At UBC Sauder, faculty members are more than just ‘professors.’ They conduct impactful research that is changing how society views the world while also inspiring students to pursue their academic passions and become the thoughtful, values-driven leaders the business world needs.
This year, UBC Sauder welcomed nine new full-time lecturers, tenured and tenure-track faculty to the school. In the fourth of this series, we introduce you to Christopher Ryan, Assistant Professor, Operations and Logistics Division, UBC Sauder School of Business.
What brought you to UBC Sauder?
I was born in Kelowna, British Columbia, and always wanted to give something back to the people and province of BC. I think UBC Sauder is a good platform to serve the province. Having lived in the United States for the past decade, I have to admit it was a relief to finally come back to Canadian soil.
What are your areas of research and how did you get into this field?
I got into the field of operations through studying mathematics as an undergraduate student. I did some research with two professors in the UBC mathematics department, who introduced me to the field of operations research and gave me the courage to pursue a PhD in that topic. For the most part I study optimization, one of the more mathematical subfields of operations. Optimization uses mathematical tools to study decision problems of all stripes. I have studied applications of optimization to health care, app design, and dynamic pricing of goods.
What fuels your research – what prompted you to research this area?
I am interested in the powers of human expression to take things that appear to be complex or intractable and make them clear and obvious. This is something that a successful manager does all the time: takes a big and messy challenge and breaks into tasks and motivations that inspire her team. I view research along similar lines. We see a complicated and interwoven reality that calls for abstraction, simplification, and cogent explanation. To the extent my research is successful in providing clarity into the topics I study, I feel something has been achieved.
What inspires you to teach?
I find business to be a complex and confusing subject. It combines logic, science, intuition, creativity, empathy, and hope (among many other things). Our most successful business leaders are themselves often enigmas, each one seeming to follow their own path towards success. I like to teach subjects and concepts that I find confusing. When I teach, I like to embrace grappling with the unknown. The teacher's thoughts, questions, and doubts must be made accessible to students and the thoughts, questions, and doubts of the students must be heard. I am inspired to teach with the hope that unexpected insights and wisdom may result, benefiting all involved.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered through your research?
More interesting to me than any "result" of my research, is what I have learned about the research process. Research papers take many years to write and often try the patience and motivation of those involved. When I first started doing research, I found the process largely overwhelming. With time, I learned to trust my collaborators, be more comfortable with fuzzy intermediate answers, and ultimately become accustomed to failure (punctuated with the occasional success). Now, I like the analogy of research being like a long and treacherous journey (say climbing a high mountain). The real victory is overcoming your own doubts and the real treasure is the company of those you journey with. These "discoveries" about the research process help me to stay motivated to "keep up the struggle" of doing more and more research.
What do you believe is the future of your industry?
Operations is an integral part of any business, that will never change. There are a lot of predications that "intelligent machines" will do more and more operational tasks in the future. I don't doubt that, but I think there will always be a lot of "soul" left in operations. Solid business operations are about collaboration, coordination, and, ultimately, human relationships. The problem of how to establish trusting relationships between people bound together by a sense of common fate is as compelling and important today as it has ever been. I don't anticipate this becoming a "solved problem" any time soon.
What are you most looking forward to in Vancouver?
I have many friends and family in the Vancouver area I hope to spend time with. It really does feel like I am coming home.