BGSU Magazine Spring 2012
Supply-chain expert goes to war against malaria
Dr. Hokey Min says he’ll always remember the afternoon when he received an urgent, long-distance phone call from Switzerland.
The trans-Atlantic call had been placed by an official on behalf of a group of medical doctors and pharmacists at the headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva — and he wanted Min’s help in a matter of life and death.
While Min listened carefully, the WHO official and doctors explained that they were leading an international task force in the battle against malaria — a virulent, infectious disease that kills more than 1.1 million people, mostly women and children, in Sub- Saharan Africa each year.
A father himself, Min was “deeply touched” by this plea. He immediately wanted to help. But the professor in BGSU’s Department of Management was an expert on “supply-chain/ logistics,” and malaria was a medical problem, wasn’t it?
Not really. Imagine Min’s surprise when a WHO epidemiologist pointed out that saving African children from malaria was primarily a logistical challenge, requiring deep knowledge about global supply chains.
“I was shocked,” the 57-year-old Min recalled. “As it turned out, preventing and treating malaria is actually a relatively simple problem in purely medical terms. As study after study has shown, tens of thousands of African lives could be saved each year simply by distributing bed nets (to protect individuals against malaria-spreading mosquitoes) and easily available anti-malarial drugs.
“It sounds manageable, at first,” he said. “But there are huge issues involved in getting the bed nets and the medicines to those who need them most — those in remote areas where supply-chain systems are notoriously unreliable and inefficient.”
Plagued by poor roads and ineffective transportation systems in many areas, along with endless bureaucratic delays, Sub-Saharan Africa presents “an enormously difficult challenge” for malaria fighters.
What WHO needed was a specialist like Min — an internationally recognized expert on solving complex supply-chain/logistics problems for corporations and large nonprofit organizations — who could figure out how to get these vital medical drugs and supplies to the people who needed them most, and quickly.
Min, who was then teaching at the University of Louisville (he joined the BGSU College of Business in 2006), didn’t hesitate. Within a few weeks of that urgent 2001 phone call, he was aboard a jetliner headed for Switzerland and a small forum aimed at attacking the African anti-malarial drug distribution problems in depth.
“How could I say no?” Min recalled after more than 10 years of working on the problem. One pivotal result of these efforts is a recently published “African pharmaceutical supply-chain map” designed to help remove the malaria drug distribution bottleneck. “As a business professor and a researcher in supply-chain/logistics management, I often find myself working on problems related to helping companies earn higher profits.
“But this challenge was different,” said Min, a native of South Korea who first came to this country in 1980. “In this situation, thousands of lives were on the line, and I soon became very passionate about trying to solve some of these distribution problems in Africa.”
The results speak for themselves. Min’s study (“Mapping the Supply Chain of Anti-Malarial Drugs in Sub-Saharan African Countries”) was recently published in International Journal of Logistics Systems and Management.
His article contained a series of recommendations designed to move anti-malarial drugs much more quickly and efficiently to the places where they’re needed most.
For Min, who has published more than 140 journal articles on supply-chain/logistics management in a teaching-research career full of academic honors, the Literati Award was a personally satisfying acknowledgement of the thousands of hours he’s devoted to the malaria project in recent years.
Born and raised in Seoul (“Hokey” means “a bright spot” in transliterated Korean), Min said he first became interested in logistics while watching his father struggle to manage a failing trucking company in South Korea. An excellent student, he won an opportunity to study business in the United States, and since arriving, he’s taught and conducted research at half a dozen colleges and universities.
“I’ve worked on many different projects over the course of my career,” said the amiable BGSU professor, whose musician wife, Christine, is also a part-time BGSU student, “but none gave me as much satisfaction as the malaria project.
“Creating that supply map was a wonderfully challenging task for a researcher — but the real payoff came from knowing the world now has another of the tools it needs to fight malaria and other infectious diseases.”