Zelda Zabinsky

Professor Zelda Zabinsky
Industrial and Systems Engineering
Interview Date: 
Mon, 06/09/2014

Dr. Zelda Zabinsky is a Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering. She received her PhD from the University of Michigan in Industrial and Operations Engineering. Her research interests include optimization algorithms and stochastic models, as well as applications of optimization in transportation and engineering design. Dr. Zabinsky and other team members developed an optimization software that Boeing used for its preliminary design of the 787 Dreamliner and is continuing to use and revise. Dr. Zabinsky has also published a book, Stochastic Adaptive Search in Global Optimization.

What is one reason that Dr. Zabinsky loves her field of operations research? “It’s the perfect blend of theory and applied work. One day you can be on a factory floor and the next day you can have your head in the clouds thinking about theorems and proofs.”

In an interview with UW ADVANCE, Dr. Zabinsky discusses her current research and shares about her history at UW:

Q&A: Current research and gender in engineering

Q: What are you currently working on?

A: One project that I am currently working on is operations research modeling and optimization for health care systems. I am working on the operational side of health care, on how to make the health care system more efficient. Looking from the systems point of view, how are the demand and resources flowing through the system? How do we make it more efficient and maintain a high quality of care? On the theoretical side, my group has been developing algorithms for multiple objective optimization. Usually in optimization, the traditional algorithms have a single objective, but it’s clear to me that in practice decision makers have multiple objectives that they need to meet. For example, how do you minimize cost and time to produce something? You can think about overnight delivery versus 10-day delivery, for example. You can go cheap, in which case the delivery takes a long time, or you can go fast, in which case it’s expensive. Or there are a lot of intermediate points. A little cheaper, a little slower. How do you understand these trade-offs in the decision-making process? When you have a complex system, understanding these relationships between different objectives is not easy. We need new computer algorithms to help.

Q: How has your gender played a role in your career?

A: When I started at UW as an assistant professor, I was the sixth female faculty to be hired in the College of Engineering. I have two children and I was the first woman in engineering to ask for maternity leave. The College of Engineering didn’t know what to do with me! Also, when I started my faculty position the Mechanical Engineering Building didn’t have a women’s bathroom on the same floor as my office, so a unisex bathroom was installed.  

In general, I hope I have been a good role model for women. I hope other women say, “Zelda had two kids and she is a full professor, so I can do the same thing.” The good thing about academia is the flexibility. When my kids were little I could pop out of work, pick them up from events, and work from home. My schedule was much more flexible than if I had worked in a traditional industry position. It would have made it much more difficult to juggle work and family.