Just inside the entrance of an off-campus retailer is a big, blue dot on the floor from which sprang more than two aisles with subtly placed racks leading shoppers into the store. It would go unnoticed by most customers. But not by Pratik Parikh.
The associate professor of industrial and systems engineering at Wright State University grew curious and he just had to know the science behind it.
He first sought out the store manager, who suggested that they orchestrated such a layout to help enhance a shopper’s perception of what the store had to offer, provide a direct path to store corners, and improve sales.
“If that’s true, then why isn’t every store laid out like this?” Parikh asked himself. The question would lead to several research papers and presentations, the dissertation topic of two of his Ph.D. students, and a grant proposal.
Real-world observations such as this, and a keen curiosity, have fueled a career that has propelled Parikh to the lofty elevations of higher education and into research that helps companies improve product distribution and promises to revolutionize the way hospitals provide care to patients.
“I keep my eyes, ears, and mind open, and whenever I see something unusual or unique, I ask myself: ‘Why is it done this way?’” Parikh said. “As an engineer, my commitment is to look at a problem and come up with a solution that can be adapted, implemented, and sustained. And anything I develop as a researcher has to help society.”
The 35-year-old Parikh, Ph.D., is the principal or co-principal investigator on more than $1 million in research grants and has published more than 30 research papers. He is a recipient of the President’s Early Achievement Award at Wright State and was named Advisor of the Year.
In addition to teaching two courses a semester, he is director of the Data Analysis and Optimization Lab, which supports graduate and undergraduate research assistants who won nationally competitive scholarships and awards at Wright State.
Parikh is also advisor to the Wright State student chapter of the Institute of Industrial Engineers (IIE), which in the past two years has won two gold awards, a prestigious honor that goes to chapters for outstanding performance. For his efforts, he was awarded the Outstanding Faculty Advisor Award from IIE (Great Lakes Region).
Parikh grew up in the state of Gujarat, about 250 miles north of Mumbai, India. Known as the jewel of west India, Gujarat gave birth to Mahatma Gandhi, who spearheaded the Indian independence movement against British colonial rule.
Parikh’s father is retired from Maharaja Sayajirao University, where he taught communication skills. Parikh, who was among the five best math students in his class of nearly 100, got his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Maharaja Sayajirao.
His research—some of which involved developing autonomous, hands-free robots that could vacuum floors and mow grass—won first-place awards in undergraduate research competitions nationally. That, coupled with expertise he developed in computer programming, helped him get a graduate fellowship in 2001 to State University of New York–Binghamton to work on his master’s degree in systems science and industrial engineering.
He did his thesis on robotics, developing lightning-fast algorithms to solve a kinematics problem for the visual motion simulator used at NASA. The space agency was using a six-legged platform that supported a cockpit for pilot training, but the legs—or linear actuators—that moved the platform weren’t responsive enough in terms of time to the navigational cues of the pilots-in-training.
“We found a pretty cool solution,” Parikh said. “It got published fairly quickly in a top-ranked journal.”
At SUNY, Parikh’s interest expanded to solving challenging problems in manufacturing and supply chains. And when he enrolled at Virginia Tech in 2003 to pursue his Ph.D., he began to design new, improved distribution centers using advanced mathematical models.
Parikh next spent two years in the corporate world, working as a warehousing scientist at Manhattan Associates in Atlanta, a supply chain software company that worked with major retailers. He joined the faculty at Wright State in 2009.
Some of Parikh’s projects involve core supply chain design and optimization, but he has also diversified into health care, working with Kettering Health Network, Miami Valley Hospital, and the VA medical centers in Dayton, Cincinnati, and Boston. His research in health care was recently awarded a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation and contracts from the Ohio Department of Public Safety and the VA.
“I am involved with health care systems engineering, which is improving the processes inside the hospital and better utilizing resources to facilitate patient-centered care,” he said. “I also do a lot of data analysis and prediction of adverse events, which is my passion.”
For example, Parikh and his team of student researchers have examined nearly 4 million records to identify factors that affect patient readmission to hospitals. His team recently showed that their proposed alternative process to efficiently discharge medically ready patients could reduce boarding of patients in the emergency department by nearly 40 percent; administrators at a local hospital immediately put this new process in place in their trauma unit. In a nutshell, his models help doctors and administrators determine how best to care for patients with the limited resources at hand.
The work is not easy. Computer software is used to crunch the numbers, and algorithms are developed to fill in missing information. Then the data must be queried, the algorithms employed to look for patterns, the statistical models built, and then the results put in a user-friendly form.
“Patients are different, and hospital doctors are not engineers,” he said. “So we give them models that suggest what is likely to happen with the patient. It is still their decision. But we try to give them a more quantitative feel based on historical data to help them make better decisions.”
Parikh’s supply chain work is also funded by the National Science Foundation. He has given an apparel distributor the tools to improve its supply chain, given another company the ability to determine what rate of customer discounts is the most profitable, and helped a financial institution predict which customers it is soon likely to lose so it can offer products and services to keep them.
Student Brian Zoll, of Kettering, is working on his Ph.D. under Parikh, looking at how retailers can optimize store layouts to boost customer purchasing and increase profits. He said Parikh is a great advisor.
“He always has good ideas,” said Zoll. “He’s enthusiastic; he wants to be here, and you can tell.”
Nick Ballester, of Fairborn, is working on his Ph.D., doing statistical predictions of patient readmission rates. He is in the program in part because he was impressed with Parikh’s teaching style.
Parikh, who resides in Beavercreek Township with his wife, 6-year-old son, and 3-year-old daughter, likes to sing karaoke when he’s not working—hits from the ’70s up to contemporary Bollywood songs. He and a friend are known as the “finale singers” for their upbeat songs that send revelers on their way with a spring in their step.
“I’m an engineer at heart,” Parikh said. “My passion is my work, my family, and a bit