Insights at UBC Sauder

Meet UBC Sauder’s new faculty – Tamar Cohen-Hillel

Tamar Cohen-Hillel
Posted 2022-04-12

This year, UBC Sauder welcomes five new lecturers and tenure-track faculty to the school. In the fourth of this series, we introduce you to Tamar Cohen-Hillel, Assistant Professor, Operations and Logistics Division, UBC Sauder School of Business.

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 welcomes five new lecturers and tenure-track faculty to the school. In the fourth of this series, we introduce you to Tamar Cohen-Hillel, Assistant Professor, Operations and Logistics Division, UBC Sauder School of Business.

Where are you from, and what brought you to UBC Sauder?

When I came to visit the Operations and Logistics Division at UBC Sauder for the first time, I was amazed by the people in the division. I got excited about the research, which achieved a perfect balance between mathematically rigorous work and the applicability of the resulting research. I was also excited about the sense of community that I found within the division. I grew up in a small town in Israel, where everyone knew each other and cared about each other. I felt the same sense of belonging in the Operations and Logistics Division.

What are your areas of research and how did you get into this field?

When I was an undergrad student, I took an artificial intelligence class during which the professor discussed one of the core problems in ports operations research – how do you determine the order by which you organize the containers on ships as to minimize the number of times each container is being unloaded and reloaded to the ship when the ship travels from one port to another. That was the moment that I fell in love with operations research and logistics. I was overwhelmed by the level of complexity that this problem poses. At the same time, I was drawn to this question and kept coming back to it and trying to think of it in different lights. This is when I realized how complex logistic problems can become. It is fascinating to me to analyze these problems and to know that the solutions that I can come up with can solve relevant problems across the globe. With time I found interest specifically in retail operations management. The retail world is developing at an increasing speed. It poses new questions every day, from dynamic pricing, online fulfillment, and supply chain management, there are endless possibilities when it comes to retail optimization.

What fuels your research – what prompted you to research this area?

I believe that high-quality research can and should combine mathematical depth with real-world application. As such, one of my main drivers is my meetings with my industry collaborators, where I hear from them about the new challenges that they are facing. Taking these real-world problems, modeling them mathematically, and using theoretical tools to approach those challenges excites me.

What inspires you to teach?

During my undergraduate studies, I started working for one of the big tech companies as a part-time employee. I enjoyed classes, but I was not inspired by my classwork. I was drifting away into my tech work more and more. My operations professor was determined to identify strong students within his class and to find new ways to get us excited about school work. I would have never been where I am today without his encouragement. I draw a lot of inspiration from him and hope to become a beacon of light for the new generation of students. I truly enjoy seeing students as they get excited about algorithmic approaches to logistic problems.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered through your research?

I conducted a research project with my thesis advisor, Prof. Georgia Perakis, my collaborator Lennart Baardman, and my industry collaborators from Oracle, Setareh Borjian Boroujeni, and Kiran Panchamgam. In this research, we addressed the problem of identifying social trends through sales data. We developed a new learning approach that uses past purchases to learn how people in different locations can impact purchasing decisions in other locations. It was important for us to establish that the relationship that we found is indeed causal. Using this new approach, we proposed an optimization algorithm that can help retailers to learn which stores should be targeted for promotion in order to increase sales in other locations. I found it fascinating how much we can do if we know how to read the data.

What do you believe is the future of your industry?

I believe that the retail world is facing a few critical questions in the near future. First is the process of transforming from brick-and-mortar stores into omni-channel and online retail. This process began years ago, but it had to quickly speed up in light of the recent pandemic. The synergy between giant commerce, such as Amazon, Walmart, and AliExpress, and the small retailers are not yet finalized. I believe that the retail giants need the small retailers just as much as the small retailers need those big commerce retailers. I am excited to see how they can create a healthy dependency in the future.

The second challenge that retailers will face in the near future is how to become more sustainable without hurting the customers, the small retailers, or their own profitability. I am hoping that together with talented researchers in this area we can construct a more sustainable system.

What are you most looking forward to in Vancouver?

I am very excited about the unique combination of the big city atmosphere with the proximity to nature. I am looking forward to traveling with my family in the surroundings of Vancouver and enjoying the beautiful mountains.