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Creating formulas for the future

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Mathematics professor Dr. Mike McAsey and economics professor Dr. Jannett Highfill meet twice a week to brainstorm and work on mathematical models.

By Erin Miller and Jacqueline Kelly

An economics professor and a mathematics professor have spent more than 25 years collaborating to develop analytical models that one day can be used to solve a variety of real-world problems.

When you put a soda can in your home recycling bin, you probably don’t think about how it is reprocessed or who pays for it to be recycled. Who decides how much trash to recycle, as compared to landfilling or incinerating?

Questions like these motivated economics professor Dr. Jannett Highfill and mathematics professor Dr. Mike McAsey to begin studying noncommercial recycling in the early 1990s. At that time the only way to recycle soda cans was for individuals to take them to a commercial recycler. So the professors began creating and analyzing mathematical models for the optimal design of municipal recycling programs.

Does a recycling program that makes sense in Peoria work as well for Chicago? “Not hardly,” Dr. McAsey says. “Geographical footprint and per capita income turn out to matter a lot.”

Watching the introduction and evolution of municipal recycling programs across the nation is interesting to Drs. Highfill and McAsey, but it’s not as though the city of Peoria or other communities have directly adopted their ideas. “We do basic research,” Dr. Highfill says. “We contribute a piece or two to a large puzzle. The idea is to provide a body of knowledge that the applied economists and urban planners who actually design recycling programs can use.”

Drs. McAsey and Highfill met when Dr. Highfill came to Bradley as an economics professor in 1985, and they’ve worked together designing mathematical models ever since.

“It took us four years just to learn to communicate with each other,” Dr. Highfill says.

Some scientists experiment in labs or by doing fieldwork. For Dr. Highfill and Dr. McAsey, however, experimenting means putting together a mathematical representation of what they’re interested in and seeing what the math reveals. Their exploration now consists of meeting twice a week, developing ideas, asking each other questions, brainstorming solutions and tinkering with the mathematical model.

“Some people think collaboration is ‘you do your homework, I’ll do mine, and then we bring it together,’” Dr. Highfill says. “Although we each do our homework, that isn’t our idea of real collaboration. That happens when we’re in the same room at the same time. Neither of us could do this work individually. We couldn’t do what we do without collaborating.”

Dr. Highfill and Dr. McAsey currently are investigating the research and development strategies of businesses competing in world markets by focusing on product quality. They’re asking questions about whether a firm should outspend a competitor, or how fast it should ramp up research and development spending. While they talk informally to business professionals for modeling ideas, they are not focused on helping any specific business.

One source of their ideas was the conversations at Bradley concerning an engineering and business convergence initiative. Many faculty members and others were thinking about how engineers and economists might work together. Studying R&D business strategies is one part of that effort, Dr. Highfill says. The mathematics involved is called optimal control — a mixture of optimization and differential equations.

Economists can propose theories that may help engineers work more efficiently and cost-effectively. Engineers can then test those theories, find their strengths and weaknesses and send the economists back to the drawing board.

“We’d like to make a contribution to the larger world,” Dr. Highfill says. “Any given business needs to stick to its own knitting; it cannot attend too much to the wider economy. Since we are in academe instead of business, we can care about business success in the context of the entire economy.” 

Two students have worked with Dr. McAsey and Dr. Highfill as part of their senior theses projects, but the educational benefits extend to the professors as well. Dr. Highfill, for example, talks about the strategic R&D choices firms make in her Global Economics class. Additionally, research reminds the faculty members what it is like to be a learner.

“This is work where you don’t know the answer,” Dr. Highfill explains. “It’s really essential to the kind of teaching we do that we remember a time when we didn’t know the answer. You’re reminded of what you don’t know, how hard it is to learn technical subjects, and how long it takes.”

Dr. McAsey and Dr. Highfill consider their work successful if, eventually, other people — economists and laypeople alike — find it provocative or find they can build upon it. The goal is making people’s lives better, and the professors plan to continue working toward that goal.

“For now,” Dr. McAsey says, “we’re working on dynamic R&D games, and it’s a lot of fun.”