Reengineering Complex Systems to Empower Young Women

Melissa Rosen By Cody Ned Romano
July 12, 2011

Working as the U.S. Project Coordinator for the Association for India’s Development (AID), Leena Ratnam, a student in MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) Program embarked on a personal goal to empower young women through AID’s nurse-training program. On behalf of AID, she worked with people who never received formal grade-school education, providing them with a fundamental understanding of biology, economics of the healthcare ecosystem, and nursing. Many have since gone on to successful careers in a major city as health workers and medical aides.

"My mission is to help construct social systems that better serve society across borders," Ratnam said. "This is the kind of stuff that hits home for me."

Shortly after Ratnam’s tenth birthday, she and her parents moved to Silicon Valley in California. Attending junior high and high school there, the budding engineer became fascinated with computer science and biology. What excited her most were the possibilities of merging those fields to create more effective healthcare systems. "I remember picking up a book at the bookstore about bioinformatics when I was 14," she said. "I thought that information systems was going to be the future because it spans multiple industries.’"

To further augment her interest in technology, Ratnam earned her B.S. in management information systems in California. There she learned to apply broad systems-thinking principles to real-world computing problems. Upon graduating, she leveraged this talent to build a decade-long successful career as an analyst and consultant for Fortune 500 companies.

Last year, when Ratnam took leave from the corporate world to find a master’s program, an important benchmark helped her to determine which one would match her interests. "I needed to find a holistic program that would keep my passion for technology alive while allowing me to explore aspects of management," Ratnam said. "SDM resonated with me because it satisfied my creativity in both areas. It gives me lots of latitude to explore different perspectives"

The SDM student body is unique in the variety of viewpoints that it encompasses, Ratnam explained. Sitting beside her during lectures are students from Chile, Turkey, and Spain, among many other nations. "I really appreciate the breadth of international perspectives in the classroom," she said. "It makes you stop and think, ‘Wow! Is that how it’s happening in his or her industry or country?’"

During class discussions, Ratnam also draws upon her own cache of industry experience. While working as a business analyst for a Fortune 500 technology company, she encountered an enormous systems-based problem. Her company oversaw a network of business units and physical systems spread throughout dozens of countries, including Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Frequently, these business units needed to share information with corporate data centers based in the United States. Some of them, however, used outdated software that caused sluggish performance or was not scalable for data transfers. Further complicating the communication problem were differing platforms, subsystems, international policies and regulations, and exchanges across time zones.

To resolve the issue, Ratnam and her team implemented "middleware." Like a human translator standing between two people speaking different languages, the software interpreted and relayed data between applications and servers. Thanks to Ratnam and her team’s solution, data transfers that once took up to seven days can now be completed in mere seconds across countries.

The SDM courses Ratnam has attended since then have shown her how systems thinking can be applied to solve complex problems in many different arenas. Upon graduating from SDM, she plans to work in the industry where applying her newfound understanding of systems can improve the quality of life for those at home in the United States and in developing countries.

"At this point, I’m much more interested in social systems than in automotive or mechanical systems," Ratnam said. "They are incredibly rewarding to study from a personal standpoint. It is the human touch that really matters in life…it is that touch that has enabled the girls in our AID program to go from feeling hopeless to realizing a bright, new way of life for themselves."

Leena Ratnam