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Student overcomes cancer to shine at internship and graduate

Liz Katcoff (SB 2008) earns MBA and SM in Leaders for Global Operations program.
Liz Katcoff
Liz Katcoff

Liz Katcoff began her industry internship along with most of her MIT Leaders for Global Operations classmates in June 2011. The plan was for her to work at Nissan in Smyrna, Tenn., return to MIT to write her master's thesis and graduate in June 2012. But after only three days of the six-month internship, everything changed when she was diagnosed with cancer.

Katcoff and her family and friends were understandably much more concerned about her treatment and recovery than about her finishing her internship or graduating on time. Amazingly, however, she underwent chemotherapy, finished her classwork and completed her internship project so successfully that her work could save Nissan more than $500,000 a year in product distribution costs.

During their internships, LGO students tackle a real-world operations problem at one of the program's partner companies. Katcoff's task was to optimize Nissan's outbound distribution network, looking at how the company could ship finished cars from factories to dealers as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.

A week before the start of her internship, Katcoff's doctor found a suspicious mass during a routine exam. However, a biopsy came back negative, so she left for Tennessee as planned and made a quick trip to New York for more tests three days later. Then came the shock of those test results, which revealed diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, an aggressive cancer of the white blood cells. While the chances for a cure were good with prompt treatment, Katcoff faced outpatient chemotherapy at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for several months, as well as an uncertain academic future.

LGO faculty and staff worked together to craft a revised academic plan for Katcoff, who resumed classes at MIT in September on a schedule that accommodated her chemotherapy regimen (one week of treatment followed by two weeks off) in New York. LGO Program Director Donald Rosenfeld worked with Nissan to postpone her internship until her last semester in the spring of 2012.

"LGO was fantastic," says Katcoff, who earned her second and third degrees from MIT (she received the SB in architecture and building technology in 2008). "It was amazing how I was able to completely redo my curriculum and internship timing to make it work."

Despite the rocky earlier start, Katcoff's internship project was a big success. Applying her LGO education in logistics systems and supply chains, she acted as Nissan's liaison to its third-party logistics provider, looking at the political aspects of supplier-company relationships. "This was where my LGO leadership learning was key," she says.

Katcoff was able to substantially lower transportation costs while also giving Nissan a greener carbon footprint. After her internship ended, the company hired a full-time staff member to replace her, and she helped with the transition.

"Based on the excellent investigation and route modeling provided by Elizabeth Katcoff, Nissan has begun to utilize additional Canadian railheads for our U.S.-built product going to certain parts of Canada," says Mike Steck, vice president of supply chain management for Nissan Americas. "Nissan began shipping to these locations in the middle of August [2012] and, for the first six weeks, has enjoyed a savings of over $70,000. We expect our annual savings to be over $500,000.

"In addition to reducing our costs, this change has also had a positive impact on our carbon emissions, as the amount of distance the vehicles are transported is reduced. We are grateful to Ms. Katcoff and the MIT support she received and look forward to continuing this partnership in the future," Steck says.

When Liz first emailed her classmates about her illness in the summer of 2011, they were scattered on their company internships, but they conferred electronically about how to help. Two of them came up with a plan for sending her gifts, "so that every week she would have something from one of us," says Limor Zehavi, LGO '12. "This is one of the beauties of LGO. Although we were all spread out across the world, everybody participated."

Last spring, while the other second-year LGOs were finishing their theses, Katcoff was still in Tennessee. "I couldn't be with my classmates, but despite that, I felt a strong sense of community," she says. "My classmates did a lot of reaching out to me."

When she briefly returned to campus in the middle of her internship for Midstream Review, dozens of LGOs were moved by a leadership presentation that the usually reserved Katcoff gave about the experience of having cancer.

"It was one of those fleeting moments where everyone lets their guard down, no one judges or has an agenda, and people just listen, ask questions, and reflect humbly on the human experience," says Jason Chen, LGO '12. "If the class gave Liz any strength during her difficult trial, she returned it tenfold that day."

Katcoff submitted her thesis in July, and in September, she received her MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management and an SM from the MIT Engineering Systems Division in LGO's manufacturing systems and supply chains track. Shortly before finishing at MIT, she started working as program manager for supply chain capacity planning at Amazon in Seattle. She also got married last summer to special-education teacher Ari Gleicher.

Having cancer changed Katcoff, though perhaps not as much as she might have thought. In a final assignment for the two-year LGO leadership course, she reflected on her trepidation about rereading the paper on leadership she wrote as an incoming first-year student.

"I thought I would find words of a child, with goals that were naïve and even superficial," she says. "However, I was surprised to find myself focusing on making sure I keep my priorities fluid and to constantly reevaluate how I rank my priorities throughout my time in LGO."

Little did she know at the time that life would soon force her focus to shift from ambition and career toward health and family. However, her underlying attitude of remaining flexible has served her well.

"In a way, I am actually still the same person. I am someone whose goal it is to keep an open mind, and let my priorities and opinions adapt as life experiences allow me to change and grow," Katcoff says. "I fully expect my goals and priorities to change, and my experience in LGO has fully prepared me for when that time comes."

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