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Meet our graduates | Virgil Smith, MS '21

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July 6, 2021. Interviewed by Linda Esquivel. Edited for length and clarity.

As part of MS&E's 2021 graduates podcast series, we chatted with Virgil Smith, a recent graduate of the master's program in Management Science and Engineering.

Virgil shares that his interest in engineering became apparent as an undergraduate in the United States Military Academy (USMA), where he learned about dynamic systems and multi-criteria decision analysis. Then while attending USMA, he decided along with one of his classmates that the next logical step would be to do a graduate degree in MS&E. Virgil also discusses his time at Stanford and his plans for the future, including a position in aerospace with Northrop Grumman.

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My name is Virgil Smith. I have just finished my Master's in Stanford Management Science and Engineering with a concentration in Health Systems Modeling.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background, such as where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Walnut Creek, California in the East Bay. Nominally, this should make me a Cal Bear, but I couldn't stand fearing the tree for a lifetime, so instead I became one.

How did you become interested in engineering?

I became interested in engineering while I was an undergraduate at the United States Military Academy and was introduced to dynamic systems and multi-criteria decision analysis—I was instantly hooked. Now having taken MS&E 220 and 226, I have to qualify the level of uncertainty associated with my results. And had I known what I do now, I certainly wouldn't have quantified it, but using dynamic systems back in 2010, I was able to predict the demographic population and accessions trajectory of the Afghan National Army from 2011 to 2014. And the predictive ability of that modeling experience, as superficial as it was as an undergraduate, was fascinating to me and I was forevermore an engineering management disciple.

Why did you choose MS&E?

I chose MS&E because it's a storied tradition. I remember when I was finishing my degree at USMA, I was in the capstone project with a friend of mine and we had agreed that we would go our separate ways in the army, but then we would come back and we would go to Stanford for our graduate degrees and that MS&E it would be. And it's hard to say, I just knew when I was in the second or third grade I wanted to go to West Point. Similarly, I just knew at that time, my senior year, that I wanted to go to Stanford. A couple of our professors had been there, and I know that Stanford MS&E has a long history of distinguished graduates, a storied tradition in the field of quantitative modeling. And I felt like my values really aligned with the culture and it was a place I could feel at home.

Knowing I wanted to go to West Point so early on in my life speaks to the value of visualization. I had no immediate family in the military. But I was in second grade, and my buddy brought in a book, Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance—which is now Marine Special Operations Command, MARSOC. It was a bunch of guys in camo in the swamps in the South of the contiguous United States, and I just thought it was so cool. So we said we want to go to West Point, because we didn't realize at the time you had to go to Annapolis to be a Marine Corps Officer. That book, that friend, that experience, I just knew it.

Can you tell us your concentration within MS&E?

My area of concentration was Health Systems Modeling (HSM), and I got to work on some incredible projects. First of all, I got interested in it because I spent the last eight years on active duty as a Medical Service Corps Officer and my area of concentration there was Health Operations. And it seemed like a natural fit to dive into health systems modeling from a background in military healthcare.

While I was in MS&E, through the HSM concentration, I got to work on projects in courses like HRP 392, MS&E 355, MS&E 463 and MS&E 263. There were a lot of great opportunities to really dive into the nitty gritty. I got to evaluate cost effectiveness of postpartum hemorrhage toolkits; I got to work on influence diagrams for battlefield casualty management.

How did the pandemic affect your last year at Stanford?

I thought a lot about this question and I decided that the transparent approach was better. It was tough, the pandemic was tough. It was disruptive, and it definitely provided an opportunity for a lot of personal growth. And hopefully I speak for many who may have also had a challenging adjustment. It continues to be tough for a lot of people—we did some quantitative modeling and dashboard analysis for opioid usage at the Stanford hospital, and I wrapped it up with a paper on human asset management effects on active duty Army suicide rates. So a broad range of very interesting topics. But it definitely reinforces the value of establishing and maintaining strong support networks, which is definitely something I was able to do in the first two quarters before we went virtual and distanced.

I think it can be easy for some to compartmentalize some challenging experiences and suppress those doubts. When I was onboarding at Stanford with MS&E, there was a lot of talk of the imposter syndrome and duck metaphor, I definitely heard those more than once. I think we're high achievers, strong thinkers—and people who are really vigorous for life and learning are vulnerable to those types of feelings. But I think it's helpful to be honest and transparent about those uncertainties in our lives, that we can deal with them. I had an incredible group of core friends and mentors, even, at Stanford that I was able to rely on and really get through it. And many of them were in Student Services. Student Services Manager Lori Cottle was a rock, and so I'm very grateful for the whole student services team for the support during the challenges of virtual grad school.

What are your career plans after Stanford and how did you decide on them?

My career plans after Stanford are converging, but they remain relatively open-ended. And I think that's one of the great aspects of the MS&E program is its versatility and the way it prepares both undergraduates and graduates for work in a very diverse set of industries. I had envisioned transitioning to healthcare. And I'm not super spiritual, but I do recognize that for those to whom Taoism speaks, there is the idea of the river of life, that there's a natural flow to the consequences in the universe, and I more or less followed that. I found exciting opportunities in space and in aerospace, so I will be heading to Northrop Grumman in a couple weeks, down in Los Angeles, And I'm continuing to pursue some other avenues in healthcare and in space, and we'll see where they take me.

What are things you're excited about for your future?

What excites me most about my future is foundations. Our futures are built by our experiences, our relationships, the academic rigor we pride ourselves on. And I think what's most exciting about moving forward is, just for a second, to turn around and see where we've been.

That being said, with the kind of foundation that we have, the possibilities are endless. And that's the second thing that's exciting about the future—the versatility, the opportunities for new growth and looking forward to more relationships. 

What advice do you have for future students at Stanford and in MS&E and how can they make the best use of their time here?

My experiences at Stanford were tremendous, I had an amazing time while I was at Stanford. Before I jump into any kind of recommendations, I just want to set the context that Stanford is obviously a premiere institution, especially in MS&E because of its graduates and their continued work in quantitative modeling. And so, to people who are applying to be future MS&E graduates, I would just say continue to do what got you here. Whatever your formula for success is, continue to do it. Mine was work hard, don't cheat, play nice and learn everything you can.

On top of that, I would just say get the requirements done and then take an extra class in a different concentration. Compete for a competitive enrollment class or a Business School course. Definitely stop by the student services team, say hi and tell them thanks. But also catch a live music session by students, and some lectures. Get to the Stanford golf course, wear sunscreen.

What will you miss most about Stanford and the Bay Area?

I will miss the people, first and foremost. Special thanks to the professors that I had—Professor Paté-Cornell, Professor Brandeau, Professor Johari, Professor Saberi, Professor Goel, Professor Shachter. So the people first and foremost—the professors, student services, friends that you make along the way. Even from a distance, I think the students did a good job of cultivating an electric atmosphere. Its vibrant, it's lively, the student union is busy, and it's amazing being surrounded by so many talented and smart, hardworking people. Palo Alto is far enough south that we don't really get the San Francisco fog as much, so I won't miss that. I would say I'll miss the sunshine, but I'm heading down to Los Angeles, so I’ll just miss the atmosphere and people.

Student stories & voices