Faculty Spotlight | Hong Wan

In the sport of boxing, there is a saying that goes, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Thankfully for ISE associate professor Hong Wan, she metaphorically experienced a moment like that when she suddenly changed her entire career plans in grad school. With a good job offer in hand, Wan decided to pursue her Ph.D. based on advice from an advisor. “He thought I was good at research and encouraged me to get a Ph.D.,” recalled Wan. “He persuaded me that even for industry, getting a Ph.D. would give me more freedom.” Then in the last year of earning her doctorate, she would face another “punch” that would transform her career.

But let’s rewind the clock to 1998 and join Wan as she finished her undergraduate chemistry degree (minor in economics) at Peking University and explored her options for grad school. “I wanted to do something with more industry connections,” she remembered. “My planned career path was to join a promising company and eventually go for management positions. Part of that plan included getting an MBA in her 30s. She also saw herself traveling the world.

But at that time, the Chinese education system was quite different from the US, and she wanted to experience life in the United States. “I also wanted to do something more math-related compared to the pure bench work involved in organic chemistry,” shared Wan. She received full scholarship offers from several excellent universities and knew it would be a great experience.

She selected Northwestern University and earned her MS in Material Science. In 2002, as she wrapped up her second master’s (Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences) and prepared to head out into the working world, she had that career-changing talk with her advisor. She remained at Northwestern and was well on her way to earning her Ph.D. when she made another career-changing decision. Wan realized the benefits of an academic job: autonomy and flexibility, and never looked back.

Before joining the NC State ISE faculty, she was an associate professor in the School of Industrial Engineering at Purdue University. She also directed the Purdue Blockchain Lab, co-directed the Smart Design Lab and was part of the SEED Center for Data Farming at the Naval Postgraduate School. Although Wan enjoyed her life at Purdue, she missed city life. “My husband was a software engineer, and there are limited on-site opportunities in West Lafayette, Indiana,” said Wan. She chose NC State because of its beautiful location and excellent faculty. “I also had a good interview experience and enjoyed talking with the students and faculty there,” said Wan.

Today, her research focuses on distribution systems and learning-based simulation. More specifically, she works on blockchain, not the technology itself, but the agents’ optimal strategies and behaviors in a decentralized network. Wan and her students are also interested in how recent developments in generative models can help in simulation. Their preliminary work will be presented in December at the 2023 Winter Simulation Conference in San Antonio, Texas.

Although it seems that her decisions have worked out quite well, When it comes to making plans and “getting punched in the mouth,” Wan offers this advice: “Do not have two sons that are close in age.” It sounds like some of those punches might be more literal than metaphorical. Good luck, Hong Wan.