas at Austin
List of MBA courses you currently teach: SCM 570 Supply Chain Modeling, SCM 530 Supply Chain Modeling
TELL US ABOUT YOUR LIFE AS A PROFESSOR
I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I took a course in grad school from Bob Gilbert on structuring risky decisions. I realized that I could combine my love for thinking about risk and teaching into a career, teaching business school students how to make risky decisions.
What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it?
On the theory side, I am figuring out why is it that we cannot solve some mathematical problems that represent risky decisions for exact solutions (where x = 2). The answer has turned out to be an interesting marriage between probability theory and geometry of optimization.
On the business side, I am developing new ways to harness expert judgments in order to describe the odds of future uncertain events. We have used the machinery developed in a variety of contexts including demand and supply estimation, and project selection, both for commercial firms and government agencies. What we have found again and again is that domain experts such as experienced mangers are remarkably consistent in their judgments. They tend to be consistently optimistic or pessimistic to different extents. We can measure these effects and then extract more value from their judgments to improve decision quality.
If I weren’t a business school professor… I would have been an Organic Chemistry professor. I find it fascinating that two molecules, under right conditions, will find each other in time and space to form a bond and that we can predict that it will happen.
What do you think makes you stand out as a professor?
When I joined Penn State, my department chair at the time asked me to teach a modeling course. It was perfect! I teach what I do in my research and industry collaborations. Students find that continuity useful – they first learn new modeling/technical skills in the class. Then they also hear stories about some successful and some unsuccessful implementations of the same techniques at various firms. I also show them actual models used by firms. This closed-loop informs students how they can use an analytical mindset at workplace to solve problems credibly. In many cases it turns out to be their competitive edge at their jobs. Jim Dyer at Austin used this pedagogy with success, and I learnt by seeing him do it in 8 am classes!
One word that describes my first time teaching: It was my Happy Place.
Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: MBA students come from diverse backgrounds. For example, it is not uncommon to have students in a statistics class who last learnt that subject in their high school 20 years back. A successful course and instructor provide opportunities to students from different backgrounds to engage in the course, contributing in ways that play on their strengths.
Professor I most admire and why: In graduate school, I took a sequence of Statistics courses from Mary Parker. She ran a flipped classroom back in 2004. We read the textbook and she led discussions to prod us articulate what we had learnt and would answer our questions. She helped me synthesize statistics and come up with my own mental models for it. Good professors help students understand concepts. Great ones help students synthesize and internalize the material. She did the latter. My teaching and research are greatly influenced by my experiences in her courses.
At Penn State David Lenz and Norm Aggon provide a great combination of academic training informed by their industry experience, in our Masters programs. I run my research ideas by them all the time!
What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?
Many business school students today appreciate the importance of addressing societal issues. It is a pleasant surprise to have conversations about, say, models for improving food supply chains in class, and receive a phenomenal participation from students with insightful pieces of information on poverty and food deserts. Our future is in good hands.
What is most challenging?
To nudge them into understanding that passion can get you an opportunity to make a 5 minute pitch. What gets your message across is hard numbers and a business case. You need both – passion and number driven decision making.
In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Curious.
In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Uninspired.
When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… Nudging. I often return homeworks without a grade for a rework if I think a student/group can do better but just did not apply themselves.
LIFE OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM
What are your hobbies?
Reading, and cogitating on walks.
How will you spend your summer?
At home, spending time with my little one and partner and working on a book on mental models.
Favorite place(s) to vacation: Not picky, any place that provides me anonymity with quite walks, e.g. rural PA in winter.
Favorite book(s): I recently read “How College Works” and have been sending folks links to the book. As a professor, I always wonder whether and when what universities do with students matters, and the book provides great insights for that. I think it is a must read for all students, parents, and educators at colleges.
What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much?
The original Star Trek. As a father of a young daughter, the show does not display a good work environment for women. But the exploration aspect is great. The first shot shows stars, and the rest of it is, “Look at that star. I wonder what/who is there. I wonder what they look like. I wonder what they believe in. I wonder ….”. Endless questions and possibilities.
What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why?
Elton John. Master of his craft! His music evokes so many different emotions. Barrington Pheloung’s beautiful melancholy soundtracks. Lately I am rediscovering The Cranberries with my little one who is a fan of the song Zombie.
THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS
If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this.
I wish business schools would incorporate learning experiences that break silos. We recently found from an industry project that sustainability efforts in the manufacturing domain do not work many times because accountants at firms cannot figure out the appropriate time to recapitalize assets that can be remanufactured. Sale and warranty contracts by marketing can backfire without adequate support from manufacturing shops. Finance departments can use complex models to optimize internal capital allocations, only to realize that equality and equity considerations are important as well. A cross-functional exposure will help business school students to be more effective in managing companies.
In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… articulating how their values drive their businesses. Every company seems to care about society, environment, employees, customers,… and so on. I wish they could articulate with examples how these values are reflected in day-to-day operations. This clarity will help MBA students assess whether they will be a fit with a firm. A lack of this clarity, when present, will hopefully encourage firms to move away from cheap talk and take steps to create this alignment at their workplaces.
I’m grateful for… the helping hands folks lent me all these years at Penn State. It takes a village for an academician to find their groove. I have also found some great industry collaborators at Corteva (especially Mohd. Tanveer), AMD, and Arris, among others, for which I am thankful.
Faculty, students, alumni, and/or administrators say:
“Saurabh is a dedicated researcher and teacher. He challenges students to learn skills they will use in the workplace. Saurabh is proof that an instructor can be both rigorous and popular. Students want to be challenged. Smeal is fortunate to have Saurabh in our program.” – Lou Gattis, Faculty Director of the MBA program
“I truly believe your course is one of the best in-class memories of my MBA experience. Please keep teaching your valuable lessons for students to come (with this course or others). We need more professors like you in the program!” – Benedetta Piva, Class of 2019
“For students without a strong math background, he made complex problems digestible.” – Anonymous Comment
“I enjoyed the practical exercises and “do it yourself” approach. the professor was there to provide guidance when we needed it. I also enjoyed the “why” behind what we were doing. The concepts taught are very relevant to the industry unlike all other SCM classes. A very liberal approach of teaching.” – Anonymous Comment
“I loved the practical discussions regarding how to deal with lack of information and approaches to engaging management for accurate information. One of the most relevant supply chain courses I have taken.” – Anonymous Comment
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