Category Archives: Uncategorized

Summer 2022 public outreach

I have three public outreach items to share from this summer. Details are below. I also recorded a podcast for the IISE Operations Research podcast series about OR for social good. This podcast should be released in September 2022. All my previous media appearances can be found on the “In the News” tab of this blog.

How are math and science used to affect traffic? A 2.5 minute video in UW-Madison’s “Were U Wondering” video series.

I published an Op-ed in The Hill with PhD student* Adam Schmidt entitled “States regulating ballot drop boxes should check the science first” based on his dissertation research that studies how operations research can help plan for resilient elections.

* Adam successfully defended his dissertation!

I was a guest on “Live at Four” on WISC-TV, Madison’s CBS affiliate to discuss whether you can increase your odds of winning MegaMillions (Spoiler: you can’t).

Science communication and public outreach are important, and I agree to as many of these requests as I can fit in my schedule.

dynamic risk management practices for cybersecurity

I’m at the National Science Foundation (NSF) Safe and Trustworthy Computing (SaTC) Principal Investigators’ (PIs) Meeting in Arlington, VA for my grant with Prof. Jim Luedtke entitled “An Optimization Framework for Identifying Dynamic Risk Management Practices.” You can read more about our project in the NSF award abstract and the UW-Madison news release.

I created a short video for public consumption explaining the project on a high level [2:35].

SaTC celebrated its 10th anniversary. This program’s goals are to “protect and preserve the growing social and economic benefits of cyber systems while ensuring security and privacy.” SaTC also supports education, workforce development, and transition to practice. What this program has supported in the past decade is impressive. Read more about SaTC here. SaTC Program Manager Jeremy Epstein encouraged PIs to tell the public about the importance of security research and the National Science Foundation. I was already on top of it 🙂

linear programming is a most unfortunate phrase

“[I]t seems to me that the term `linear programming’ is a most unfortunate phrase for this promising technique, particularly since many possible extensions appear to be in nonlinear directions. A more general yet more descriptive term, such as `bounded optimization,’ might have been a happier choice.

Philip M. Morse (1953). Trends in operations research. Journal of the Operations Research Society of America1(4), 159-165.

It’s interesting that the term “linear programming” has been disliked since it was introduced.

It’s also interesting to hear skepticism about the usefulness of linear programming. This reminds me of a story about George Dantzig in 1948, who also met skepticism regarding the usefulness of linear programming. Read my post “Happiness is assuming the world is linear” for more information.

What do you think of the term “bounded optimization?” Is it better or worse than the term “linear programming?”

Operations research was declared dead in 1979

When I was a PhD student in the early 2000s, my advisor, Sheldon Jacobson, told me that some had once predicted the death of operations research. This came as a surprise to me, because it seemed like the discipline was flourishing. He agreed with me and named a few reasons why he thought operations research overcame its early growing pains. He noted the increase in data availability and how the discipline had embraced new applications like homeland security and healthcare systems.

Recently, I finally looked into the claim that operations research was dying. I was surprised to learn that Sheldon wasn’t exaggerating: operations research was put on life support in 1978 and was declared dead in 1979! Here are the two papers I found.

1978 paper that put OR/MS on life support:

Hall Jr, J. R., & Hess, S. W. (1978). OR/MS: Dead or dying? RX for survival. Interfaces8(3), 42-44.

1979 paper that declared operations research to be dead:

Ackoff, R. L. (1979). The future of operational research is past. Journal of the operational research society30(2), 93-104. A companion paper outlines the roadmap for resurrecting operations research.

“Operations Research is dead even though it has yet to be buried. I also think there is little chance for its resurrection because there is so little understanding of the reasons for its demise.”

Russell L. Ackhoff, 1979

These two papers, plus several others, reflect a discussion that the OR/MS community had early in its life as a discipline. After reading these papers, it because clear that operations research has always been driven to solve real problems in advancing knowledge base, and the interaction between academics and practitioners has been instrumental in making both applied and theoretical advances. This is just one of many observations one could make from reading the papers.

I briefly discussed these papers in my 2021 Omega Rho keynote at the INFORMS Annual Meeting, noting how vibrant out community has become over the years. For example, the 2019 INFORMS Annual Meeting set the highest attendance of an INFORMS conference ever. I’m obviously enthusiastic about operations research and its future given that I’ve blogged about operations research for fifteen years. I’m curious about what readers of this blog think.

Why do you think operations research has survived and thrived?

For further reading:

Happy 15th birthday Punk Rock Operations Research!

It’s hard to believe that I started this blog fifteen years ago on April 2, 2007. Here are some milestones in the life of the blog:

  • I published 762 posts.
  • I started 105 drafts of blog posts that I never finished. Most of those drafts are a quick idea I saved to finish later, but inspiration for finishing the post never came.
  • I updated the blog theme at some point, but I do not remember when. It is perhaps due for another update.
  • The blog was nine years old when I introduced its logo, which I absolutely love.

Over the years, I am frequently asked why I started a blog. I started the blog. Here is the history.

In October 2006, Mike Trick gave the keynote at the INFORMS combined colloquium dinner at the INFORMS Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh, where he encouraged everyone in the room—which was almost entirely filled with PhD students—to start an operations research (OR) blog.  I toyed with the idea of starting an OR blog since starting my first tenure track position that began two months earlier, but I was hesitant about starting a blog at the same time as my tenure clock. However, I was drawn to blogging and decided to give it a try a few months later.

My motivation for starting a blog was to use it as a platform to somewhat selfishly evangelize students about operations research. I found it difficult to find students inclined to study OR in my department. At the time, I was an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in the department of Statistics and Operations Research in a college of humanities. The number of undergraduate OR majors in the department was generally in the single digits, and the department did not have a PhD program at the time.  I naively thought that if I started a blog, students at my university would read it and want to perform research with me and pursue an MS in operations research. That did not exactly happen.

What are the benefits of being an operations research blogger?

I didn’t fail in my quest to draw more people into operations research. In the past 15 years, some of my posts have reached students outside of and adjacent to operations research at universities and high schools throughout the world. I love meeting people who tell me how they were introduced to operations research by a fellow student or professor sent them to Punk Rock Operations Research to encourage them to consider operations research. For some, this nudge apparently worked. It’s an honor to play a small role in someone’s professional journey. It’s one of the best compliments someone can give me, and I’m blushing as I type this. It seems like my original goal of evangelizing students about operations research was realized. Blogging has been a very rewarding journey 🙂

Blogging has been extremely rewarding for my academic career, although not in a way that I had once imagined. Blogging has also helped me broaden my professional network, and it has led to opportunities to give research talks to a broad audience.

How do you find time to blog?

Blogging takes time. I do not consider blogging to be wasted time, although it takes a certain amount of skill to identify how to blog in an efficient manner.  I try to limit blogging to the evenings or to time when I need a mental break, so that blogging does not take away from productive time. This works because for me blogging doesn’t seem like a chore. Sometimes blogging can be a chore, like I when I feel the time pressure to write a post about something in the news before the 24 hour news cycle loses interest and switches to another topic. Once micro-blogging became popular, I found less need to blog when I can post a quick tweet about a topic. Writing blog posts has indirectly made me a better teacher and grant proposal writer, and in this way, it is synergistic with other professional activities. I have blogged less as I have taken on administrative positions and need to balance a larger number of professional duties.

Why are you still blogging like it’s 2007?

Starting a blog in 2007 was the most 2007 thing one could do. ABC News named Bloggers the 2004 People of the Year, and in 2022 I find science blogging to be relevant and important. Blogs provides content that cannot be conveyed in a 280 character tweet (and definitely more than the old limit of 140 characters) or short LinkedIn or FaceBook post. Blogs continue to be a good medium for an operations researcher like myself to convey information in different formats that can be accessed in the same place. I have been on several scientific blogging and social networking panels, and they have all confirmed the importance of blogs.

OR blogs are often—but not always—read by our OR colleagues. People stumble across OR blogs for many reasons, and often they stick around. Reaching out to these readers is a tremendous opportunity to improve scientific literacy in the general public and to bring new people into the field. I am often disheartened by the state of scientific literacy in the US. I even blogged about this recently. We need to continue to tell our operations research stories educate the world about the benefits from applying advanced analytics to making decisions. While I’m just one blogger in a large sea, over the years many journalists have reached out to me for my operations research expertise based on blog posts they’ve discovered. Together we can broadcast our message to the world.

the mathematics of rare matchups in the March Madness tournament

This year’s Final Four is set in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, with Duke, the University of North Carolina (UNC), Kansas, and Villanova facing off this weekend. This is the first time Duke and UNC will play in the tournament. At first blush this is hard to believe when considering how often these two teams have played in the tournament (a combined total of 334 games!). It’s easier to believe when considering the mathematics used to create the bracket.

I once blogged about the constraints required to seed the 68 teams in the tournament and build the bracket. The NCAA’s website indicates the same rules are still in use.

First, the 68 teams are selected, sorted, and seeded. This is a long process. Then, the 68 teams are assigned to one of the four regions to create the bracket. There are many rules for this last step. Here is the rule that explains why Duke and UNC haven’t played in the tournament before:

“Each of the first four teams selected from a conference shall be placed in different regions if they are seeded on the first four lines.”

Duke and UNC are almost always in the first four teams of their conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference. They typically play each other twice during the regular season and sometimes a third time in the ACC conference tournament. Duke and UNC played each other twice this season. According to the NCAA constraints for constructing a bracket, Duke and UNC are not allowed to meet in the tournament before the Final Four. This is when they are meeting in the 2022 tournament. Mathematical constraints secretly guide the tournament.

Fun fact: it is not always possible to create a feasible bracket that conforms to all of the rules.

There are several other constraints for constructing a bracket. Infeasibility can happen in real applications of mathematical optimization. Mathematical constraints do not make nuanced exceptions to the rules the way human decision makers do, so infeasible problem instances must be addressed with humans.

The selection committee addresses the problem of infeasibility by moving a team’s seed up or down by one and sometimes two. This seems like a small change, but it can drastically change a team’s path to the Final Four. The good news is that about a decade ago the rules were tweaked to change teams’ seeds less often, in a victory for the tournament and also for mathematics.

International Women’s Day 2022 reading list

Happy International Women’s Day! I encourage you to join me in celebrating women’s achievements, raising awareness against bias, and taking action for equality.

I am going to focus on women in academia today, since the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly difficult for female tenure track professors who have young children. Over the years, I’ve discovered that I need to continually take time to educate myself on the issues to be effective in my efforts for equality. Here are ten articles I have read recently that highlight the challenges that women academics face during the pandemic and outline policies and mitigating efforts that could help.

  1. The Impact of COVID-19 on the Careers of Women in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: a report from the National Academies in 2021. An article in Inside Higher Ed summarized the work of the panel that produced this report: COVID-19: A Moment for Women in STEM?
  2. Pandemic-related barriers to the success of women in research: a framework for action, published in Nature in 2022.
  3. Leveling the Field: Gender Inequity in Academia During COVID-19, published in PS: Political Science & Politics in 2021.
  4. Faculty Evaluation After the Pandemic, published in The Chronicle in June 2021.
  5. Could the Pandemic Prompt an ʻEpidemic of Lossʼ of Women in the Sciences? Published in the New York Times in April 2021.
  6. A generation of junior faculty is at risk from the impacts of COVID-19, a perspective published in PLOS Biology in May 2021.
  7. Only your boss can cure your burnout, published in the Atlantic in March 2021. This is not specifically about academia, and yet it has a lot of insight into academic careers.
  8. Faculty Members Are Suffering Burnout. These Strategies Could Help, published in The Chronicle in February 2021.
  9. The unequal impact of parenthood in academia, published in Science Advances in 2021
  10. Ten simple rules for women principal investigators during a pandemic, published in PLOS Computational Biology in October 2020 (shout out to my UW-Madison colleagues Pam Kreeger and Kristyn Masters for publishing this paper)

I encourage you to read an article today and share it with others. Feel free to leave additional articles in the comments so I can continue to learn.

Omega Rho Keynote lecture at the 2021 INFORMS Annual Meeting

I was honored to give the Omega Rho keynote lecture at the 2021 INFORMS Annual Meeting. My talked was entitled “A journey through public sector operations research.” My presentation was recorded and can be viewed on YouTube.

Laura Albert gives the 2021 Omega Rho Keynote

Further reading: Op-Eds

Travel bans can’t stop this pandemic. The Hill, March 18, 2020.

Opening the economy is not the problem — opening without a plan to control the risk is the problem, Fox News, July 3, 2020.

Ready for takeoff: Three simple guidelines for flying after vaccination, The Hill, February 7, 2021.

Also check out some of my other media appearances.

Further reading: Review articles and position papers

Albert, L.A. Engaging the Media: Telling Our Operations Research Stories to the Public. SN Oper. Res. Forum1, 14 (2020).

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, To appear in IISE Transactions.

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.

Further reading: Research papers

McLay, L.A., 2009.  A Maximum Expected Covering Location Model with Two Types of Servers, IIE Transactions 41(8), 730 – 741.

McLay, L. A., S. H. Jacobson, and J. E. Kobza, 2006. A Multilevel Passenger Prescreening Problem for Aviation Security, Naval Research Logistics 53 (3), 183 – 197.

McLay, L. A., S. H. Jacobson, and A. G. Nikolaev, 2009.  A Sequential Stochastic Passenger Screening Problem for Aviation Security, IIE Transactions 41(6), 575 – 591.

McLay, L.A., Mayorga, M.E., 2011.  Evaluating the Impact of Performance Goals on Dispatching Decisions in Emergency Medical Service. IIE Transactions on Healthcare Service Engineering 1, 185 – 196.

McLay, L.A., Moore, H. 2012. Hanover County Improves Its Response to Emergency Medical 911 Calls. Interfaces 42(4), 380-394.

McLay, L.A., Mayorga, M.E., 2013.  A model for optimally dispatching ambulances to emergency calls with classification errors in patient priorities. IIE Transactions 45(1), 1—24.

Toro-Diaz, H., Mayorga, M.E., Chanta, S., McLay, L.A., 2013. Joint location and dispatching decisions for Emergency Medical Services. Computers & Industrial Engineering 64(4), 917 – 928.

McLay, L.A., Mayorga, M.E., 2013.  A dispatching model for server-to-customer systems that balances efficiency and equity. Manufacturing & Service Operations Management 15(2), 205 – 200.

Ansari, S., McLay, L.A., Mayorga, M.E., 2015. A Maximum Expected Covering Problem for District Design, Transportation Science 51(1), 376 – 390.

Yoon, S., Albert, L.A., and V.M. White 2021. A Scenario-Based Ambulance Location Model for Emergency Response with Two Types of Vehicles. To appear in ­Transportation Science.

Yoon, S., and Albert, L.A. 2020. A dynamic ambulance routing model with multiple response. Transportation Research Part E: Logistics and Transportation Review. 133, 101807.

Yoon, S. and Albert, L.A., 2021. Dynamic Dispatch Policies for Emergency Response with Multiple Types of Vehicles. Transportation Research Part E: Logistics and Transportation Review 152, 102405.

Zheng, K., Albert, L., Luedtke, J.R., Towle, E. 2019. A budgeted maximum multiple coverage model for cybersecurity planning and management, IISE Transactions 51(12), 1303-1317.

Laura Albert gives the 2021 Omega Rho Keynote

On writing well part 2

“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

In my previous post, I introduced an excerpt from On writing well by William Zinsser about how writing is work and we can learn to get better. What stuck with me from On writing well were his concrete tips for editing my drafts. This post contains a few extra tips for editing all of the “clutter” in my early drafts.

Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds—the writer is always slightly behind…

Is there any way to recognize clutter at a glance? Here’s a device my students at Yale found helpful. I would put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work. Often just one word got bracketed: the unnecessary preposition appended to a verb (“order up”), or the adverb that carries the same meaning as the verb (“smile happily”), or the adjective that states a known fact (“tall skyscraper”). Often my brackets surrounded the little qualifiers that weaken any sentence they inhabit (“a bit,” “sort of”), or phrases like “in a sense,” which don’t mean anything. Sometimes my brackets surrounded an entire sentence—the one that essentially repeats what the previous sentence said, or that says something readers don’t need to know or can figure out for themselves. Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.

My reason for bracketing the students’ superfluous words, instead of crossing them out, was to avoid violating their sacred prose. I wanted to leave the sentence intact for them to analyze. I was saying, “I may be wrong, but I think this can be deleted and the meaning won’t be affected. But you decide. Read the sentence without the bracketed material and see if it works.” In the early weeks of the term I handed back entire papers that were festooned with brackets. Entire paragraphs were bracketed. But soon the students learned to put mental brackets around their own clutter, and by the end of the term their papers were almost clean. Today many of those students are professional writes, and they tell me, “I still see your brackets—they’re following me through life.”

You can develop the same eye. Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?

Simplify, simplify.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

This process is work, and even experienced writers have to write many drafts that they ruthlessly edit.

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time. Or the third. Keep thinking and rewriting until you say what you want to say.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

On writing well

When I was preparing for my preliminary exam, a friend gave me a copy of the 25th anniversary edition of On writing well by William Zinsser. I read it at once, devouring it in a couple of days. It instantly became one of my favorite books and is still my favorite book about writing.

Zinsser was a journalist and published many nonfiction in his career. On writing well is aimed at all types of nonfiction writing, and while it wasn’t written solely for academics, academic writers can benefit from following his guidance. Zinsser has a growth mindset for writers, and I continue to appreciate his encouragement. If I work at writing, I can get better.

I love On writing well because it’s the writing book that inspired me and encouraged me to be aspiration about what I want to achieve from writing. In contrast, I’ve found the books I’ve read about academic writing—some of which are excellent—to be more transactional in focus.

I have included an excerpt below about the importance of writing frequently and about the growth that will happen if we write on a regular basis.

You learn to write by writing. It’s a truism, but what makes it a truism is that it’s true. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.

If you went to work for a newspaper that required you to write two or three articles every day, you would be a better writer after six months. You wouldn’t necessarily be writing well—your style might still be full of clutter and clichés. But you would be exercising your powers of putting the English language on paper, gaining confidence and identifying the most common problems.

All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem. It may be a problem of where to obtain the facts or how to organize the material. It may be a problem of approach or attitude, tone or style. Whatever it is, it has to be confronted and solved. Sometimes you will despair of finding the right solution—or any solution. You’ll think, “If I live to be ninety I’ll never get out of this mess.” I’ve often thought it myself. But when I finally do solve the problem it’s because I’m like a surgeon remove his 500th appendix; I’ve been there before.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well