Author Archives: Laura Albert

Planning a sabbatical from the beginning

Several professors asked me for sabbatical planning advice and how to get started. I’m not sure what the best way to plan for a sabbatical is, but I am more than happy to share my experience along with lessons learned from my sabbatical at RWTH Aachen in Germany. Your mileage may vary.

Two years ahead of time, I started thinking about where I wanted to go. In the back of my mind, I always wanted to have an extended stay in Germany. I speak German and even earned a minor in German in college, when I studied abroad in Darmstadt, Germany for a summer. Additionally, my children could take German as a foreign language in school before and after the trip, and that was the deciding factor. I also considered the Netherlands after giving a couple of talks there and meeting many excellent faculty members at Dutch universities. Germany borders the Netherlands, so collaborations across the border would be doable.

My colleague Jim Luedtke was the source of inspiration. He took an academic year sabbatical to Chile with his partner and three children, two of whom attended Chilean schools. He was positive and adventurous, and he gave me the confidence to take my family with me on a sabbatical. Others I talked to were overwhelmingly positive about their experiences overseas with a family.

I looked into applying for a Fulbright scholar award early on. The application requirements are country specific. I used that the Fulbright guidelines as a template for overall sabbatical planning. Jim Luedtke lent me his sabbatical application for Chile, which was helpful in understanding what to include and what level to write about my proposed Fulbright project. Fulbright scholar awards in general have a maximum length of four months, which could be wrapped into a longer stay overseas. This would allow me to do a semester long or academic year sabbatical.

Fulbright applications are due in August a year before the trip starts. The spring before the Fulbright was due, I contacted Marco Luebbecke at RWTH Aachen about the possibility of a sabbatical. He said yes and asked me if I would be willing to teach a course in the summer semester (April – July). At this point, it became clear that an academic year sabbatical would be too long, because I would stay for the academic year and summer. This helped me narrow my scope for the sabbatical timeline, and I committed to a Spring semester sabbatical.

The Fulbright application was due in August 2018, and my university sabbatical application for the 2019-20 academic year was due a month later in September 2018. I could work on both applications at once. I proposed a sabbatical to start in January 2020, almost a year and a half before leaving for Germany. A few months later after I submitted my Fulbright application, I was delighted to learn that I was selected for a Fulbright award and that my university sabbatical was approved.

Living in Germany for more than three months requires becoming a resident and embracing German bureaucracy. U.S. citizens who visit Germany can stay on a tourist visa for 90 days. A longer stay requires applying for a residence permit, registering with immigration, and other requirements. This meant that I had to have a lease (not have an extended stay with Air BnB), arrange for health insurance that is required by law, open a bank, and have all sorts of documents for my children.

The Department of State and the Fulbright Commission were fantastic. The Fulbright Commission helped me with health insurance and gave me checklists and verification letters for all the requirements. I cannot say enough about the support I was given. They helped me acquire necessary international health insurance (required for residence in Germany) and helped me understand the residency requirements in Germany. They also provided a letter that I needed to register as a resident, register with immigration, and open a bank account. And importantly, they were extremely helpful during my sudden return to the United States in March 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Read more blog posts about my 2020 sabbatical here and see my tweets using the “PunkRockORinGermany” hashtag on twitter. I have posts about my sabbatical plan and how I prepared for a semester overseas. I had to end my trip to Germany early due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

articles about re-engineering society post COVID-19

Here is what I’ve been reading about how COVID-19 will forever alter the world in which we live.

To start, the Centers for Disease Control has mitigation resources for re-engineering communities, schools, workplaces, and events (“Guidance for Where You Live, Work, Learn, Pray, and Play”). It is worth visiting. They have guidance for many institutions, including:

Related: Ed Yong explains how COVID-19 works in the Atlantic, which underlies many of the re-engineering requirements as we move forward


Re-engineering our facilities

  1. How ten cities throughout the world adapted public transit in the wake of COVID-19
  2. Possible improvements to airplanes to reduce virus transmission 
  3. How one theater company is bucking the trend by not canceling plays and implementing a slew of precautions, including removing 70% of seats and having no intermissions. I hope the arts can adapt, because I would love to see a play and the symphony in the future.
  4. Citylab: how the United States public transit can survive the coronavirus has
  5. Why are meat processing facilities so vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks? “At least 9,400 positive cases have been tied to meatpacking plants across 28 states.” The work is labor intensive in crowded, poorly-ventilated environments where workers may encounter 1000 other workers per day. From the Post Crescent.

Re-engineering our processes

  1. NPR: 9 ways K-12 schools will be different when the reopen, including staggered schedules, smaller classes, and new calendars.
  2. In an op-ed, Drs. Sheldon Jacobson and Janet Jokela suggest ways big land-grant research universities could slowly and intentionally reopen while mitigating risks to faculty, staff and students/.
  3. It will not be business as usual for universities in the coming academic year. The Chronicle has a list of college plans for the fall.
  4. German barbers and hairdressers can reopen with new, strict requirements, including styling chairs at least 1.5 meters from each other; hair washing before a cut is required to help kill off possible viruses; no face to face services; and no magazines or free coffee in the waiting areas.
  5. Runners World covers running during a pandemic.

Re-engineering our social groups

  1. New York City requires wearing face masks in public. NYC is distributing face masks in public parks. And Deutsche Welle explains the face mask laws in Germany.
  2. Slate’s parenting podcast “Mom and Dad are Fighting” discussed “quarantine pacts” where families can group together to manage care and work responsibilities as a method to manage risk in a time of quarantine living.
  3. The Nation discusses many of the challenges for non-nuclear families introduced by social distancing and quarantines that also hints at what solutions should encompass.
  4. Child care allows every other industry to work, but it’s not clear what child care during the pandemic will look like. Citylab has a roundup of coronavirus child care related issues
  5. Workplaces need to adjust to new leave laws and family leave obligations and homeschooling realities. The New York Times reports on how mothers are managing homeschooling with work, and the Washington Post note that there are many lawsuits over family leave and discrimination

Related posts:

articles about forecasting and the Covid-19 pandemic

Here is what I’ve been reading about forecasting and COVID-19:

  1. Nature has a nice article on forecasting: The simulations driving the world’s response to COVID-19
  2. The Kaiser Family Foundation has a nice introduction to forecasting models for epidemiology: COVID-19 Models: Can They Tell Us What We Want to Know?
  3. Fotios Petropoulos and Spyros Makridakis published an article in PLOS ONE entitled Forecasting the novel coronavirus COVID-19
  4. The mathematics of predicting the course of the coronavirus from Wired
  5. Why it’s so hard to see into the future of Covid-19: human behavior from Vox
  6. FiveThirtyEight on Why it’s so freaking hard to make a good COVID-19 model
  7. Finally, science writer Ed Yong has written a few articles about COVID-19 for The Atlantic that focus on the future, including How the pandemic will end based on what we know from other related viruses, Our Pandemic Summer, and Why the Coronavirus is so Confusing 

Related posts:

articles about supply chains and Covid-19

Here is what I’ve been reading about supply chains in the COVID19 era:

  1. Vox on food and meat supply chains
  2. Why there are toilet paper shortages
  3. The Society for Risk Analysis recorded a webinar called “COVID Conversations on Risk” (Ep 3) about food security
  4. The Washington Post on why meat supply chains are vulnerable to Covid-19 outbreaks: they are massive facilities with thousands of workers in close proximity 
  5. Why you can expect shortages of pharmeceuticals but not toilet paper (nice job, Anna Nagurney)
  6. On personal protective equipment (PPE) supply chains
    1. Read about the origins of the Strategic National Stockpile
    2. CDC guidance for optimizing supply chains
    3. The Washington Post reports on a factory that produces a chemical used in PPE
  7. The modern supply chain is snapping from The Atlantic. Note this came out a month ago.
  8. We need a stress test for critical supply chains (nice job David and Edith Simchi-Levi)
  9. And finally, Belgians are urged to eat French fries at least twice a week as changes in consumption during the pandemic lead to a massive potato surplus


Related posts:

how to organize your Tupperware cabinet

Rumor has it that many people are taking advantage of the extra time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic stay at home orders to organize their food container/Tupperware cabinet. It’s such a popular pandemic activity that The Onion published a satirical article about it.

My food container cabinet is always organized and optimized. I took a picture below. The secret to organizing my cabinet is to formulate it as an integer programming model and then solving it to optimality. I have my kids resolve the integer programming model every time they unload the dishwasher and put the dishes away.

I’m kidding.

I organize my cabinet with a heuristic. I nest my food containers in a few stacks that fit in the cabinets. Once I organize the cabinet, there are a few food containers that do not nest with the nicely organized stacks. The most important part of this process is to remove the few food containers that do not nest with the other containers (see the bottom picture). A few problematic food containers can lead to chaos and disorder. I do not throw these out. Instead, I use them to store items throughout my house (e.g., in my toiletries cabinet and tool cabinet). 

I have not purchased food containers in awhile. When I do, I purchase them based on their nestedness properties.

How do you organize your food container cabinet?

An organized and optimized food container cabinet

The key is to remove the pieces that don’t nest.

Related posts:

on vampires, exponential population growth, and scientific literacy

Eleven years I wrote a tongue-in-cheek blog post about vampires and stochastic processes. I was inspired by my course material about Markov chains and branching processes, which has application to the spread of infectious disease, to the vampire population dynamics in the Twilight series and other teenage vampire stories that were very popular at the time.

I have a great deal of skepticism about vampires.

Here’s my problem with vampires. I have a hard time believing that there would be just a few vampires out there and that the existence of vampires would be such a well-kept secret. After all, they reproduce rather easily (a single vampire could create thousands of offspring, whereas there are limits to human reproduction) and vampires don’t die easily. If there were vampires, they would almost certainly outnumber humans (but then vampires would run out of food).

This argument becomes even more overwhelming if you model a vampire population as a branching process or birth-death process and assume that each vampire in the population has probability Pj of producing j offspring (with j=0,1,2,… ). The vampire population would either explode or die out, depending on the expected number of offspring per vampire. But if you take into account the fact that vampires live many, many generations (they’re virtually immortal) and may create thousands of offspring, the population explodes (if you assume that each vampire creates at least one vampire, on average, before it dies). With those numbers, vampires would not be living under the radar–they would be everywhere!

I have yet to see a vampire movie that implicitly assumes that there is a reasonable model for vampire population dynamics (using a stochastic process framework or something else). And frankly, I’m pretty disappointed. Until I am offered a reasonable explanation for why there aren’t more vampires, I won’t be able to jump on the vampire bandwagon.

This issue had been bothering me since I first saw The Lost Boys, long before I knew about Markov chains. I enjoyed The Lost Boys, but I did not enjoy it’s inability to acknowledge exponential vampire population growth. Markov chains later helped me understand why my skepticism was valid.

The post went viral. Life was interesting for awhile. Twilight fans hated me.

My blog post was never intended to be taken seriously. It was not a serious critique of vampires, because vampires aren’t real.

Once in awhile, I google myself to see what turns up. Over the years, I have found that several vampire fan news sites and blogs that existed at the time (teenage vampire stories were very popular at the time) picked up my blog post and wrote serious articles about it.

Some of the concerning coverage of my post was on vampire fan websites that no longer exist online. A decade ago I remember discovering a vampire fan website for teenage girls with a domain that may have been that made a serious two minute “vampire news” video about my “research” in vampire population dynamics that supposedly proved that vampires could not exist. The host discussed my blog post like it was real research. I was disheartened by this. I would like to engage teenage girls about operations research and analytics but without the vampires. It’s only fun if it gets people more engaged with real research, science, and engineering.

A positive example is the one entitled “Vampire Ecology: Twilight vs. Buffy” on a science blog that argues that vampires could exist by linking to another tongue-in-cheek paper that takes human predation on vampires into consideration as a form of vampire population control. It doesn’t seem to take my post too seriously (phew).

I have given a lot of though to increasing scientific literacy in the general public for the last decade. The far-too-serious coverage of my silly vampire post did not dissuade me from engaging the public about my research. Instead, it encouraged me to be more intentional with how I communicate scientific principles to the public and motivated me to discuss real scientific issues with the general public as much as I can. I have blogged about some of my public talks and have appeared in the media many times. I have found that a lot of people are receptive to science and engineering research, especially if it seems relevant to their lives. I try to stick to applications of operations research, analytics, and industrial engineering in the public sector.

I’ve been encouraged by the discussion of real scientific principles during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been a positive side effect of a serious pandemic. I hope the public’s interest in science continues.




Auf Wiedersehen Wisconsin, Hallo Deutschland!

This post is about my first month getting situated on my sabbatical in Germany. The second month was consumed by the spread of COVID-19, and I had to return to the U.S. in less than two months. This post should be entitled “Auf Wiedersehen Deutschland, Hallo Wisconsin!” but I will save the COVID-19 related experiences for another post.

My two few days was solely dedicated to moving into my apartment. In my last post, I wrote about how I preemptively placed an order for IKEA furniture a week before leaving the US so that the order would be delivered right after we arrived. This plan worked perfectly. Additionally, it felt satisfying to put together our furniture and get settled into our new home. We also made a couple of trips to grocery stores to stock up on necessary food and water. We brought a few tote bags to carry our groceries home. Luckily, we have two discount grocery stores within half a mile of our apartment. I highly recommend taking children to a grocery store and letting them pick out a bunch of new food to try, even familiar favorites like Oreos. We made an effort to try new things up front, and that helped us discover a few favorite new foods early on. Everything was new, and this was more difficult for the children than it was for me, but we enjoyed sampling the many types of pastries, cakes, and chocolates available in Germany.

Eventually we picked up a few things to make life in Germany easier: a water cooker for boiling water, tupperware, a hair dryer and curling iron, a big European drying rack, dishes and kitchenware, notebooks, and a mop.

Thanks to the documentation from the Department of State, who manages the Fulbright, and the RWTH Aachen Welcome Center, I printed out all the documents we needed. I had a huge binder full of documents. But the paperwork was overwhelming. The children were almost entirely shielded from the bureaucracy, and I was relieved that the stress of moving to Germany fell on my shoulders. Bureaucratic tasks for adjusting to German life included:

  • Resident registration and related tasks
  • Immigration
  • Cultural integration / education of the children and related accounts (all day care, bus tickets)
  • University registration as a visiting professor
  • Public transportation and train accounts
  • Bank account
  • Cell phone SIM card activation

Registering with the citizen’s office in Germany was a pain. This was something everyone must do within two weeks of when they move to a new apartment, not just newcomers to Germany. Appointments can be made but there is a one month wait, so the only way to register is to arrive at the office at 7:30am with the children, pull a ticket (like at the DMV in the US), and wait. On our first try, the central computer for our region of Germany used to register everyone in the region went down, and we had to come back the next day first thing in the morning.

After registering our address, we applied for a residence permit with the immigration office. Again, the children came with me. We could complete this step at the university, and it was very easy. We had all of our papers ready and brought passport photos that we printed out ahead of time at a drugstore in the US. The photos needed in Germany are basically the same but cut to a smaller size. The person working in the office cut our photos to a smaller size, so we did not have to come back with new photos.

I needed a bank account in Germany for my Fulbright. It was easy to set up an account with the N26 bank.

Once the children were in school, paperwork was never-ending. One week I hypothesized that German bureaucracy is like a marathon because I had hit the “wall” the previous week. Another time it felt like a series of nesting dolls, with each task leading to another smaller sub-task that I could not see earlier. I thought I had checked something off my list (registering the children for a bus pass), but then I had to take the form to a city office. That didn’t end the registration process. Instead, I was told to wait for something to arrive in the mail, fill it out, and return it. Finally, it seemed like an Escape Room. You keep think you’re getting close to figuring out how to complete the paperwork, but then there is another puzzle (or puzzling form) to figure out. I did better once I accepted that I needed to devote a few hours per week to paperwork. Sadly, we had to return to the US just after I figured everything out and was ready to settle into my research routine.

Getting used to public transportation was another step in the adjustment process. I find it easy to navigate with public transportation. I used two apps: google maps and the AVV app to find real-time bus route information in Aachen.

News media

I discovered some news sources. I subscribed to the Local (expat friendly German news in English) and Deutsche Welle. I listened to the weekly podcast/radio program “Inside Europe” from the Deutsche Welle. “Slow German” was great for practicing German. Paying for a subscription to the Local was well worth it, especially to keep on track of COVID-19 news.

I was glad I had these items with me

  • Buffs/multi-functional headwear The knock-off versions are about $1 apiece and have a lot of uses.
  • A deck of cards and/or Uno cards.
  • Travel yoga mat.
  • Smartphone apps: google maps with downloaded maps of places we visited, google translate, and public transportation apps
  • First aid kit: thermometer, band-aids, Tylenol, children’s Tylenol, children’s Advil, Neosporin, Aquaphor, and Hydrocortisone. I used all of these items, and each time I was relieved I didn’t have to make a special trip to the store. I’m proud to say I had no mishaps with the electric bread slicer in my apartment.

First days were fun too

The first few days were full of fun discoveries. We discovered the endless supply of chocolate at area stores. We also purchased an annual zoo pass for the zoo that was a quarter mile walk from our apartment. We visited 3-5 times per week, usually for a long stroll through the zoo by each of our favorite animals.

In my next sabbatical post, I will blog about how I got started with sabbatical planning.

Read more blog posts about my 2020 sabbatical here and see my tweets using the “PunkRockORinGermany” hashtag on twitter. I had to end my trip to Germany early due to the COVID-19 outbreak.