Undergraduate takes research beyond the classroom

The Lighthouse of Houston is a nonprofit education and service center dedicated to assisting blind and visually impaired people to lead independent lives. Its division produces disinfectants, detergents, glass cleaners and floor care products for state and federal contracts, and it was looking to expand its business base.

Seeing an opportunity to assist the organization in its quality management, Jamison V. Kovach, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Information and Logistics Technology, was happy to lead an undergraduate research project to help the Lighthouse develop a quality management system that would be certified by an outside auditor. Kovach, who has been teaching quality management at UH since 2006, enlisted Gina Whitley, a UH student who had some real-life experience working on a similar type of certification for a former employer. She began work on the project in October 2010.

The Lighthouse will reap significant benefits from UH using its research and resources to support their respective efforts and improve their services. They have now earned ISO 9001.2008 certification that will enable their eligibility for more government contracts to support their efforts within the community.

"Gina brought a lot to this project. It was a really good fit," Kovach said. "Achieving ISO 9000 certification will give the Lighthouse more employment and training opportunities for people who are blind or visually impaired. It's remarkable to work with such a supportive team such as the Lighthouse. A lot of organizations have trouble with this concept and with change, but they didn't have a problem with it," said Kovach.

Whitley worked 19 hours a week at the Lighthouse during the spring semester, and she and Lighthouse officials also met periodically with Dr. Kovach and Jerry Pyka, M.S., assistant dean of outreach, to discuss the project's progress. Both provided input and their expertise as the project moved forward and also conducted a crucial "mock audit" of the agency. By May 2011, everything was in place.

"I was very impressed with the Lighthouse staff who memorized the quality statement, so they could achieve success in the audit. This provided the evidence of their quality management system," Whitley said. "They already had high quality in their operations. This just proves it - and that counts with current and potential customers. Now they are certified to a higher standard."

In October, Dr. Kovach, Jerry Pyka, and Gina Whitley received awards during the Lighthouse's 33rd annual awards brunch honoring directors, employees, students, and volunteers. Gibson DuTerroil, the Lighthouse's president, praised the faculty advisers and the student's participation in the project. "Without all of UH's support and guidance, we wouldn't have achieved this," he said. "The school can be so proud of the kind of students and faculty who are there."

Bob Fretz, Jr., Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Lighthouse, also praised the UH faculty advisors and Gina's work in the project. "The faculty selected a student who could not have been better. Her dedication and kindness went way beyond what we expected. This clearly demonstrates the high quality of UH students and faculty, and the kind of dedication that ensures their success."

"Gina was able to seamlessly integrate into their processes and procedures. As a result, they were motivated to take ownership," said Pyka." Establishing long-term relationships like this proves that research in conjunction with a university can be very rewarding. It's amazing to realize that the visually impaired achieved ISO certification."

Ultimately, Gina sees that serving the community in this capacity as one of the most rewarding experiences ever imagined. "Now, I am more confident that I have developed the skills to qualify for any job as a quality management professional," she said.