Andrew Marvin


Thanks to committed donors, world-class faculty and cutting-edge technology, the Chambers College is giving Global Supply Chain Management students a globe-spanning education from the comfort of Reynolds Hall.

◆ 7 minute read


These days, a lab filled with computers may not amount to much in the grand scheme of discovery and real-world application.

This was a realization from John Saldanha, Professor and Sears Chair in Global Supply Chain Management at the John Chambers College of Business and Economics at West Virginia University.

Students already have computer labs at their disposal. What the program needed was a space that provided intention, purpose and well-defined outcomes for supply chain management students that, at the same time, expanded their world of possibilities and experiences.

In 2019, with just two faculty members, one of them Saldanha, the supply chain management program took a gamble.

With the rebranding of the college and a new, state-of-the-art building in Reynolds Hall on its way, one donor expressed an interest in working with faculty who wanted to create something that hadn’t been done before at WVU.

Photo of students using VR gear in the Wehrle lab

“I thought, ‘Let’s do something nontraditional,’” Saldanha remembered. “We don’t want a computer lab full of computers. What we envisioned was a lab where students can experience supply chain management activities in the field virtually.

“(VR) was gaining traction among high school student gamers and it seemed an intriguing opportunity to leverage that medium for supply chain management studies.”

The idea for this new experiential learning space stemmed from an unlikely source – the mega-popular sandbox video game “Minecraft.”

Oh, the places you’ll go

Rather than hammering home information via textbooks and lectures, Saldanha wanted to take students on a journey right on the WVU campus.

In “Minecraft,” players explore a 3-D world with virtually infinite terrain.

So Saldanha pitched a similar platform for students, who would interact with an immersive digital environment through virtual reality.

“We wanted to take our students to places where they’d normally not get to go to,” he said.

Out of the idea, the Wehrle Global Supply Chain Lab was born, thanks to a generous $1.6 million gift made in memory of Henry B. Wehrle Jr., former chairman and CEO of McJunkin Corp. The donation is a continuation of the Wehrle family’s vision to create a leading Supply Chain Management program at WVU. Their initial $1 million gift kickstarted the program and brought Saldanha to WVU in 2014.

The vision of the lab coming to fruition through Saldanha’s experiential work with students in Reynolds Hall shows how investments from donors like the Wehrle Family can be game-changers for business students, building market-ready skills that will make them competitive in the workforce right on WVU’s campus.

“We invested in the supply chain program because we believed in faculty like John Saldanha and saw they had the vision to accelerate the program, but needed the resources to bring it to life,” said Bernie Wehrle. “In 10 years, they’ve built it from the ground up with 14 students to 157 in the major today.”

Photo of Bernie Wehrle standing outside the Wehrle Global Supply Chain Lab

Outcomes for those students are significant. Based on 2022-2023 data, 87 percent of supply chain majors are placed in a full-time job or enrolled in graduate school six months after graduation.

Thus far, Saldanha has taken teams to China, India and across the United States to map and document 360-degree video footage of supply chains in action at various companies. Students are then able to experience those examples, and others, through VR headsets in the comfort of Reynolds Hall, minus the jet lag.

Students have already acknowledged the advantage that the lab and program itself offer over other universities.

“One of the largest benefits of the program’s use of VR is that it allows students to get as close to a real-life experience as possible and observe manufacturing facilities and practices, all while conveniently sitting in the classroom,” said Alex Smigel, a supply chain management and accounting major from Kent, Ohio. “Every culture and every company (even in the same industry) have a slightly different production process. Being able to see these differences while still in college is very beneficial.”

Beyond the VR, the program has increased its capabilities in other areas, such as connecting students with some of the top companies in the world.

Smigel noted that before he graduates, he will have had the opportunity to work closely on projects with at least two Fortune 200 companies.

“What made me want to pursue supply chain management is the fast-moving and ever-changing work environment,” Smigel added. “From things as simple as a truck being delayed all the way to a global pandemic, even the smallest changes can have catastrophic effects on a company’s production, consumer image and, ultimately, their bottom line. As a supply chain management professional, it is your job to plan for and mitigate the effects of anything that may impact your company’s supply chain.”

The VR experiences enable students like Smigel to confront those challenges if ever encountered in their future professional careers.

“Using the VR, we were able to take virtual field trips all around the world to different manufacturing plants,” he said. “While we were ‘at’ each site, we were able to walk through every step of the manufacturing process and observe the different quality controls and checks that the companies had in place.”

Back to reality (non-virtual)

Beyond the appeal of VR and 3D and all things techy, hard science and research maintain a pivotal role in the study of global supply chains. 

And it soars past the “wow factor” with the aim of enhancing the livelihood of people, most notably West Virginians. 

The program’s approach isn’t exclusively futuristic; it’s rooted in the land-grant mission.

“Improving the lives of people and the vitality of businesses – that’s the stated goal of supply chain management,” Saldanha said. “To fulfill our land-grant mission, we have to create new knowledge, disseminate that knowledge and use that knowledge to benefit the state.”

One undertaking involves students, using novel methods, compiling public datasets that are currently not being monitored to establish a fuller picture of supply chain networks in the country, he said.

“We hope that creating those data sets over time will enable our researchers and faculty to develop insights that result in high-impact publications and new understandings of how supply chain networks work. On a macrolevel, we can use the data to show companies what’s happening in near real time.”

Photo of John Saldanha teaching in a classroom

Also in the lab space, classes work with shipping containers to tackle packing problems that could optimize a firm’s supply chain. Students can use mathematical approaches to figure out how to fill the containers with content of different shapes, sizes, weights and volumes.

These are the kinds of challenges that must be addressed quickly in the real world. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated global supply chain issues, creating a ripple effect that now calls for more experts in the field.

The Wehrle Lab, and what it has to offer, in addition to the overall program itself, is destined to fill those gaps.

“One of the biggest problems, and this goes for all across the world, is the talent gap,” Saldanha said. “We’re training the next generation of supply chain management students with a new understanding of the profession. A lot of our majors are students we’ve attracted from engineering, pharmacy, med school and other STEM fields. They enjoy the rigor and the analytics, and the hands-on practical experiences.”

And remember when in 2019 when the program had only two faculty members? That number is now up to six. 

Adding to the program’s growth, a new BS in Supply Chain Management Science degree was approved at the April Board of Governor’s meeting. This second supply chain-focused degree will have a heavier STEM focus with more statistics and calculus integrated into the curriculum. The expanded option is designed to attract more students to the Supply Chain major, as students interested in the program will now have a choice between the BSBA and BS track. 

Shoring up talent

The supply chain management program hasn’t just recruited top student talent, but top teaching talent, as well.

One of the newer faculty members was even a student of Saldanha’s.

Molly Hughes joined the WVU faculty in 2023 as an assistant professor after earning her doctoral degree in logistics from The Ohio State University. Before that, the Cincinnati, Ohio native spent about six years in industry – five of them with Cardinal Health mainly working in strategic sourcing of branded pharmaceuticals. 

Molly Hughes headshot

“I was seeing legislation come through that was trying to address healthcare costs from where I was sitting in the industry,” Hughes said of her work experience in pharmaceuticals. “I just didn't know if the legislation was going to do exactly what they said it was going to do. I started asking questions. My professors would tell me, ‘These are great research questions. Have you ever thought of getting a Ph.D.?”

Hughes’ expertise honed in on the intersection of public policy and supply chain management, particularly in the pharmaceutical space.

What drove her to WVU – besides a familiar face in Saldanha – was seeing how the Chambers College welcomed her ideas and areas of skill upon visiting.

“There was an appetite for global supply chain management for healthcare and for public policy,” Hughes said. “I saw campus and met with Dean Hall to learn about the vision for the College. I was all in.

“A lot of business schools can feel stuffy. Academia, in general, can get stuck and it may take years to start a new initiative. But here, at WVU, everyone is very excited about new and unique research.”

As someone with industry experience and fresh off the academic doctoral track, Hughes believes she’ll be able to relate to students with her perspectives as they pursue either a job or advanced education after graduation.

“Being able to translate between customers and suppliers is very important,” she said. “I gained that from my professional experience and loved the relationship-building side of it.”

Numbers, believe it or not, play a role in that.

“Supply chain management makes you do math – taking numbers and translating them into managing relationships and creating a story with suppliers and customers,” she added. “The numbers help you determine ‘I need to get this product here on this day. On Days 6, 7 and 8, x, y and z should happen.’ It’s a dynamic field with a lot of puzzle pieces to put together.”

Hughes also noted the College’s investment in the newest technologies for the ever-evolving field as a driving factor for attracting and retaining talent.

“From the VR to the 3D printing capabilities, it’s clear that the University is willing to support the program,” she said. “People are more familiar with supply chain management today because of the pandemic. It was all over the news. So the students may be a little more familiar with the topic but they still have never been to a warehouse or a loading dock or a shipping terminal. These technologies allow us to bring that into the classroom.

“It’s much more impressive than showing YouTube videos. We’re actually putting them into the space virtually.”

Saldanha is even developing an interactive supply chain management game in which players make choices about inventories, modes of transportation and other factors in the process.

“At the end of the day, we are teaching you to think strategically. You have to go in and learn the tactics like the day-to-day operations of individuals businesses. The students get to play the role of supply chain manager, production manager, distribution manager or purchasing manager. These are the decisions that you are going to face.

“We’re simply not doing all of this to push students out the door. We’re doing this because companies are looking everywhere and anywhere for them. Talent is one of the biggest shortages we have in supply chain management.”