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Where Data Meets Optimization

Margret BjarnadottirMargrét Bjarnadóttir
Assistant Professor of Management Science and Statistics

In the year after graduating with her PhD, in what was financially a lean time, Margrét Bjarnadóttir and her husband decided to buy a new Macbook Pro to replace their aging one.

It was a big purchase, and Bjarnadóttir, an expert in data-driven decision-making who would later come to work at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, was determined to make the smartest decision possible.

“We collected data on eBay auctions on Macbook Pros, and we analyzed everything,” she says. “What were the key indicators for success? What are the characteristics of postings that were the most successful? For example, good pictures are very important. When was the best time to list a Macbook Pro – time of day, day of the week?”

They came up with a regression equation. "We had a lot of time," she says, starting to laugh. "I’m not saying the return of investment per hour was very good.” 

They eventually bid on a low-performing auction for a new laptop and used the best techniques to auction the old machine. And they broke even. 

Whatever the decision you are facing, Bjarnadóttir says, there are likely analytics that can help you find the best answer. “That’s what I do – data analytics," she says. "I live on the intersection where data meets optimization.”

Bjarnadóttir is an assistant professor of management science and statistics in the Smith School’s Decisions, Operations and Information Technology department. She applies innovative data modeling methods to specific domains – lately healthcare, complex financial networks and sports. 

A recent paper explores decision-making for cancer patients. “What the literature tells you is that doctors are biased,” she says. “When they are speaking to their patients, they tend to overestimate their survival. And sometimes they don’t even have that conversation.”

She and her co-authors built good predictive models to estimate survival and wrapped that into a tool to support those physician-to-patient conversations. With the app, patients could see how patients like them appear in the data and how successful various treatments were. “Basically, we try to unbias the conversation so that patients can make the decisions that are best for them, whatever that might be,” she says.

A newer study focuses on the opioid crisis, building an early risk model that aims to help physicians determine, based on data, how likely a patient is to become dependent on opioids if they receive a prescription. “It’s important work,” she says. “Once a person becomes a chronic opioid user, the risk of all of the bad outcomes is magnified.”

She is meanwhile also studying the gender pay gap, and potential algorithms that companies might use to close it optimally, cheaply and equitably. It’s been fascinating research, she says, highly relevant in the #MeToo era and more complicated than it might seem at first glance.

“If you are tasked with eliminating the pay gap at your large organization, how would you go about it?” she asks. “If you had money to eliminate the pay gap, how would you hand out raises? No one had really addressed that question before we took on this research project and developed algorithms that eliminate the gender paygap balancing equity and efficiency.”

In sports, she is studying how Major League Baseball teams might identify good buys in the free agent market. And she is studying the progression of young competitive swimmers, developing a model that university swim recruiters might use to identify strong high school prospects. 

“There are always externalities not captured by our models that you have to take into account, in any decision scenario” she says. “But we can build models that can help.”

Bjarnadóttir earned her undergraduate degree in her native Iceland at the University of Iceland, where she initially pursued a major in civil engineering. It didn’t stick.

Early on in her studies, in a course on the chemistry of civil engineering, she encountered a 20-page chapter on ingredients that could be stirred into concrete. “And then I realized I couldn’t do civil engineering, because those were the most boring hours of my life, the hours spent reading a chapter on how to make concrete better,” she says.

She pivoted to industrial and mechanical engineering and took a course on operations research, and that’s when she had her eureka moment. “I fell in love with operations research,” she says. She later received a PhD in operations research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The math is beautiful, but it’s also very practical. Operations research is really problem driven. It’s all about: How can we use math and models and data to improve decision-making?” 

Math always came easily to Bjarnadóttir. When she was just 8 or 9 years old, she recalls, she went on a business trip with her dad, an electrical engineer for Iceland’s national power company. To keep her learning and amused, she says, he written out the multiplication table for her to study and practice.

Her brothers pursued STEM careers as well. One is the head of software development for MAREL, an Icelandic food production line company; the other works in cybersecurity in Finland.

Her husband is also from Iceland. They met while studying at MIT and were surprised, as Icelanders naturally would be, to learn find that of their many Facebook friends and family members back home, there were no common contacts.

“Iceland is very small," she says. "It has just 340,000 people, in total. Everybody knows pretty much everybody.” 

It’s the reason why author Michael Lewis admonishes readers of his 2011 book “Boomerang” that they’re just being annoying when they ask Icelanders whether they know the singer Bjork. “Of course they've met Bjork,” he writes. “Who hasn't met Bjork? Who, for that matter, didn't know Bjork when she was two?"

Bjarnadóttir doesn’t know Bjork. “But I’ve been on a treadmill next to her,” she says.

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Accounting Scholar Pays It Forward

Rebecca HannRebecca Hann
Associate Professor
KPMG Term Professor

Life’s unexpected and often rewarding turns are manifested in Rebecca Hann’s path to becoming a professor. Growing up in Hong Kong, she wanted to be a teacher. “I admired my good teachers — they loved what they did and they had a way to change the way you think about things,” she says. That impression inspired her in high school. “I tutored students to earn my allowance, but I always enjoyed it. It was gratifying when the student I helped had a light bulb moment." 

Teaching would be no ordinary pursuit. Hann would be the first in her family to go to a university. Her parents – not having a formal education – taught her “to be strong, aim high and work hard,” she says.

Opportunity knocked when China was about to take back Hong Kong from the United Kingdom. Sensing uncertainty about what would become of Hong Kong, Hann’s parents acceded to her wish to study in the United States, provided it be close to Queens, New York, where her aunt lived. 

Fearing a change-of-heart in her parents, Hann submitted an application package within weeks and started at Queens College a few months later. “I was not well informed about the U.S. university system, and to be honest, I wanted a bit more autonomy," she says. "It was all very rushed."

Like many foreign students in the United States at that time, Hann supported herself and looked for a field of study offering good job prospects. Accounting, “the language of business,” seemed a perfect fit, she says. “I was very good at it. I was a natural — if there is something like that in accounting. I set my eyes on joining a prestigious public accounting firm.” 

But being a good student led to her first taste of life as an academic. Economics professors Michael Dohan and David Gabel took Hann under their wings and drew her to research — even more so than accounting. “While I admittedly had little idea about academic research, I wanted to learn more,” she says. “During my junior year at Queens, I received a CUNY fellowship for students who want to pursue a career in academia. I got to take two graduate-level courses in the summer and I loved it. I knew then that’s what I wanted to do.”

That turning point has been fortuitous both personally and for Smith students. Hann’s 2013-2014 Krowe Award for Teaching Excellence recognizes her for "excellence and innovation as a teacher/mentor in the MBA, EMBA, and PhD programs, setting high standards for all students."

An associate professor and KPMG Term Professor in the Department of Accounting and Information Assurance, Hann also has garnered the Distinguished Teaching Award and the Most Effective Core Professor Award. 

Teaching the accounting core course in the MBA program can be challenging, she says. “Accounting often is thought of by students as a necessary evil," she says. This, she adds, gives her a sense of mission. "I can’t make accounting fun, as I tell my students, but I can help them appreciate and master accounting as a means for making good, economic decisions."

She says this makes it satisfying to teach MBA students. "This is why I wanted to become a teacher in the first place," she says.

Hann’s research is focused on financial reporting and disclosure, corporate diversification, and more recently, the role of accounting information in the macroeconomy and the real effects of financial markets. With this backdrop, she serves as the director of Smith’s Accounting Doctoral Program. She has mentored more than a dozen PhD students, who are now faculty at institutions ranging from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology to the University of Michigan. She won the American Accounting Association’s 2015 Best Dissertation Supervision Award and the 2017 Smith PhD Program Faculty Mentor of the Year Award. 

Guiding the next generation of faculty has been one of the most rewarding aspects of her career, Hann says. She advises students by drawing from her own mentors — from beyond Queens College and through her graduate study at Wharton and subsequently the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Southern California and Maryland Smith faculty appointments.

“At Wharton professor Stan Baiman showed me to take chances when he took a chance on me. My dissertation advisor, Phil Berger, pushed me to think hard and not settle for anything easy,” she says. “As an assistant professor, my senior colleague Jack Hughes at UCLA taught me that academia is like a competitive sport — you need to be persistent and have stamina. At USC, Mark DeFond led me to discover the art of writing, and K.R. Subramanyam taught me to not give in when you think you’re right." 

Today at Smith, she points to support from her department chair, Martin Loeb, who gives her the opportunity to practice what she has learned from her mentors. "I hope to take what I’ve learned and pay it forward whenever I can,” she says.

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In Search of Social Media Intelligence

Wendy MoeWendy W. Moe
Associate Dean of Master's Programs
Dean's Professor of Marketing
Co-Director of the Smith Analytics Consortium

Social media did not exist when Wendy W. Moe transitioned from business to academia. She first heard about sites like MySpace, Twitter and Facebook from her MBA students at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business when she arrived in 2004.

“All of my students were talking about it, and I felt like I needed to learn,” says Moe, associate dean of master’s programs and director of the Smith Analytics Consortium. “I very deliberately went on all the platforms and opened accounts, and started sending messages into cyberspace.”

As an expert in digital marketing with a mind for data, Moe quickly recognized the potential.

Traditional consumer research requires surveys, interviews and focus groups — which all take time and cost money. Social media platforms with large, diverse audiences could provide a shortcut.

“All we’re trying to do in marketing research is get the voice of the consumer,” Moe says. “And here the consumers are just volunteering it.”

In the years that followed her initial exploration, Moe established herself as a leader in the race to harness the newly available data.

Her 2014 book, Social Media Intelligence, co-authored with David A. Schweidel at Emory University in Atlanta, provides tools to filter out the noise in online forums full of fake accounts, trolls and outliers — leaving marketers with valid, reliable results in real time.

Related research by Moe has appeared in top marketing journals, resulting in best paper awards and other honors from the American Marketing Association and Marketing Science Institute.

Along the way, Moe also launched the Master of Science in Marketing Analytics program at Maryland Smith in 2013 and served as academic director until her appointment as associate dean in December 2018. In her new role she oversees all Smith MBA and specialty masters programs. 

“What I’m really excited about is the school’s focus on data-driven decision making,” Moe says. “Data analytics will infuse all of business, regardless if you work in finance, marketing or any other field. These skills are in short supply and high demand.”

Moe’s passion for data science started near Chicago, where she grew up and earned an Ivy League invitation to study business at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

A banking internship gave her industry experience during her undergraduate program in finance and marketing. Her first full-time job after college was marketing research at Nielsen. Later, she earned an MBA at Georgetown University and helped launch a tech startup.

What turned her toward academia was advice from a Wharton professor, who befriended Moe and served as her mentor. “He’s had a huge impact on me and my career,” Moe says.

After earning a master's degree and PhD in marketing from Wharton, Moe joined the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. She came to Maryland Smith four years later.

Now she shows appreciation to her Wharton mentor by filling the role for others. “That’s how I see myself as an academic,” she says. “I do interesting research, but I also impact the people around me and help students find their path.”

Besides guiding her research, the business experience gives Moe an edge when consulting for corporate and government clients.

“I’ve worked in finance, marketing and technology,” she says. “I’ve been in large organizations, and I’ve been in startups. Having that diversity of viewpoints helps me see problems from multiple perspectives.”

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Students Recognize Master Teacher

Bobby ZhouBobby Zhou
Assistant Professor

Marketing professor Bobby Zhou’s keychain holds more than the keys to unlock his car, house and office at the at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. When asked about his interesting hobbies, he hoists up the collection of baubles and metal rings, and points to a small piece of plastic with a barcode.

It’s his gym pass. Or, more accurately, it’s his yoga studio pass. “I have been practicing hot yoga for a while now,” he says. “And I absolutely love it.” Zhou attends hot yoga class just about every day. Unlike regular yoga, the exercises are performed under hot and humid conditions. 

“I’m not terribly good at it to be honest,” Zhou says. “But I really enjoy it. It’s a wonderful form of meditation. And if you think about it, we dump our trash every single day — either from our office or from our home. We should also be mindful of dumping our mental trash on a timely basis, right?”

When Zhou steps off his mat and puts on his professor cap, he can be found teaching classes at all levels — from undergraduate marketing research electives to executive MBA courses. And if he had to pick a favorite, he probably couldn’t, at least by his own admission.

“I thoroughly enjoy each one of those classes,” he says. “Because to me, teaching is a very interactive process. Most of my students are motivated to learn, and as long as they have this great desire and motivation to learn, I’m extremely pumped.”

Zhou's students appreciate his passion for teaching. When undergraduate students launched the Faculty Member of Distinction awards in 2016, Zhou was voted as one of three inaugural recipients. He also has won the Allen J. Krowe Award for Teaching Excellence and a Distinguished Teaching Award at Maryland Smith.

Zhou’s research focuses on competitive marketing strategies with a specific emphasis on pricing and promotion. He is currently studying family cell phone plans, in addition to a phenomenon he’s coined as “the impact of anticipated regret.”

Let’s say, for example, that you’re in the market for a new blender. You read reviews, do your research, and narrow it down to two options. The first option is more powerful and has more functionalities, but it is also more expensive. The second choice is not as fancy, but it gets the job done and is cheaper. You decide to go the cost-savings route and purchase blender number two.

But then after a few months, you realize that the cheap blender just doesn’t cut it. It lacks one or two key functions that you wish it had. Suddenly, you’re back to square one. And you might begin feeling that pang of regret: Maybe you should have spent the extra cash to spare yourself the headache of going through the shopping process all over again.

This is what Zhou calls “under-purchase regret.” If you had bought the more expensive blender only to realize that the cheaper one probably would’ve sufficed, then you’d have “over-purchase regret.”

“It looks like, to say the very least, consumers display a non-trivial, pretty significant amount of anticipated regret if whatever purchase decision they have made does not turn out to be ex post optimal,” Zhou explains. “So we wrote up this paper studying the firm’s optimal pricing and product line design strategy in the presence of consumers’ anticipated regret.”

That paper is under revision, and Zhou says he’s “really psyched” to share the study more broadly.

“Regardless of whom I share this research idea with, they always get excited,” he says. “They say, ‘Oh, I could give you some more examples about a variety of regrets I have had anticipating a new purchase.’ As you can see, it relates to our daily life.”

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