Published March 3, 2023
If you want evidence of Latin America’s supply chain challenges, look no further than your morning cup of coffee.
Brazil and Colombia, two of the world’s largest coffee producers, have experienced fertilizer shortages and extreme weather, which resulted in the price of coffee beans hitting a 10-year high last year.
The region has production and operations researchers to help solve these kinds of logistical problems, but they often don’t receive the attention they deserve, says Diana Ramirez-Rios, assistant professor in UB’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE) within the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).
“In many of these countries, the research is not always well supported and receives little visibility,” she says.
Ramirez-Rios can now help fix that in her role as the Production and Operations Management Society’s (POMS) regional vice president of the Americas. She was elected late last year and officially took over the role at the start of 2023.
POMS is an international organization that promotes the fields of production operations, operations management and supply chain management via workshops, conferences and its flagship journal.
“There is a large POMS community in Latin America producing impactful research,” Ramirez-Rios says. “I hope I can help make their research more visible.”
Ramirez-Rios has seen the value of that research up close. A native of Barranquilla, Colombia, she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial engineering at Colombia’s Universidad del Norte before coming to the United States for her transportation engineering PhD. And her eight years in POMS has connected her to colleagues from across South America, Central America and the Caribbean Islands. She previously served as secretary of POMS’ Latin America and Caribbean Chapter and helped plan the chapter’s conference in Lima, Peru, in 2021.
“Based on my colleagues’ experiences as well as my own, more support and visibility are some of the greatest needs for Latin American researchers,” Ramirez-Rios says.
That’s especially unfortunate, she adds, because Latin America currently faces many supply chain issues.
The region’s farmers rely heavily on imported nitrogen-based fertilizer, which is inexpensive and does not require irrigation periods. Much of this fertilizer comes from Russia, however, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused a shortage.
Making matters worse has been severe weather. Brazil, which is the No. 1 coffee exporter in the world, experienced its worst drought in 90 years in 2021, followed by its strongest frost in decades and excessive rainfall, says Ramirez-Rios.
There’s been plenty of supply chain issues in North America, too, she notes. The U.S. has dealt with rising food costs since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as major spikes in gas prices last year due, in part, to the war in Ukraine.
“As researchers, we are called to understand how to make supply chains more resistant and improve the lives of the most vulnerable communities and our society as a whole,” Ramirez-Rios says.
Her research focuses on both the commercial and humanitarian sides of logistics.
In commercial logistics, Ramirez-Rios studies freight demand for businesses and estimates time-of-day parking needs in cities and neighborhoods. On the humanitarian side, she works to limit disproportionate freight emissions in certain communities and develops mathematical models that prioritize the most vulnerable during disaster relief.
“In the commercial side, we want to minimize logistics costs, but I have found in my research that we can balance both logistics and human suffering by addressing both costs in an objective formula,” she says.
Ramirez-Rios’ work has been recognized by various institutions. Her most recent awards include the Karen and Lester Gerhardt Prize in Science and Engineering and the Thomas Archibald Bedford Prize from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is an alum of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Civil and Environmental Engineering Rising Stars Workshop, and is a recipient of the Women in Transportation Helene M. Overly Memorial Scholarship—Greater New York: Leonard Braun Memorial Graduate Scholarship. She is also a fellow of the Eno Future Leaders in Transportation.
Ramirez-Rios joined SEAS last fall from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She has since participated in New Faculty Academy under the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs and collaborated with faculty at the RENEW Institute on a proposal addressing air pollution from freight.
“In her short time at UB, Dr. Ramirez-Rios has already demonstrated that she is an effective communicator, educator and researcher who has excellent leadership skills,” says Victor Paquet, professor and chair of ISE. “She will undoubtedly have a tremendous impact on POMS."
Reflecting on her UB experience so far, Ramirez-Rios says, “I feel we have all we need to be successful here at UB and because of that, I’m really grateful to be part of this community.”
She and other UB researchers will head to Puerto Rico this spring to collect data on Hurricane Fiona’s impact on transportation and the electrical grid, as well as the country’s more vulnerable communities. The work is supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.
World events of the last few years have made the phrase “being prepared” more common in conversations amongst communities, companies, agencies and governments, Ramirez-Rios says.
“The one good thing to come from all the crises and increased natural disasters is there’s now more attention on humanitarian research,” she says. “Now we can make real change.”