Using operations research for social good, UB student wins dissertation pitch award

Esther Jose smiles toward the camera as fire experts conduct a prescribed fire in a forest behind her.

Esther Jose observes a prescribed fire near Eugene, Oregon, in October 2021. Jose's presentation on prescribed fire last year was awarded by the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers. Credit: Brian Bull/KLCC

By Tom Dinki

Published January 25, 2023

Esther Jose wants to use operations research for the common good. 

“I want to do research that doesn’t necessarily have a lot of funding, but you somehow find the intersection of funding and social good. ”
Esther Jose, PhD student
Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering

The field has its roots in World War II and is often used to improve military strategies and logistics. Jose herself is currently doing research for the U.S. Air Force.

But the University at Buffalo PhD student also hopes to apply her mathematical prowess to efforts like preventing wildfires and reducing crimes against women.

“I want to do things that are really impactful to people,” Jose says. “I think that's where my passion lies.”

That passion was on display during a three-minute pitch last year at the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers (IISE) Annual Conference and Expo in Seattle. Jose was voted best in the “Optimization and Decision Making” track of IISE’s Doctoral Student Colloquium Dissertation Pitch Competition, which involved over 45 doctoral students and faculty judges from universities across the U.S.

“I am extremely pleased that Esther’s presentation placed first,” says Victor Paquet, professor and chair of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. “She is an outstanding student who has demonstrated excellence in scholarship, leadership and civic responsibility for many years. She is destined to make important contributions to the ISE field and to the world, in general.”

Jose’s presentation, “A data driven approach to studying the impact of prescribed fire programs, and using game theory and risk communication techniques to inform prescribed fire policy,” centered on her dissertation topic at the time: advocating for prescribed fires. 

Also known as a controlled burn, the practice involves intentionally igniting fires in order to clear forests of leaves and underbrush that could fuel a potentially worse wildfire.

“It's essentially a way to fight fire with fire,” Jose says.

Prescribed fires also have a cultural significance. Indigenous communities have used controlled burns to manage landscapes for centuries. 

“It's a way for them to honor the land and regenerate the forest,” Jose says. 

However, the U.S. embraced a strategy of total fire suppression for much of the last century. Even last year, the U.S. Forest Service suspended prescribed fires for 90 days after two got out of control and resulted in New Mexico’s largest-ever wildfire. 

Still, over 99% of the agency’s prescribed fires go according to plan and experts say more prescribed fires are needed, not less. 

“People think prescribed fires are really risky,” says Jose, who observed a controlled burn firsthand in Oregon in 2021. “I wanted to examine how we could use data and economics to change this perception.”

Jose, under the advisement of Jun Zhuang, Morton C. Frank Professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, used game theory, the mathematical study of interdependent decision-making, to make an economical case for prescribed fires. 

“It's essentially a way to study decisions between players when both of their decisions affect each other's outcomes,” Jose says. “If the government changes prescribed fire laws, that's going to cause people to conduct more prescribed fires and reduce wildfires, which will reduce the economic losses for the government.”

According to the National Interagency Coordination Center, the annual cost of suppressing wildfires in a state with a prescribed fire program is less than 1% of the cost of suppressing wildfires in a state without a prescribed fire program.

But Jose also wanted her research to detail how the government should actually go about expanding prescribed fires. 

“It's kind of like a yoga instructor telling you to just breathe more or not fall down. You say, ‘Yeah, but how exactly?’” Jose says.

She concluded the government should grow the number of “burn bosses,” the certified experts who conduct prescribed fires. This can be done by investing in their training and education, as well as reducing their liability when prescribed fires burn out of control. Some states only hold burn bosses responsible if they show gross negligence. 

The government should also invest money into educating the public about the benefits of prescribed fires, Jose argues. That could help the public understand the relative low probability of a prescribed fire getting out of control, or that it’s worth tolerating smoke from prescribed fire because it will prevent more harmful smoke generated by wildfires. 

Jose hopes her research can help prescribed fire advocates make a convincing argument to lawmakers.

“A prescribed burn expert will tell the government we need to do more prescribed burns, but the government will still ask why,” she says. “My goal is to be able to say, ‘Because you will save billions of dollars if you do.’”

Although Jose has since changed her dissertation topic to reflect her current Air Force-backed research relating to satellite surveillance, she still wants to do prescribed fire research in the future. The topic remains important to her amid fears that climate change is exacerbating wildfires. 

She’s currently working on a paper about how machine learning and data can identify systemic ways to reduce crimes against women in developing countries

“I want to do research that doesn’t necessarily have a lot of funding, but you somehow find the intersection of funding and social good,” Jose says.

Empathy is a key motivator for Jose’s research. It’s what she received when she first arrived at UB as a 17-year-old undergraduate from Chennai, India. While she found it difficult adjusting to cultural differences and cold weather, Jose says her classmates, professors and church community made her feel welcome. 

“They were super empathetic and wanted to listen to me and where I'm from and why I do things the way I do, which was super helpful,” she says.

And Jose says UB has made her more empathetic: The diversity of cultures and backgrounds on campus leads to a deeper understanding of people. 

“Anyone you want to meet, you can meet at UB,” Jose says. “There's so many chances to grow as a person and broaden your empathy.”