Hardship is Humbling: How the Winding Career of a Professor Gives Focus for Industrial Engineering Students and the Future of Health Care

A Profile of UB Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering, Li Lin

Li Lin with CGHE Leads.

Dr. Li Lin with the co-leads for the Community for Global Health Equity. 

By Jessica Scates

Published February 26, 2018

China’s Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) brought chaos to every aspect of life in the country. In particular, educational opportunities for youth essentially came to a grinding halt. 

Dr. Lin.

Dr. Li Lin
Professor, Industrial and Systems Engineering
Co-lead, Community for Global Health Equity

His training and skills equip him with a lens that benefits many different types of organizations, and his character and personality – his attention to detail, passion for hard work, and curiosity – contribute to his success.

In 1968, Mao Zedong announced that “educated youth” must be “re-educated” by poor peasants to rid them of their bourgeoisie upbringing. Over 17 million middle- and high-school students across the country were forced to leave their homes in cities to work in the countryside. Dr. Li Lin, UB professor of industrial and systems engineering was one of those youth. At the age of 16 he was sent to begin hard labor in remote leech-infested rice patties and rubber plantations in southwest China, near the Burmese border. Separated from his family thousands of miles away, he had no hope that life would ever change. However, after four years the strict policy started to loosen and Dr. Lin was reunited with his family in the capital city, Beijing. He worked for four years as an auto mechanic, a job that instilled a curiosity for mechanical and operational processes. Having never attended high school, he supplemented his meager education through self-study of every subject and successfully passed the college entrance exam in 1977, the very first of such exam after an 11-year lapse.   

After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in engineering, Dr. Lin completed his graduate studies at Arizona State University where he received his M.S. and Ph.D. in industrial engineering. Now, a faculty co-lead for the Community for Global Health Equity and professor of industrial and systems engineering, Dr. Lin has served the University at Buffalo for nearly 30 years. His work – improving cost, quality, and efficiencies for industries around the country – has spanned the manufacturing industry to health systems to more recently, improving health and wellbeing for refugee communities in Buffalo. His training and skills equip him with a lens that benefits many different types of organizations, and his character and personality – his attention to detail, passion for hard work, and curiosity – contribute to his success.

Dr. Lin began his research career in the manufacturing industry working with automotive, electronic, optical, aerospace, food services, chemical, textile, and many other companies in Buffalo and around the United States. However, as the global economy demanded low labor cost in the 90s, the U.S. manufacturing industry began to move their production overseas. At this time, Dr. Lin recognized the significant challenges of the nation’s health care system, and shifted his focus to health care, an industry that desperately needed industrial engineers.

Dr. Lin soon realized that a hospital floor and a shop floor have much in common; the manufacturing process employs machines that create better products while the hospital floor employs doctors that improve patient health. Both systems needed operational solutions that could reduce costs, improve quality, and increase efficiencies. Health systems solutions, however, needed to account and measure for human behavior – doctors and patients have feelings and needs that when unmet, contribute to system breakdown due to inadequate training, incorrect work procedures, lack of motivation, poor tracking mechanisms, changing staff, or lack of communication.

Dr. Lin’s attention to detail, passion for hard work, and curiosity are characteristics he tries to instill in his students. While big firms develop multi-million dollar IT solutions to improve system operations, Dr. Lin suggests that time and relationships contribute the most to a successful project – regardless of its cost. For example, the collection of baseline data, the first step to understanding system inefficiencies, takes many hours of observation, analysis, and effective communication and collaboration with medical professionals and hospital executives. The initial investment of time provides his team with a clearer understanding of system inefficiencies and results in employee expertise and project sustainability.

On a long and winding road that has almost come full circle, Dr. Lin is now investing his expertise and time with a population he grew to know as a 16 year old laboring in southwest China – Buffalo’s Burmese refugee families. He and his team currently collaborate with clinicians, service providers, and refugees to improve care quality and clinic efficiency by empowering patients with important health knowledge. Their team is conducting clinic observations and developing a health literacy mobile app that provides patients with health information in their languages. His community partners impress him with their passion and hard work, characteristics he has upheld from the rice-patties of China to the Great Lakes lowlands of Western New York.

Find out more about Dr. Lin’s project to improve health and wellbeing for Buffalo’s refugee populations.