Omar Ashour, Associate Professor of Industrial Engineering, Awarded College's First Early Career Professorship

When Dr. Omar Ashour graduated from high school, he was accepted into both medical and engineering schools. But which to choose?

Ashour’s grandmother counseled him to pick medicine. “I remember her saying that it was much better to save lives than to sell detergent, which is what her perception of industrial engineering was.”

Instead, Ashour chose engineering—“I was always more interested in solving problems and looking at the big picture of systems than in memorizing medical terms,” he said. Yet the assistant professor of industrial engineering at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, still saves lives, by researching ways to improve health care systems. In these complex structures, poor performance leads at best to patient dissatisfaction and at worst to inflated costs, medical errors, or death.

The potential benefit to society of Ashour’s work was one of the factors that led to him receiving the college’s first professorship to support young faculty, the William and Wendy Korb Early Career Professorship in Industrial Engineering. Funded in 2014 with a $1 million gift from William B. Korb ’62 and his wife, Wendy ’63, the professorship is designed to attract and support talented industrial engineering faculty at the start of their academic careers. The Korbs created three rotating professorships that also support faculty within the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at Penn State’s University Park campus.

An Erie native and East High School graduate, William Korb attended Penn State Behrend for two years before graduating from the University Park campus with a degree in industrial engineering; the couple’s son, David, earned a degree in management information systems at Penn State Behrend in 1987. William is the retired president and CEO of Marconi Commerce Systems, whose largest division, Gilbarco, is the world’s leading supplier of fuel dispensers, credit card readers, and point-of-sale devices for gasoline stations.

In addition to their new professorships, the Korbs previously created the William and Wendy Korb Scholarship in Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, the Korb Family Trustee Scholarship in Engineering at Penn State Behrend and the William B. Korb Family Endowment for Emerging Opportunities in Industrial Engineering. “It’s all about education,” William Korb said of their gifts to benefit Behrend engineering faculty and students. “We’ve reaped the benefits of the Penn State degree, so this is our way of giving back.”

The Korb Early Career Professorship provides young faculty with seed money for innovative research projects and flexible funding to encourage new approaches to teaching. “I’m really very honored and humbled,” said Ashour, who joined the Behrend faculty in 2013 to help launch the college’s bachelor’s degree program in Industrial Engineering. “This is going to help me involve more undergraduates in my research. I plan to purchase virtual-reality equipment to use for discrete event simulation, which helps students to understand manufacturing and health care system behavior under various conditions, because virtual reality creates sensory experiences where students ‘see’ the effects of changes on system outputs. I also plan to purchase motion-capture equipment so that students can study the effects of postures and motion on the human body. I expect these pieces of equipment to have multiple uses in research and in the classroom.”

Ashour will supervise four undergraduate industrial engineering student researchers this fall, all looking for ways to improve processes at an Erie-area hospital. Two students will analyze patient flow within an outpatient unit, finding waste in the form of unnecessary steps or delays. One will attempt to refine scheduling of operating rooms in ways that improve block utilization and boost patient and surgeon satisfaction, and a fourth will assess patient-handling and transfer techniques using digital human modeling in an effort to improve safety and reduce injury to hospital employees.

“We are thankful to Bill and Wendy Korb for establishing the first early career professorship in Behrend’s School of Engineering,” Chancellor Ralph M. Ford said of the gift. “Their generosity will help us to attract and retain talented faculty such as Dr. Ashour and reward them for pursuing meaningful research that engages our students and improves our community.”