Faculty Profile: Stephen Roberts

Meet Stephen Roberts, A. Doug Allison Distinguished Professor in the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering

Math, science and the Space Race played their part in an Indiana boy’s decision to pursue a career in engineering. Because of his enjoyment of math and science, a high school teacher encouraged Stephen Roberts to pursue engineering. “I didn’t have anyone technical in my family,” remarked Dr. Roberts. “My father was a minister and my mother was a nurse.” At that time, Russia had just launched Sputnick into space beginning the race to the moon between Russia and the United States. These events further fueled Roberts’s interest in math and science. So like most Indiana teenagers with an interest in engineering, he enrolled at Purdue University.

Roberts entered college with the false assumption that he would get his engineering degree and then decide what type of engineer he would become. Fortunately, all engineering students took the same classes their freshman year. But at the end of his freshman year, it came time to decide on a specific major. So he spent the summer reading the course catalog and discovered that industrial engineering caught his interest. “I had an interest in rockets and electricity,” said Dr. Roberts. “But I didn’t think they would hold my interest long term.” He enrolled in the industrial engineering program and not only received his bachelor’s degree at Purdue, but his master’s and doctorate as well.

After graduation Dr. Roberts took a position at the University of Florida. After a year in Florida, a colleague asked Dr. Roberts if he would work with him at the University’s health center. “After only a year, the guy quit and I became the director of health center,” said Dr. Roberts. “That is how I got my start in healthcare.”

Two years later, Purdue University and Indiana University’s School of Medicine started a health clinic. So they recruited Dr. Roberts to become the director of the Health Systems Research Group at the Regenstrief Institute for Health Care. He would remain there for 15 years. But when the last of his four children graduated from high school, Dr. Roberts and his wife decided it was time to move somewhere warm. “Florida was too warm for my wife and Indiana was too cold for me,” joked Dr. Roberts.

The prefect solution presented itself when NC State invited Dr. Roberts to Raleigh for the ISE Department Head job in 1990. But more than the climate it was the people that attracted him the most. “I didn’t meet anyone I didn’t like. I think that is an unusual experience. Everyone I talked to in the Provost’s office, the Dean’s office and especially the department, I liked.” In 1999, Roberts stepped down as department head and resumed teaching.

Let’s fast forward to 2010 and the start of the Health Systems Engineering Certificate Program in the ISE Department. “I thought that if we were going to have a health care interest in the department, then we shouldn’t confine ourselves to research,” commented Dr. Roberts. “There should be an educational component as well. So we could create an option in the undergraduate program or come up with something different. We came up with the certificate program.” This allowed students to gain exposure to the health care industry and its problems without changing their curriculum. They only had to add one new course, Healthcare Performance and Improvement, and complete their senior design project with a health care provider.

Today Dr. Roberts wants to spend more time traveling. He and his wife have already traveled to places like China, Japan, Canada, Hawaii, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. “The new Hobbit movie is coming out soon and I have been to Hobbiton. I have been to Hobbiton in New Zealand,” laughed Dr. Roberts.