Engineering alumnus serves through military and research

Miranda Buckheit
November 13, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — After two tours in Iraq, Eric Swenson wanted a break from combat. He decided that he wanted to teach industrial engineering, and he knew that he needed his master’s degree. 

"I am from Churchville, Pennsylvania, and most of my family went to Penn State," said Swenson, who earned his bachelor’s degree in systems engineering from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1998. "We had two young kids at the time, so I wanted to be close to home.”

Man dressed in a military suit stands on a concrete porch with his wife and three young daughters.

Penn State alumnus Eric Swenson, back row, and his family. Swenson comes from a military background: His great-uncle graduated from West Point in 1938 and retired as a brigadier general in the Air Force, and his father was in the Army Reserves. His oldest daughter is a freshman at West Point.

IMAGE: Eric Swenson

Swenson looked to Penn State and the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering (IME). At the time, the department offered a master of science program, in addition to its doctoral program. Recently, IME added an online master of engineering to its graduate portfolio.

“The department's graduate program ranks in the top ten, and it is veteran- and military-student friendly,” he said. “I found that appealing.” 

Swenson graduated in 2008 with a master of science degree in operations research and industrial engineering. After graduation, he continued serving and teaching in the military and was deployed to Afghanistan from 2011 until 2012. But he wasn’t finished as a Penn State engineering student.

After a six-year hiatus, Swenson returned to campus in 2014 to pursue a doctorate, also in operations research and industrial engineering. He earned his doctorate in 2017.

"Some people in my profession feel that I took a big risk, but I feel that my advanced degrees helped me become a better leader,” Swenson said. “My degrees will continue to help me lead change in the U.S. Army." 

M. Jeya Chandra, professor emeritus of industrial engineering and former graduate program coordinator, noted that Swenson was a student with an impressive list of accomplishments. Chandra worked with Swenson during his master's degree.  

"I was fascinated by his academic achievements, as well as his dedication to serving in the United States Army, even after completing his doctorate," Chandra said. "Swenson has a unique ability to do independent research, but he is committed to serving the nation. His loyalty is highly commendable, and I think that all the U.S. citizens should appreciate this." 

From State College to Hershey: A hospital operations research journey

As a graduate student at Penn State, Swenson focused on research applications for operations research and health care engineering. During his master's education, Swenson was introduced to the Penn State Hershey Medical Center, which set him on a path for an illustrious partnership.

For roughly a year, Swenson worked with Dr. Chris DeFlitch, an emergency medicine physician at Hershey. Together, they developed a simulation model to evaluate different emergency department configurations, and whether a physician at the triage stage could improve patient flow and patient satisfaction.

By using the simulation, the team showed that they could reduce wait times and the number of patients leaving untreated. The following year, the hospital used the data to redesign its emergency department.

"When I returned for my doctorate, I took a health systems engineering class that rekindled my ties to Hershey Medical Center,” Swenson said. “This time, I worked with Maria Hamilton, the director of quality; Dr. Kevin Black, the chair of the orthopedic department; and Dr. Charles Davis, the chief of arthroplasty surgery."

The team met at the Hershey Medical Center in January 2015 and agreed to work together for a year on a project to improve quality and efficiency in total joint replacement. Their work is still underway more than four years later.

The team has reduced the length of stays, increased discharges home versus discharge to a nursing facility, reduced readmission, and cut the hospital cost per surgery. In addition, the team lessened the amount of time a patient spends in a hospital bed.

“Getting otherwise healthy patients back home to their families and informal care providers can help their recovery and relieves hospital beds for other patients to use," Swenson said. “I like to tackle problems using a team approach.”

Looking ahead

Swenson is still serving in the military. He recently was promoted to the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army. Formerly, Swenson served as company commander of the 70th Engineer Battalion, assistant operations officer in the 18th Engineer Brigade, executive officer in the 54th Engineer Battalion, and battalion commander in the 1-345 Brigade Engineer Battalion.

He's also a graduate student again, now at the Army War College, studying strategic leadership; war, policy and national security; military campaigning; and defense management.  

Swenson's current military research centers on the policy implications of free education for the viability of the all-volunteer force. He is also interested in studying the impact of military health care spending on readiness. He noted that health care costs continue to rise across the nation, and the U.S. Army is not immune.

He explained that as health care costs increase, the expenses consume a more substantial portion of the operating budget, which means that there is less money to spend on readiness, force modernization and training.

"My experiences at Penn State taught me that process improvement can reduce cost without sacrificing quality," Swenson said. "In many cases, process improvement can enhance quality outcomes."

Swenson noted that the future of industrial engineering is bright, and he believes that new challenges are on the horizon, such as how population growth can create an unprecedented demand for the efficient usage of resources. Notably, the global shortage of health care providers creates stress for health care services.  

"Technology is changing faster than ever before, and we cannot predict what technology will look like a decade from now," Swenson said. "Industrial engineers will be tested on their ability to understand complex problems and help develop solutions that meet or exceed expectations. Those who fail to adapt and lead change will be consumed by those who do."

The alumni spotlight series from the Penn State Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering highlights innovators, makers and those that personify engineering excellence in industry and academia. Established in 1908, the department has graduated over 8,000 industrial engineers who can be found all across the world in varying industries. The department, home to the first industrial engineering program in the world, made a name for itself in the engineering industry through its storied tradition of unparalleled excellence and innovation in research, education and outreach. To learn more about the department and how to get involved, visit ime.psu.edu.

 

  • Saluting military man, dressed in uniform, stands in large room with group of soldiers in line behind him.

    "I love to solve problems or at least better understand problems," said Eric Swenson on his favorite aspect of his career. "The higher I go in the United States Army, the more I recognize that some problems are so complex and ill-structured that there may not be an optimal solution. I also think that leading and developing soldiers is the most rewarding work I have ever done."

    IMAGE: Eric Swenson

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Last Updated November 13, 2019