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Volume 51, Number 26   March 29, 2004         

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People on Campus

Vijay Mehrotra – Teaching students to think
Photo of Vijay MehrotraWhat are the odds that Vijay Mehrotra can walk 10 yards on campus without a student or professor greeting him with a big smile? Slim to none.

The assistant professor of decision sciences has been teaching for only two semesters, yet has made many friends within the College of Business and beyond. The New Delhi-born Midwesterner seems to know everyone he passes on his way from Café Rosso to his office in the Science building.

Enthusiastic about his courses in statistics and operations management, the fast-talking Mehrotra rattles off his goals for students: He wants them to gain a sense of what randomness is and how to respond to it; to think about mathematics intuitively; to understand that most decisions are short-term and involve risk.

Decision sciences are the application of mathematics to problems of management, where statistics, engineering, mathematics and economics all meet, he explained.

In his class, Mehrotra likes to perform calculations on the fly with his students and uses San Francisco's Muni transit system and a deck of cards to teach the difference between variability and probability. He asks them to calculate how often he will get home on time depending on certain variables like whether he makes it to the bus stop on time and whether the bus is on schedule. He then incorporates the cards into the game by having each card represent a probability.

"I teach students how to deal with data," so they can connect it back to their business classes in finance, marketing and operations, he explained.

"Vijay is definitely one of the best teachers I have ever worked with," said business management senior Kevin Mello. Mehrotra helped him with an independent study project on applications of probability to determine whether baseball teams should bunt and steal more in the postseason, and was impressed to see how much Mehrotra cares about his students.

"He helped me with a job application for the Cleveland Indians and gave me advice for interviews," said Mello, who hopes to land a job in operations with a professional baseball team.

The son of a psychology professor, Mehrotra says his job is to teach students to think and find ways to inspire them.

Mehrotra knows the power of inspiration. In a recent "Was It Something I Said?" column which he pens bimonthly for OR/MS Today, he tells how as a young graduate student he flew across country in pursuit of Ward Whitt, the guru of queueing networks and customer call centers, who was presenting a paper. Mehrotra was terrified to approach him and finally after two days asked him whether the "Fixed Population Mean method" would make a good dissertation topic. Whitt said that no one else had explored that and encouraged him to research it further.

Today, Mehrotra encourages students seeking extra credit to find an article from the popular business press that uses numbers to present an argument. He has them dissect the data to see if it supports the journalist's premise.

One student, a mother of two boys, chose a Business Week article declaring that school girls outperform boys and discovered that the author chose only the data that proved her point but omitted data from the same source that did not support her argument. Had the student not been encouraged to scrutinize the data she would have believed that girls do better than boys in school, he explained.

Mehrotra earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics and economics from St. Olaf College in Minnesota and a PhD in operations research from Stanford. He worked as an operations management consultant for 10 years, co-founding the Silicon Valley consulting firm Onward Inc. in 1995. When his practice was acquired by Blue Pumpkin Software in 2002 he became vice president for solutions at BPSI. He still works as a consultant to corporations and government helping them with their call centers.

But the Oakland resident said he always wanted to return to academia and learned about the College of Business opening from his old Stanford friend, Robert Saltzman, who is now an SFSU professor of decision sciences.

"Vijay has an unusual combination of skill and background. He not only understands the technical and mathematical aspects of many operational problems, but he also can clearly articulate his knowledge to others," said Saltzman. "Vijay also is an engaging speaker with a great sense of humor, who will be a terrific colleague for the entire faculty in the College of Business."

Besides teaching, he is involved with plans to launch SFSU's downtown MBA program, and is helping to create an advisory board for the decision sciences department.

Mehrotra, who will soon become a father, likes to play five-minute Scrabble games online with challengers from around the world.

"This game is a lot like life. Sometimes you've got to let go. You can't always do what you've planned," he said.

-- Susan Arthur

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Last modified March 29, 2004, by the Office of Public Affairs