Industrial engineering alumna uses education as toolkit to solve societal issues

Miranda Buckheit
February 10, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It’s a tale as old as time: undergraduate students who switch their majors because they aren't satiated with their first choice.  

For Gretchen Macht, Penn State industrial engineering alumna, finding a major wasn't easy until her eye-opening conversation with Elena Joshi, the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering (IME) undergraduate coordinator.

"I met with Mrs. Joshi as I was entering my junior year," Macht said. "She wanted to know what I cared about, so she asked me what matters in a stapler. I talked about quality, efficiency, improvement and waste. She looked at me and said, ‘you're already an industrial engineer; welcome to the program.'"

That meeting was only the beginning — Macht soon realized that industrial engineering was not only a natural fit, but also her passion. After earning her bachelor's degree in 2007, Macht went on to earn her master's degree in 2009 and her doctorate in 2014, all from Penn State’s industrial engineering program. 

Macht, an assistant professor with the Mechanical, Industrial and Systems Engineering Department at the University of Rhode Island, explained how her industrial engineering education profoundly impacted her career. 

"As a student, you're so hung up on grades and on getting a job that I think everyone just needs to step back and realize just how amazing this opportunity is," Macht said. "The education surrounding critical thinking can change the world if you stop and absorb it. I loved every opportunity I had at Penn State."

Current work

Macht classifies herself as a computational, community ergonomist because of her interest in how people work. Macht said she enjoys seeing things though the "human lens," such as how people perceive things, how they work and how they use tools.

In her Sustainable Innovative Solutions (SIS) Lab, Macht’s research projects range from electric vehicles, solar power and team function to communication, sustainability and voting.

"My interests seem all over the place, but to me, it's this common thread of the great applicability of operations research tools, algorithms and simulation," Macht said. "You can take these tools and look at human perspectives to ask: How do users use this? What is the user experience? Do people even want this? I think this is a magical place to live mentally, and I've loved every second of it."

Thanks to Macht's work, Rhode Island is looking forward to a successful voting season for the 59th presidential election in 2020.

The 2016 presidential election brought on a host of issues for the state in the Warwick, North Kingstown, Providence and Pawtucket areas. There were significant delays and problems for voters, as some people waited in line for three to five hours in order to vote. Long wait times proved troublesome for the state, as it is the second-most densely populated in the country.    

After the calamity, Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea created a task force designed to analyze voter feedback and provide best practices. 

"The way I got started on this was quite serendipitous," Macht said. "The Secretary of State took a course in graduate school on operations research, so she knew that it existed but didn't know where we [researchers] existed. The dean of my college asked if I was able to help, and I was more than happy to — it's my job. My Penn State education gave me a toolkit that prepares me to walk into any situation and be ready to help."

Working with the Department of State and the Rhode Island Board of Elections, Macht applied her industrial engineering skillset to help make voting in the state as seamless as possible through the simulation of voting queues and facilities layout planning.

According to Macht, the 2018 midterm elections saw record turnout, nearly 50%, in the state with minimal voting lines. She explained that it was the highest midterm turnout for Rhode Island since almost 2013.

Macht is continuing her collaboration with the Department of State for the upcoming 2020 presidential election. Macht is funded to expand her tools for other election administrators nationally in the hopes of improving others’ voting processes.

Four women sit on a rooftop with the Penn State Nittany Lion Logo painted on the window behind them. Also on the window are the paintings of the 2005 football schedule and final scores.

Gretchen Macht, second from right, struggled to pick her undergraduate major but fell in love with industrial engineering at Penn State.

IMAGE: Gretchen Macht

How IME helped Macht achieve her goals

Macht noted that her education taught her to listen first and talk later. She explained that during her undergraduate capstone project, she was tasked with improving processes for a metal casting company in York, Pennsylvania.

"You have two ears and one mouth," Macht said. "I was young, enthusiastic and wanted to go in there and change the world. You're going to create solutions and fix their issues. You need to slow down and listen to what the client needs."

During her graduate education, Macht held various teaching assistant positions. She felt that these experiences were vital and intellectually challenging. 

Macht also worked on many research projects during her graduate career in the department. In particular, one study was in partnership with the Department of Architectural Engineering. Macht wanted to better understand how personalities and teamwork in the construction industry can impact productivity in the workplace. 

Macht partnered with various construction management faculty, most notably John Messner, Charles and Elinor Matts Professor of Architectural Engineering, and Robert Leicht, associate professor of architectural engineering. 

Within IME, Macht noted working with Robert Voigt, professor and graduate program coordinator; Ling Rothrock, professor and interim department head; Vittal Prabhu, professor and Charles and Enid Schneider Faculty Chair in Service Enterprise Engineering; and Soundar Kumara, Allen E. Pearce and Allen M. Pearce Professor of Industrial Engineering. 

"I am proud and not surprised by Gretchen's accomplishments with the Board of Elections in Rhode Island," Rothrock said. "Since working with her during her graduate career to understand the impact of personality on teamwork, I have an appreciation of her passion and capabilities to improve human work."

Additionally, Macht shared that during her time as an industrial engineering student, the IME faculty made her feel like she was at home. Macht said that the department's personal touch and family environment made the Penn State University Park campus feel even closer. 

"These people had a profound impact on my career, and so I put all of them together and try to be like them every day," Macht said. "I couldn't be more thankful for where I grew up as an educator and researcher."

The alumni spotlight series from the Penn State Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering (IME) 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 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 IME and how to get involved, visit ime.psu.edu.

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Last Updated February 17, 2020