Day: February 15, 2010

Notes from Iraq

We had a chance to talk with Lt. Col. Otha Thornton via email and a 15-minute telephone call.

The former leader of the Army ROTC program, who also was our commencement speaker in May of 2009, is stationed in Iraq at Camp Victory in north Baghdad. He is helping facilitate the drawdown of troops, but his biggest and most challenging job is what he calls “casualty operations,” which involves taking care of the wounded and the deceased.

“Probably one of the toughest jobs I’ve had,” he says. “We track the fallen from the time they go down until they get to the US. To perform these duties–from the front of the spear–truly reinforces the gravity of our business.”

How is he treated by locals?

“Very well. I deal with both civilians and military. They’re appreciative of what we’re doing.”

The war is divisive on the home front. What’s the mood among the soldiers?

“The morale is pretty good. They’re highly disciplined. They understand why they’re here and what they’re doing. In the military, you pray for peace but prepare for war.”

Are you in harm’s way?


Are you scared?

“No. I believe when it’s a person’s time to go, it’s time to go. I wake up and take care of my profession for the day. Then the next day I get up and do it all over again.”

Is the American public well-informed or misinformed about the war?

“Generally pretty well informed. They realize that Iraq can be a regional model of democracy.”

Where is your family?

“My wife and son are in Maryland. I talk to them at least once a week. The technology to do that from the battlefield is wonderful.”

Do you miss Houghton?

“Oh, yeah. I’m coming home in April and I’ll be up to visit in the spring or fall. I’m counting the days.”

Over 20 years in the military, Thornton has served in 22 countries but never traveled far from his values. “I am extremely proud to be an American,” he says.

He was stationed at Michigan Tech from 1999 to 2002 and served as a recruiter, public affairs officer and assistant professor of military science. While here, he earned a master’s degree in rhetoric and technical communication. He received the Outstanding Alumni Award in 2003.

by John Gagnon, promotional writer
Published in Tech Today

Getting Rid of the Bad Stuff

MBA student Cynthia Hodur learned firsthand about getting rid of trans fats, those ubiquitous bad food particles. On a student team in Dana Johnson’s operations and quality management class, she researched and applied her knowledge to a local hospital project and got great results.

“Instead of reading about it, we actually did it in a real-world way that will help the community,” she says of her experience on behalf of Portage Health. The hospital was the first in the Upper Peninsula to go trans-fat free, with help from the Tech students.

Hodur appreciated the opportunity to tackle such a timely problem with her team’s two-pronged approach, especially since she works as a facilities and event coordinator at the Memorial Union.

“First, our research group focused on policy,” she says. “We looked at what had been done globally, with the United Nations, and then we researched further from there: federally, state, and at the organizational level.”

She says the American Heart Association’s trans-fat lawsuit with McDonald’s restaurants was important. In the suit, McDonald’s was supposed to change its oil, but it didn’t. She had inside knowledge there, having worked for the American Heart Association at the time.

“We were working with the schools then,” she says, “building on an existing program.”

That background information also helped her at Tech, where her second group–applying the information they’d gleaned–looked at recipes and various food products to get rid of the trans fats at Portage Health.

“We looked at everything from cookbooks to working with vendors to vending machines,” she says. “We found substitutes for cooking, like applesauce for oil, and for baking, where a substitute for shortening has been used successfully, for example.”

Along the way, she learned from her teammates.

“There was a variety of people, and we were paired by interests,” she says. “One of the women was a Six Sigma Greenbelt expert on flowcharts!” So, Hodur’s process-chart-producing expertise was accelerated.

And they weren’t all MBAs, said Johnson, an associate professor in the School of Business and Economics. They had graduate students from civil engineering, mechanical engineering and elsewhere. Focusing on the same goal, Johnson said, they would come at it from different angles.

Johnson also stressed the importance of “students working with a real, live project, instead of case studies, which become outdated very quickly.”

The project did indeed take a well-rounded approach to the problem. “The students looked at cost benefits, working with vendors Sysco and Reinhart, even Portage Point (the hospital’s long-term senior housing operation), and its food service customer relations,” she said.

They worked closely with Paul Skinner, director of Portage’s nutritional services, she said. He was important from a management perspective, and he was in charge of recipes.

“We looked at processes and procedures to make sure they are accurate,” Johnson said, noting that they even looked at the definition of “trans fat-free,” which can still include .49 grams of trans fats. Portage Health went below that measure, she said.

“The costs involved in going trans fat-free were not as significant as they thought,” she added.

She also sees potential for future work.

“We plan on helping them with their seating capacity at Portage Health,” she said. “We’ll be working with them as they expand their capacity, using a green perspective to identify environmentally friendly dinnerware.”

They also plan on looking at the recycling in the hospital to make it more cost effective and efficient, Johnson said.

“We’ll be looking at Styrofoam,” she said, “how it can work within a recycling system.”

This marks the fourth year for the class tackling problems for Portage Health, and she’s also placed three interns into the organization.

Hodur truly enjoys the graduate school experience, including the Portage Health project, and her position at the Memorial Union. She has her sights set on a future marketing position.

“My husband and I moved here because we love the area,” she said. “Working and taking classes at Michigan Tech have been a nice bonus.”

by Dennis Walikainen, senior editor
Published in Tech Today