Author Archives: Laura Albert

on George Dantzig, Good Will Hunting, and tackling hard problems

George Dantzig invented the simplex algorithm and contributed to linear programming. He introduced the world to the power of optimization, which has led to massive increases in productivity and drives the global economy (Read more in Prof. John Birge’s article here).

The movie “Good Will Hunting” has a scene that is inspired by the life of George Dantzig. In the movie, Matt Damon plays an MIT janitor who anonymously solves a difficult math problem that a math professor posted on a hallway blackboard.

In real life, George Dantzig once arrived to Jerzy Neyman’s class late while he was a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley. He wrote down what be believed were two homework problems posted on the blackboard, not knowing that the problems were unsolved math problems, because he had missed the announcement at the beginning of class. he then solved the problems, apologizing to Prof. Neyman that it took so longer to do the homework. They later became the foundation of his thesis. Read more here.

“If I had known that the problems were not homework but were in fact two famous unsolved problems in statistics, I probably would not have thought positively, would have become discouraged, and would never have solved them,”

George Dantzig

I like this story. I also like Good Will Hunting and recommend it without hesitation.

I reflected on this story after returning from the 2023 INFORMS Analytics Conference.

I have always been impressed by how the operations research community has never shied away from hard problems in theory, computation or practice. The operations research community has been tackling hard problems since its early days during World War II, prior to George Dantzig’s solutions to the (then) unsolved problems in statistics.

We are still at it.

Our dedication to solving hard problems is evident at the Edelman Gala at the INFORMS Analytics Meeting, from which I recently returned (watch this year’s gala here). The Edelman Gala celebrates achievements in operations research and analytics, and it awards the Franz Edelman Award and the Daniel H. Wagner Prize. These prizes recognize the application and implementation of solutions that have made a big difference. The finalists of these awards embody the spirit of George Dantzig, and they reinforce that we solve problems and make a real difference in the world.

What do you call a group of operations researchers?

A gaggle of geese.

A murder of crows.

A parliament of owls.

A flamboyance of flamingos.

A pride of lions.

What do you call a group of operations researchers?

I asked this question to the OR community on the INFORMS Open Forum. Here are some of the answers I received:

  • A tableau of optimizers (from Ralph Asher)
  • A distribution of problem solvers (from Anthony Bonifonte)
  • A model of operations researchers (David Tullet)
  • A process of industrial engineers
  • A sequence of analysts (from Kara Tucker)
  • A quantity of quants (from Paul Rubin)
  • A queue of operations researchers (from Greg Godfrey)
  • A simplex of operations researchers (from Tallys Yunes)

What is your answer?

collaborating on academic research: a discussion with PhD students

In my last lab meeting with the five PhD students in my lab, we discussed how to collaborate on research. While I have a lab compact conveying my expectations for myself and students who work under my supervision, the lab compact focuses more on individual expectations rather than collaboration. I decided to give collaboration more attention.

As a group, we collaboratively edited a document in real-time that outlines techniques that various lab members have found to be effective in their collaborations. Most of their collaborations are with me, their advisor, and sometimes a co-advisor. Several items on the list sparked deeper discussions, which we will explore in more detail in further lab meetings. Here is our preliminary list of how to collaborate on academic research:

  • Write papers as you research (not all at the end)
    • There are many different ways to do this, so this topic would benefit from further discussion.
    • Structure the results section of your papers around key figures that tell the story. Restructure the earlier sections of the paper as necessary
  • Document research as you research (and share with collaborators at meetings)
    • Create PowerPoint presentations as you do research to stay organized, summarize progress, share weekly progress, track milestones, and document main results
    • Create text files after each meeting to summarize discussion and next steps
    • Keep a lab notebook
    • Write down what you complete every day so you can track your own progress.
  • Learn how to create figures to communicate research concepts and models to others (This is hard)
    • When you see research talks, notice good figures and emulate them
  • Share files for collaborative writing
    • Overleaf
    • OneDrive
    • Zotero – created shared set of papers (make corrections to BibTeX entries)
    • Version Control – Github /Github Desktop 
  • Task Management / tracking project progress
    • Trello boards / Todoist boards / Notion / Obsidian
  • File management. Create a folder for each paper.
    • We will dig into this in a future lab meeting

Technological change is not additive; it is ecological

I spend a lot of my time thinking about the future in terms of engineering grand challenges, engineering education, and the impact that engineering can have on the world. I recently came across a 25+ year old quote about technological change that caught my attention.

“In the year 1500, after the printing press was invented, you did not have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a different Europe. After television, America was not America plus television. Television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry, and so on.

That is why we must be cautious about technological innovation. The consequences of technological change are always vast, often unpredictable and largely irreversible.”

Neil Postman, lecture at the Arts Center in Denver Colorado in 1997 entitled “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change

Technological change being ecological is one of five ideas that Neil Postman outlined in his lecture. All five ideas are:

  1. We always pay a price for technology.
  2. There are always winners and losers.
  3. The technology has a philosophy (epistemological, political or social prejudice). Sometimes this bias is to our advantage, and sometimes not.
  4. Technological change is not additive; it is ecological.
  5. Technology tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.

The entire lecture is interesting and relevant to the various forms of technological change we have experienced since he delivered the lecture in 1997. His lecture highlights the tremendous scope of impact that enablers of technological change have on our way of living.

Technological change is often at the hands of engineers. Recognizing this motivates engineering education to empower engineering students to be able to understand and influence the ecological changes that result from technological change for the better. This lecture will guide my thinking in this area in the future.

What do you think? Are these five ideas regarding technological change still true? How would you modify or add to the list?

the one thing all organizations value

I recently had a conversation with a graduate from of my department who has had a highly successful career in industry for the last 25 years since earning a Bachelors degree in Industrial Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The conversation turned toward the value of an industrial engineering degree. The value, he argued, was in educating students about the decision sciences. This captures data driven decision-making, communication, and the human side of decisions, including emotions and cognitive biases:

“Industrial engineering is ultimately about how to make decisions and how to make them well. And that’s something that every organization values.”

While there are several other valuable skills one can learn in an industrial engineering program in addition to the decision sciences, this claim resonates with me. Industrial engineers don’t make things, we make decisions, and it’s hard to overstate how valuable and interesting this is.

What aspects of industrial engineering have been most valuable to you?

Football analytics roundup

In preparation of the Super Bowl tomorrow, I have a roundup of sports analytics blog posts from Punk Rock Operations Research for further reading:

  • Why the New England Patriot’s decision to let the New York Giants score a touchdown in the 2012 Super Bowl made sense [Link]
  • The Green Bay Packers should have gone for it on fourth down: my analysis using decision trees [Link]
  • Before Sabermetrics there was football analytics. The first paper on football analytics was published in Operations Research in 1979 and was written by National Football League player Virgil Carter [Link]
  • When should a football team attempt a two point conversion after a touchdown? A dynamic programming approach [Link]
  • Should a football team run or pass? How to choose the mix of offensive plays to run using game theory and linear programming [Link]


  • A recent episode of Resoundingly Human (the INFORMS podcast) features a sports analytics discussion with Walt DeGrange [Link]

New Year’s resolutions for 2023

It’s a new year, and I’m reflecting on 2022 and looking forward to 2023. Today is my first day as INFORMS President, and that will be a major responsibility in the coming year. I’m excited and ready for the challenge.

I made a list of resolutions for 2023.

New Year’s resolutions in 2023

  1. Do physical therapy every morning.
  2. Improve my ability to delegate and manage situations when others delegate up.
  3. Take advantage of public outreach opportunities in new formats for me.
  4. Write and edit my writing every day, even if only for a few minutes.
  5. Eat more leafy green vegetables.
  6. Take up a musical hobby. I have been taking Irish dance lessons on zoom since the pandemic, and that came to an end in December. I’m ready for something new.

I reread my post on what queueing theory taught me about work life balance, which reminded me of the importance to take a few minutes for myself every day.

For more reading, check out my New Year’s resolutions in 2018, 2019, and 2021. Dijkstra’s 10 commandments of academic research also serve as potential New Year’s resolutions.

Addendum (February 6, 2023): I am adding one resolution to my list: meditation. I saw my doctor the first week of the new year, and she again urged me to meditate to manage stress and anxiety stemming from administrative responsibilities. As someone who has trouble sitting still, I am not naturally inclined to meditate. While I have resisted this suggestion in the past, I am going to make meditation a priority this year. So far, I am off to a good start using guided meditation podcasts.

7. Meditate

Coles research symposium on Homeland Security

I recently attended the Coles Research Symposium on Homeland Security hosted by the Kennesaw State University Coles College of Business. The symposium was organized by Prof. Jomon Paul, and he made sure all attendees felt welcome. I gave a keynote talk entitled “New frontiers in homeland security: advances and opportunities.”

The symposium was focused and interdisciplinary, with a single track of engaging speakers. who discussed advances in homeland security research. The talks spanned economics, optimal control, operations research, behavioral economics, public policy and information systems. I hadn’t attended a small, interdisciplinary conference like this in years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and I had sorely missed the opportunity to network and grow as a researcher at symposiums such as this. As a result, the symposium was more intellectually stimulating than usual. I was able to meet everyone at the conference and had research conversations with the other speakers and attendees during meals and breaks. We came from different quantitative disciplines, and our different assumptions and perspectives were complementary. The conversations energized me and caused me to think more deeply about important homeland security problems to address. I left the conference excited about my future research endeavors and starting new projects.

Papers I highlighted in my talk:

  1. Albert, L.A., Nikolaev, A., and Jacobson, S.H. 2022. Homeland Security Research Opportunities. To appear in IISE Transactions.
  2. Enayaty-Ahangar, F., Albert, L.A., DuBois, E. 2021. A survey of optimization models and methods for cyberinfrastructure security. IISE Transactions 53(2), 182 – 198.
  3. Albert, L.A., Nikolaev, A., Lee, A.J., Fletcher, K., and Jacobson, S.H., 2021. A Review of Risk-Based Security and Its Impact on TSA PreCheck, IISE Transactions 53(6), 657 – 670.

Locating ballot drop boxes is NP-hard

The state of Michigan passed Proposition 2 on November 8, 2022, a bill that introduces several voting rights including access to drop boxes. Proposition 2 will lead to the widespread use and location of drop boxes in the state of Michigan, since it requires at least one ballot drop box per 15,000 registered voters with at least one drop box per municipality. There will be questions about where to locate the drop boxes, since “the boxes would have to be distributed in an equitable way.”

Operations research can help inform these important election decisions. Dr. Adam Schmidt and I studied issues surrounding the location of drop boxes in our recent paper entitled “Locating ballot drop boxes” (Read the preprint here). Our paper studies how to locate ballot drop boxes when considering multiple criteria such as cost, voter access, and equity. The paper abstract is as follows:

For decades, voting-by-mail and the use of ballot drop boxes has substantially grown, and in response, many election officials have added new drop boxes to their voting infrastructure. However, existing guidance for locating drop boxes is limited. In this paper, we introduce an integer programming model, the drop box location problem (DBLP), to locate drop boxes. The DBLP considers criteria of cost, voter access, and risk. The cost of the drop box system is determined by the fixed cost of adding drop boxes and the operational cost of a collection tour by a bipartisan team who regularly collects ballots from selected locations. The DBLP utilizes covering sets to ensure each voter is in close proximity to a drop box and incorporates a novel measure of access to measure the ability to use multiple voting pathways to vote. The DBLP is shown to be NP-Hard, and we introduce a heuristic to generate a large number of feasible solutions for policy makers to select from a posteriori. Using a real-world case study of Milwaukee, WI, we study the benefit of the DBLP. The results demonstrate that the proposed optimization model identifies drop box locations that perform well across multiple criteria. The results also demonstrate that the trade-off between cost, access, and risk is non-trivial, which supports the use of the proposed optimization-based approach to select drop box locations.

We published an op-ed in The Hill summarizing some of the key findings from this paper.

While I am thrilled to see Michigan introduce a legal requirement for ballot drop boxes in future elections, our research indicates that this requirement is not straightforward for election officials to implement, since decisions involving the location of drop boxes are hard from theoretical and computational perspectives. Tools such as our integer programming model can help election officials make informed decisions.

Dr. Adam Schmidt recently defended his dissertation entitled “Optimization and Simulation Models for the Design of Resilient Election Voting Systems” about election resilience, and his paper about drop boxes is part of his dissertation. He also studied the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on in-person voting and how to decide how to locate/consolidate polling locations.

I am exciting to see some states expanding the use of ballot drop boxes. Drop boxes have a place in our elections. The US states that are weighing legislation will define how and when drop boxes can be used. With research backed by proven scientific methods using operations research, we can truly make informed decisions about drop boxes and our voting systems.

10 simple rules for going away to college and being on your own

My oldest daughter started college this month, which was a milestone for her and for me. I drove her to her university and moved her into her dorm. When I said good-bye, I left her with a personalized letter expressing my confidence in her and other sentiments. I included a short list of advice at the end of the letter. While the note is only for her, the advice at the end is more general, so I included it here. I organized my advice into ten simple rules for going away for college:

  1. Take care of yourself. Wear sunscreen, eat vegetables every day, preferably green ones, and get 8 hours of sleep.
  2. Be someone you admire and respect, Make decisions that align with your values.
  3. Love and value you, and make friends with others who recognize your worth.
  4. Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts, and don’t put up with those who are reckless with yours.
  5. Sometimes the most sensible course of action is to set a boundary. Don’t let anyone make you believe that this is selfish. 
  6. We cannot control everything. Focus on what you can control, and try not to waste time trying to control or change what you cannot.
  7. When extroverting isn’t for you, fake it until you make it. Really.
  8. Adopt a yes/and mindset instead of an either/or mindset.
  9. Laugh every day at least once.
  10. You’re not going to get everything right the first time, and things are often hard before they become easy. Be kind to yourself and use setbacks as learning opportunities. 

Preparing this list made me think of the 1999 hit music video by Baz Luhrmann entitled “Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen,” adapted from a column by Mary Schmich published in the Chicago Tribune in 1997 that meant to be a hypothetical commencement speech. (In full disclosure, I reworded #4 in my list to use Schmich’s wording after rereading her column).