By Nicole Capozziello
Published December 16, 2019
A large crowd gathered in Davis Hall's Salvatore Lounge this past May. Some were current students in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, others were staff and faculty from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, while others were alumni who traveled from across the country.
All were there to show their appreciation for Rajan Batta, interim dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and SUNY Distinguished Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering, who in addition to serving the school in a variety of roles for over 30 years, recently passed a new milestone: serving as major professor or co-major professor to his 50th doctoral student.
“When recognized, Rajan usually says ‘I’m sure someone else deserves this more than I do.’ But today, I can truly assure him that no one else deserves this more than he does,” Liesl Folks, former dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, told the crowd.
The hall buzzed with joy and gratitude, memories and stories, as dozens of individuals reflected on being mentored by Batta over the years, the lucky beneficiaries of not only his knowledge but his exceptional character.
“Professor Batta is my role model,” says Elif Tokar-Erdemir (PhD ’08), now a director of data science at United Health Group. “He is not only very understanding in creating a work-life balance for his students but he is an excellent mentor who generously and selfl essly invested in me and many other researchers, with an extraordinarily positive personality.”
Batta received his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in 1980. He went on to earn his PhD in Operations Research at MIT, coming to Buffalo in 1984. From the beginning, he showed himself to be a researcher who was both steadfast and boundlessly curious, qualities that have continued to propel him through decades of wide-ranging operations research. With students, whether in or out of the classroom, Batta is adaptable, passionate, and, most of all, supportive.
“If he operates at the highest level of excellence and professionalism, everyone else also has to be ‘at the top of their game.’ He himself lives what he expects of others,” says Alok Baveja (PhD ’93), a professor of supply chain management at Rutgers Business School.
"I recently heard someone say, ‘I like humanity – it’s the humans I have a problem with,’” chuckles Mark Karwan, Praxair Professor of Operations Research and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor, and a longtime colleague of Batta. “Rajan isn’t like that – he is a human human. He genuinely wants to help people – and he doesn’t give up on them.”
"He taught me not to look at the literature too much but to think for myself and believe in my own ideas.”
-Xiaofeng Nie (PhD ’08), Associate professor, Texas A&M University
Batta’s dedication and optimism are extensions of how he approaches the world, whether he’s working on a problem like illicit drug trafficking, electric vehicle routing, or disaster supply relief.
“Rajan is always able to thread the needle when it comes to understanding the intersection between real humans and the big systems that we work in,” says Folks. “It is a gift for which I am eternally grateful.”
Batta describes his work in social science application as “humanitarian logistics,” adding that he has always been drawn to working on things that are a bit different.
When Batta started advising his first graduate student in 1985, he took inspiration from his advisors at MIT, who were not only brilliant scholars but modeled confidence in their ideas and the ideas of their students.
“He taught me not to look at the literature too much but to think for myself and believe in my own ideas,” says Xiaofeng Nie (PhD ’08), who has taken this lesson with him into his career as an associate professor of engineering technology and industrial distribution at Texas A&M University.
“In research, it’s not relevant that someone is a full professor, an assistant professor, or a graduate student. Anyone can have a good idea,” says Batta. “Once my office door shuts, the atmosphere is that of colleagues who are discussing a research problem."
For decades, Batta has met with advisees weekly, checking in on their research progress, partaking in mutual problem-solving, and providing feedback drawn from his extensive experience within the field. In addition to advising doctoral students, Batta has also advised about 50 master’s students, and 30 undergraduate students.
Over the years, Batta has expanded his research to include his students’ interests, learning about new subjects, forming new partnerships, and applying his vast knowledge from other areas. “I’m open to learning about almost anything,” says Batta and, while he claims that time and energy have forced him to become more selective over the years, his natural curiosity still often wins out.
I remember the moment I told Rajan that I got an offer from Rutgers, there was so much emotion his eyes. It meant a lot to him, because he knew how much a faculty position meant to me.”
-Alok Baveja (PhD ’93), Professor, Rutgers Business School
Batta was co-advised as a doctoral student and has always seen value in this model, in which two faculty members meet with a student as a team. Of the 50 doctoral students Batta has advised, he has co-advised about 30 of them, pairing up with nine other faculty members. In addition to benefitting students, who draw on two professors’ expertise, it brings faculty in the department together.
“Rajan’s impact on the department cannot be overstated. He has not only contributed to the lives of many students but has been a leader and mentor for many ISE faculty members over the years, including me,” says Victor Paquet, professor and chair of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.
Gifted with the abilities to think innovatively and conduct research in an organized manner, Batta also possesses an outstanding talent for presenting his ideas with clarity and precision.
“In our research meetings, his quickness of critically thinking about problems and identifying appropriate approaches to solutions is impeccable. I've subconsciously gained skills not only in my research ability but also in tackling professional challenges,” says one of Batta’s most recent graduates, Biplab Bhattacharya (PhD ’19), who now works in operations research at Geisinger Health.
When someone asks me where I graduated from, I cannot be prouder to state that I graduated from UB with Rajan as my advisor.”
-Amruth Sivalenka (PhD ’10), Vice President, Revenue Management, NBC Universal Media
Batta has a striking talent and care for supporting his students as individuals, not just researchers. “In each hour-long weekly meeting, we spend about 30 or 40 minutes talking about their research, and the rest is just talking about life in general,” says Batta.
“I’m so thankful to Rajan for guiding me, helping me think outside of the box, changing gears where needed, and, of course, letting me explore my own routes,” says Tolou Esfandeh (PhD ’15), a senior consultant of operations research and advanced analytics for American Airlines. “But what I appreciate most about Rajan is that he is a humble person with high emotional intelligence, who is first a friend to his students.”
For as good as he may be at predicting outcomes in the operations research world, a talent that colleagues describe as part of Batta’s DNA, he understands that when it comes to students, it’s very different. But that doesn’t mean he’s shied away from the challenge; Batta adapts his style to support individual students – and is there for them long after they’ve left campus.
He has an unwavering belief in his students, and in turn helps them believe in themselves, to take their skills and experience into the world. “I graduated during a recession and I was only interested in a faculty position, which made things even more difficult,” reflects Baveja. “But Rajan said to me: all you need is one opportunity and I know you will make the most of it. And I remember the moment I told Rajan that I got an offer from Rutgers, there was so much emotion in his eyes. It meant a lot to him, because he knew how much a faculty position meant to me.”
Students, faculty, and staff alike have marveled at and learned from Batta’s ability to wear many different hats, from consultant to dean to professor to researcher. Batta thrives on variety at all levels – and finds that each role complements the other. Working as a consultant over the years has strengthened his connection to real-world problems, helping him to guide his students towards novel research.
"I’m so thankful to Rajan for guiding me, helping me think outside of the box, changing gears where needed, and letting me explore my own routes.”
-Tolou Esfandeh (PhD ’15), Operations Research and Advanced Analytics, American Airlines
As a longtime professor, Batta has built up an extensive network of former students, whom he doesn’t hesitate to draw on as connections for his younger students.
“I see Dr. Batta at conferences every year, and I still call on him for advice,” says Nie, who recently met up with Batta at a conference in Italy.
At the party in May, Batta spent an aft ernoon enveloped in gratitude, albeit a bit self-consciously, getting a taste of the generosity he’s given so many others.
“I feel beyond thankful to have Dr. Batta in my life,” says Amruth Sivalenka (PhD ’10), who came for the party from Orlando, where he works as vice president of revenue management at NBC Universal Media. “When someone asks me where I graduated from, I cannot be prouder to state that I graduated from the University at Buff alo with Dr. Batta as my advisor.”
In his latest assignment as interim dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Batta will continue to shape and inspire all who work with him.
The PhD students of Rajan Batta have applied their training in operations research in a variety of jobs throughout Western New York, across the United States, and internationally. They work in industry, academia and the government. Employers include:
Air Force Research Lab, Rome, New York
Amazon, Inc., Seattle, Washington
American Airlines, Dallas, Texas
Arizona State University, Phoenix, Arizona
AT&T Corporation, Morristown, New Jersey
Capital One, Richmond, Virginia
Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China
CSX Technology, Jacksonville, Florida
Curbell Inc., Orchard Park, New York
ESRI Corporation, San Bernardino, California
First USA Bank, Wilmington, Delaware
Ford Motor Company, Dearborn, Michigan
Government of India, Aluva Ernakulam, India
IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown
Heights, New York
Jet Airways, Mumbai, India
Kennesaw State University, Georgia
Linde, Inc., Tonawanda, New York
Mc Kinsey & Company, Boston, Massachusetts
MITRE, Washington DC
Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California
NBC Universal Media, Orlando, Florida
North University, Barranquilla, Colombia
Northern Catholic University, Antofagasta, Chile
NXP Semiconductors, Austin, Texas
Rutgers Business School, Rutgers, New Jersey
Sam's Club eCommerce, Sunnyvale, California
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas
Tsinghua University, Beijing, China
United Airlines, Chicago, Illinois
United Health Group, Minneapolis, Minnesota
UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, Texas
Verizon Wireless, Alpharetta, Georgia