Berkeley IEOR recently sat down to learn more about Professor Stewart Liu’s path to returning to his alma mater and becoming the department’s newest faculty member.
What led you to pursue Industrial Engineering and Operations Research?
In 2009, I received my B.S. degree in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS). Still, one year before my graduation, after doing an internship in computer science, I decided I hated it! I started looking around and saw IEOR next door. IEOR has a lot of overlapping requirements with EECS. My father taught IE in Taiwan, and he suggested I try it out. I was able to pick up a minor in IEOR before completing my B.S., and it turns out I found IEOR very interesting! I decided to continue my graduate studies in the MS-PhD program at UC Berkeley, and I’ve been here ever since!
What do you love about IEOR?
There is a two-part answer to this question: The first is about academics, and the second is about the application. Both of which are very interesting. The academic part is interesting because, with IEOR, you can quantify the decision-making process. You can use math and science to make things provably optimal. Instead of making decisions based on how something feels, we can justify decision-making with provable facts, math, and science. The application part is interesting because it is so robust. Almost every field needs someone with an IEOR background. Many times, people and even my friends will ask me, what do you guys do after getting a degree? Can you work in any industry you want? The answer is always yes. If you like technology, you can work in the tech industry. If you like manufacturing, you can work in the manufacturing industry. If you like tourism, you can work in the tourism industry. You can really work with any company or in any industry because they need people with an IEOR background everywhere.
What research are you interested in right now?
I will start with my graduate research work. Professor Phil Kaminsky was my advisor. I researched under his guidance for my Ph.D. thesis, which was based on supply chain optimization, specifically in heuristics and approximate algorithms using simulation. Professor Lee Schruben, who specializes in simulation, was also on my committee. We did a lot of simulation optimization algorithms for my thesis. After completing my thesis, I worked on another project that is still ongoing. In it, I try to expand a data-driven model that utilizes historical data without parametric statistics for optimization.
While teaching at SFSU, I also focused on pedagogical research. I have applied simulation techniques to analyze the student graduation and coursework flow. Another project I am currently working on is studying the effect of different modes of teaching. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to shift everything online, we had to try different pedagogical approaches, such as asynchronous courses with pre-recorded lectures and synchronous remote learning approaches such as Zoom meetings. My co-authors and I have been digging through our data over the past two years to identify correlations between specific teaching modalities and a certain student performance index. The results will hopefully shed light on which teaching modalities work better and which modalities are less effective for teachers and students.
Why did you decide to become a professor?
Many people get into academia because they are passionate about research, but the beginning of my quest to become a professor is rooted in teaching. My passion began with education. As a child, my mother used to teach high-school students, and my father was a university professor. I grew up in a teachers’ family and, at an early age, learned how to break down problems into smaller pieces to solve them. My knack for problem-solving has become very intuitive. I became a TA in UC Berkeley’s EECS Department during my undergraduate years. Being a TA also reaffirmed my interest and passion for teaching. I started to explore different ideas about teaching as a career. For example, should I teach K-12 students, or teach at a community college or a four-year university? I explored different options, but everything just fell into place. I applied to graduate school and I got in. I continued to study and I passed my preliminary exams. One thing led to another, and here I am, teaching in the professor track.
Favorite memories from when you were a Cal student?
Favorite memories? It has to be the Graduate Student Group parties. Those were great. In 2010, another student and I revived a then-defunct IEOR social club. We thought it was an integral component of graduate student well-being so we put in the time to organize events. We organized two parties every semester. Some students came to eat food and then disappeared, while other students stayed until those parties turned into board game nights. A few of us used to bring a couple of board games, and we just stayed around and played late into the night. It’s a fun memory because, to be honest, the Ph.D. journey can be very lonely because it is so specialized. The person sitting at the desk next to you may have no idea what you are working on, and you may not know what they are doing either. Even if you try to understand, you may not be able to because it is so specialized. The Graduate Student Group was a great way to unite everyone and build connections across specializations. Otherwise, people would drift in parallel lanes and never really interact
What are you most looking forward to in your first year as Assistant Teaching Professor at Berkeley?
This is a tough question because I am looking forward to everything! I will be very busy prepping for new courses – two in the fall and two courses in the spring, but I look forward to delivering excellent lectures for my students and getting their feedback. I also look forward to having TAs help me because that’s something I am not used to! Mostly though, I look forward to working with my students.