INFORMS News: Bonder Scholarships boost young careers

Seth Bonder founded scholarship programs for O.R. in military and health care applications.

Seth Bonder founded scholarship programs for O.R. in military and health care applications.

By Barry List

A luncheon conversation at a nice restaurant doesn’t always lead to the launching of a major INFORMS program, but for Seth Bonder, both what was said and what wasn’t said at a restaurant about a dozen years ago helped crystallize his ideas about an efficient way to fund scholarships in applied operations research.

Dr. Bonder, whose Vector Research Inc. (VRI) was an innovative force in healthcare and military modeling and analysis, had sold his firm and was seeking to endow a scholarship to focus on students interested in applied O.R. He remembers getting together with his university department head to discuss funding scholarships. Over lunch, he emphasized his interest in endowing a scholarship for new graduate students in applied O.R. similar to the scholarship he had recently endowed at The Ohio State University (OSU). Someone wasn’t listening.

“The department head asked me to underwrite a named chair,” Bonder recalls. “He kept pushing and pushing for a named chair. And you know what was missing? A simple ‘thank you’ for the endowed student scholarship I was offering. I got so upset I withdrew my offer to endow a scholarship at that university.”

Bonder, who had planned to endow an INFORMS scholarship a few years later, sped up his schedule and endowed two O.R. scholarships for O.R. doctoral students early in their Ph.D. programs. The Bonder Scholarship for Applied Operations Research in Military Applications and the Bonder Scholarship for Applied Operations Research in Health Services were born. The program went on to deliver its first scholarships in 2002. Later this year, two exceptional Ph.D. candidates will receive Bonder Scholarships in the 10th year of the program.

Bonder’s roots in the military go back to the Korean War era and beyond, where he trained and served as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. After discharge, he went on to study engineering and physics at the University of Maryland. He then accepted a graduate fellowship in O.R. at OSU where he first participated in contract studies of military operations for the U.S. Army. As a Ph.D. graduate student he was awarded a four-year contract to build models and conduct analyses of military operations. After graduation he joined the faculty of the I&OE Department at the University of Michigan where he started a spectrum of new O.R. courses, including the “modeling studio.” He also started the Systems Research Laboratory to continue his contract research with the Army, which provided masters and Ph.D. students the opportunity to perform research and analyses on real operational problems. When the university declared a moratorium on classified military research in the early 1970s, he and Bob Farrell (a research associate in the Lab) started Vector Research Inc. (VRI), which became a preeminent O.R. analysis company with a focus on defense and health care delivery operational issues. As the company grew, Bonder and his colleagues developed large-scale simulation models of military operations and health care delivery operations to help address many tactical, strategic and policy issues for its clients.

Based on many years of this experience, Bonder believed that both the defense and health care delivery enterprises needed to be more efficient and effective in their planning and operations since they utilize such a large share of the nation’s resources, and that they needed to have a continual stream of the best applied O.R. talent from our universities to make that happen. To help accomplish this, he established scholarships in major universities and the INFORMS Bonder scholarships in applied operations research:

“I wanted to encourage young O.R. graduate students to work in those areas,” he explains. “I believe once they are incentivized to conduct applied research in one of these areas via the scholarship, they are likely to continue working in the area after graduation.”

Each Bonder Scholarship provides a $4,000 stipend and an additional $1,000 to allow the recipient to travel to conferences and places they need to go for research.
Steven Schechter, now an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School, received the Bonder Scholarship in health services in 2004. He has gone on to do extensive operations research on organ transplantation, notably for patients on the kidney transplant wait list.

Elissa Frances Long, now an assistant professor at the Yale School of Management, recalls the opportunity that the Bonder Scholarship presented her. While a Ph.D. student at Stanford, she was focusing on the spread of HIV and tuberculosis.

“I was very fortunate to receive it,” she recalls. “I used the scholarship money to travel to India for almost a month.” There she was able to do HIV and TB research directly with an affected population.

“I was super-excited,” says Irina Dolinskaya, an assistant professor at Northwestern, about winning the scholarship in the military sector for naval research on the interaction of ships with ocean waves. Documenting her research in a form that could be submitted to the prize committee was an important early validation of her research at a time in her education when most graduate students don’t have the opportunity to publish. Receiving the Bonder Scholarship confirmed her career path and led to her working more extensively with the Office of Naval Research. It also gave her a feeling of belonging to the INFORMS Military Applications Society and a boost in her job search for a first faculty position.

Over the past 10 years, Bonder has reviewed many of the applications for the scholarships. The winners are selected by review committees from the INFORMS Health Applications Section and the Military Applications Society, respectively. Bonder believes the winners are the “best of the best” O.R. graduate students who will become intellectual leaders of the O.R. profession in the next 10 to 20 years. Many who apply are deserving candidates, but only one scholarship is awarded each year in an area. For this reason, in the future Bonder hopes to fund additional scholarships in both the healthcare and military applications areas.

Underwriting a scholarship fund is a source of satisfaction to the donor, says Bonder, and he encourages others who have benefited from their careers to “pay back” by endowing an INFORMS scholarship in their areas of expertise and experience.

“We work in a great profession,” he says. “The problems we work on are important to the clients and often society, the people you meet are interesting and bright, the money is decent, and you get to travel to interesting places nationally and internationally. I think payback should not just be in pro bono work. I strongly encourage those who have grown up in the O.R. profession and the Society to endow a program that helps launch O.R. students on their careers.”

Barry List is the director of communications for INFORMS.