Tag Archives: work-life balance

can operations research lead the way in “combinatorial innovation”

Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian (professor of information sciences, business, and economics at the University of California at Berkeley), claims that we are in a period of “combinatorial innovation,” where understanding how to leverage technology to understand data and make informed decisions is necessary for success.  He says:

Now what we see is a period where you have Internet components, where you have software, protocols, languages, and capabilities to combine these component parts in ways that create totally new innovations. The great thing about the current period is that component parts are all bits. That means you never run out of them. You can reproduce them, you can duplicate them, you can spread them around the world, and you can have thousands and tens of thousands of innovators combining or recombining the same component parts to create new innovation. So there’s no shortage. There are no inventory delays. It’s a situation where the components are available for everyone, and so we get this tremendous burst of innovation that we’re seeing… I keep saying the sexy job in the next ten years will be statisticians. [emphasis added] Link to article.

Sure, statistics is great, but it also sounds like OR is needed!

On a related note, I read a story today that made me feel warm and fuzzy inside.  Many tech companies are trying to lure back women in science, engineering, and technology who have left the field (such as stay at home mothers).   Many companies are offering re-entry programs for women, despite the economic climate.  The article states:

While 41% of highly qualified scientists, engineers and technicians in lower-tier jobs are female, more than half eventually quit midcareer, based on research by the Center for Work-Life Policy’s Sylvia Hewlett and others, published last year in the Harvard Business Review. Women in these fields face isolation, extreme job pressures and long hours; they often become most discouraged about 10 years into their careers — just as family pressures also tend to intensify.  Still, after years at home, many women scientists and engineers yearn to return to research and development.  Link to article.

This is great news and contrary to what I have heard (namely, that once a woman leaves science/engineering/technology, it’s almost impossible to return).  Yeah!

Related posts:


commuting to work using public transportation

In most places in the United States, commuting to work using public transportation is not possible or is too difficult to be a viable alternative to driving. Sadly, this is the case where I live. The bus system is excellent, but isn’t extensive enough to take most people to and from work, since it mainly takes people to and from downtown. Riding the buses here worked for awhile when I lived in the city along a bus route, and my daughter’s day care happened to be along the same bus route within walking distance of my office (talk about being dealt a good hand!). Now that I live in suburbia and have two kids that attend two different day cares, I can only dream of using public transportation.

Here’s the problem. Many people who commute to work have families and have to work their commute around school and day care. Everyone driving themselves to work may not be ideal, but it is flexible and allows for you to pick up your kids on the way home from work. I have yet to see a bus or public transportation system address this reality. Until now. Unfortunately, the program got the ax.

Champaign-Urbana has been kicking around a proposal to build a big day care center near their bus hub, which would provide a park and ride alternative for working parents. Since most bus routes go through the hub (and the bus routes serve most of the C-U community), there would be no need to transfer several times to get from home to day care to work. This would make using public transportation efficient and flexible for parents. Hooray!

I miss the excellent bus service in Champaign-Urbana, which I used as a student even while working around the day care issue. The day care proposal isn’t perfect, but it’s good to hear that people are figuring out why many do not use public transportation. Here’s what they are not considering: most people use family members or in-home day care because day care centers are too expensive (day care centers cost roughly twice the amount as in-home day care in CU), and there would be a limited number of children that could be in the day care near the bus hub. Building an expensive day care center that people who would otherwise ride buses cannot afford isn’t going to work. They need to think bigger.

This is a huge opportunity for OR. Buses are a flexible form of transportation compared to, say, the subway. It should work around working parents’ existing schedules. Moving all schools to a central location near a public transportation hub, for example, is ridiculous. Although schools and day cares are spread out, working parents drive in predicable patterns that just might be well-serviced by better routed buses. Questioning existing public transportation paradigms may have big payoffs. I hope someone with the time and means to address this issue thinks outside the box.


value focused parenting

Joshua Gans of the Game Theorist, one of my favorite blogs, had an interesting post on value focusing parenting. Gans addresses the problem of his children’s forgetfulness and writes:

The goal is not to build a respect for property but to get good habits established. The problem is that, in a world where you constantly remind kids or inquire as to the location of items, you are not doing that. What the child needs to do is sort out how to achieve the goal — not losing stuff — on their own taking into account all of the machinations and distractions that might be part of that operation.

Since Gans is an economist, he doesn’t label his Value Focused Thinking approach to parenting as such. But I smiled when I read his post because I just about had this exact conversation with my husband a few weeks ago (only I used some more OR terminology).


Amnio and decision trees

The day after I discussed Bayes rule in the class I am teaching, Freakonomics posted an interesting post on amniocentesis.

An amniocentesis (or an “amnio”) is a fairly common procedure among pregnant women that involves the extraction of a small sample of amniotic fluid surrounding a fetus. The main benefit of an amnio is that it can diagnose genetic disorders in a fetus, including Down syndrome. But there is also a real cost, as roughly 1 in 200 tests causes a spontaneous miscarriage (estimates of this probability vary).

The article discusses women aged 35 or older, who are are recommended to have amnio, but women younger than 35 are also advised to have amnio if a blood test suggests that their baby is likely to have Down syndrome or neural tube defects. Here’s where Bayes rule kicks in: the probability that the baby has Down syndrome is a mere 3% if the test is positive (about 0.02% if the test is negative). So the babies that are miscarried are unlikely to have Down syndrome. I did a quick decision tree to help me determine to refuse amnio if the test was positive (luckily, I didn’t have to make that tough choice). I know of other OR geeks who also used decision trees to to decide whether to do amnio.

The article writes about a paper that applies utility theory and dynamic programming to determines when (and when not) to have amnio. Pretty nifty stuff.


Mothering in academia

I read a review for Mama, PhD, a new book about having children in academia that I am looking forward to reading (You can read an excerpt). That prompted me to finally write about my birth experience and to now write about being a working mother.

First of all, I find all these books and articles on being a working mother overwhelmingly negative. Millions of women are working mothers. It’s hard. We manage. Things could be better. It’s not Doomsday. But if I wrote a book about it, I’d probably focus on the negatives as well. Things are not going to get better unless we talk about it.

Here is my brief take on motherhood and academia:

  • Being an academic makes having a family easier (compared to working in industry) since our schedules are so flexible. Flexibility and being able to work from home occasionally make it all manageable.
  • Things are changing rapidly. I am shocked to hear some of the horror stories about women having to teach a week after giving birth and not being offered leave. That isn’t my experience at all. I applied for a Sloan Foundation grant to take a semester off from teaching, and other young academic mothers I know have received incredible amounts of support. Yeah, there are things that could improve, but I get the sense that maternity leaves are way better now than they were ten years ago (no, I never really left work behind, but that’s another matter). Things seem to be much better in academia than industry.
  • Things are changing rapidly for dads, too. Dads help out with child care and house work more than ever. They do like three times as much child care as dads a generation ago. Dads deserve support, encouragement, and praise.
  • Mothers spend more time with their kids than they did a generation ago! (We’re too hard on ourselves).

Here are my two big gripes about motherhood and academia:

  • Day care. I worry more about day care than tenure. There are too few options for working moms, and it’s hard to figure out child care when going to conferences. Very hard. Few universities have child care available, and universities that have evening classes ought to have options, since day cares close by 6pm. My baby can’t crawl herself home and babysit herself while I am teaching.
  • Nursing. If the thought of nursing makes you uncomfortable, stop reading now. Nursing at home is easy, nursing at work is more challenging. It’s really hard to focus at a conference when I am struggling to discreetly take pumping breaks, pumping in a bathroom because someone turned my cozy private pumping room into a very public coat room, and constantly worrying about how I’m going to keep my milk cold before I get home when the hotel didn’t provide the fridge I requested and the ice machine is broken. None of this is unique to academia, but we do have to do a lot of conference travel. It’s all worth it, especially when babies stay so healthy (there are about 100 more benefits). I refuse to feel awkward about it, because hey, babies have to eat.

Mary Ann Mason (a dean at Berkeley) is an expert on women and men academics having children pretenure. The data shows that women who have children young don’t get tenure and that men who have children pre-tenure are rewarded with tenure. In a talk I attended, Dr. Mason suggested that academic mothers tend to leave pipeline rather than get denied tenure, which is good news for those who stick with academia. Her data also showed that academic mothers average more than 13 hours of work per day (counting child care), which sounds about right. Don’t get me wrong, motherhood is infinitely rewarding, but it is also a lot more work than I imagined. She wrote a book about this that I haven’t read yet, but if it’s anything like her talk, it will be great. You can also read her articles Do Babies Matter? and Do Babies Matter II?.


best multicultural companies

Working Mother published a list of the twenty best companies for multicultural women. Many of these companies hire OR types! (WM used an application process and methodology, so they didn’t just put all their big sponsors on a list).


Defining our way

Last week, I attended the Defining Our Way Conference for junior women faculty sponsored by VCU and organized by the VCU School of Engineering (thanks to Jennifer Wayne). I have participated in many programs for women faculty members, but this was by far the best, and many of the topics would have been just as interesting to male faculty and non-academic researchers. But I have to admit that atmosphere would have been noticeably different if men attended the conference–all conference attendees and most speakers were women (with the exception of Dean Russell Jamison who was one of the sponsors).

Here are a few of the most interesting parts of the conference:

  • Ellen Daniell, PhD, (author of Every Other Thursday) gave the keynote lecture, an intimate and honest talk about support networks for academic women. Best of all, she attended the rest of the conference to interact with the attendees, and I can assure you, we picked her brain every chance we got.
  • Sara Laschever (author of Women Don’t Ask and Ask For It) gave a wonderful seminar on negotiation for women. She revealed some startling facts about differences between the genders. The most startling was that men negotiate four times more frequently than women.
  • There are really only two keys for time management: (1) Do less and (2) Do it faster. Thanks to Janice Cuny, PhD, for a great seminar. She also recommended a few resources for women in academia.
  • I had an opportunity to chat with Dr. Russell Jamison about The da Vinci Center at the VCU College of Engineering, which provides industrial, collaborative projects for engineering, business, and art students. The projects were much more difficult and collaborative than I experienced through capstone senior design projects. Apparently the art students frequently made the most contributions up front since they are used to being critiqued, working with their hands (such as drawing prototypes), and thinking about the big picture. The engineers frequently got side-tracked trying to coming up with overly technical approaches that addressed a small part of the project (like optimizing one small aspect of the project) while losing track of the bigger picture. I found this a little sad, since I am an engineer. But engineers are taught many technical tools, and if you give someone a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Modeling courses eventually set me straight on figuring out how to address the big picture while focusing most carefully on a few aspects of the problem. More on this later. But this makes me want to have a few art students in my classes.