Feeding Others, Nourishing Self

Ben Morrow is a self-described nontraditional student. Some of his peers in the classroom might have mistaken him for the professor at one time or another, but he doesn’t mind. He is glad to be back on campus, and glad to have discovered such a meaningful purpose for this stage in his life.

Ben Morrow CroppedMorrow completed his undergraduate work in Industrial and Systems Engineering at N.C. A&T in the 1990s. He enjoyed a vibrant, 24-year career at IBM during which time he completed his master’s degree at NC State. After a stint with computer manufacturer Lenovo, Morrow elected to hang-up his private industry hat in 2016 and begin a self-discovery process to discern next steps.

Morrow crossed paths with Dr. Sanjiv Sarin, one of Morrow’s former professors, and the current Interim Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development at A&T. Sarin has been at N.C. A&T for 35 years, and prior to his current appointment, he served as the Dean of the Graduate College and Vice Provost for Research, Graduate Programs and Extended Learning. It was during this period of time when he and Morrow reconnected.

As Morrow was exploring different ways he could “give back” in this post-industry stage of his career, Sarin suggested he consider pursuing a doctoral degree and enter the teaching field. “The thought had not occurred to me,” admits Morrow, “But since our first acquaintance decades ago, Dr. Sarin has always seen things in me I couldn’t see, and pushed me to consider unusual paths. I decided to pursue it, figuring if there were other signs along the way that supported this option, I would have my answer.”

Ben Morrow had not only Dr. Sarin’s support, but received evidence of the university’s support as well. Morrow was selected into the Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellows Program, dedicated to advancing African American doctoral leadership. The fellowship, funded through a Title III HBGI grant from the U.S. Department of Education, is awarded competitively to native Black American students pursuing Ph.D. degrees in engineering, and consists of a stipend plus tuition, fees, and health insurance benefits. This support enabled Morrow to return to the classroom and eventually, the laboratory.

After enrolling for the second time at N.C. A&T, Morrow set out to choose an area of research within the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering’s doctoral program. Seeking to build off of his ongoing involvement with Greensboro Urban Ministry, Morrow was drawn to a project studying food aid supply chains using big data analytics. Principal Investigator Dr. Lauren Davis and her cross-disciplinary team is two years into a five-year, $3 million grant through the National Science Foundation’s Research Traineeship (NRT) Program. The NRT grant, of which PhD student Ben Morrow is now a part, supports food insecurity research in a project called Improving Strategies for Hunger Relief and Food Security Using Computational Data Science.

Food insecurity occurs when individuals have limited access to safe and nutritious food. To address this issue, humanitarian organizations work collaboratively with government and the private sector, relying on uncertain sources of supply, responding to uneven and variable needs, and making decisions regarding scarce resources. During this process, data is generated on a massive scale concerning food supply, distribution and need. Dr. Davis and her students, including Morrow, are working to develop an innovative, interdisciplinary training model in data science to help organizations better analyze their efforts and improve the provision of food aid at the local, state, and federal level.

Morrow is specifically interesting in the efficiency contrast between “traditional” and “client-choice” food pantries. Traditional food pantries provide clients pre-selected foods from available food inventory.  Historically, traditional food pantries have experienced overstocking of certain foods, which in turn contributes to increased food waste and negative psychological effects on clients.  On the other hand, client-choice food pantries operate like grocery stores; they allow clients to choose which foods they will take home. Morrow expects his research will chow that client-choice food pantries probably experience less overstocking, reduced food waste, and a positive psychological boosts for clients. Morrow hopes the ability to model and predict food waste will enable communities to evaluate the merits of a client-based food pantry versus a traditional food pantry easing their transition should they decide to change.

Morrow married his high school sweetheart and has two grown children and 4 grandchildren. Now that the kids are out of the house, he has time to consider a new career. Asked about whether he saw additional classroom time and possible teaching in his future, Morrow concedes he is not surprised by how things are turning out. “My career in industry prepared me for this moment. There are parallels between the private and nonprofit sectors when you have goals of efficiency, cost control and inventory management. Now, I get to use this second chapter in my career to work towards solutions that really help people.”