Since I’m utterly lost as to how to kick off my first blog post, I suppose I’ll begin by introducing myself.
I’m a second-year PhD student in Industrial and Systems Engineering at UW-Madison, specializing in Optimization. I did my undergraduate work at UW-Madison as well, but I had a two-year gap between my undergraduate and graduate studies that included a one-year stint in the DC area working for the federal government. My time with the government piqued my interest in issues of defense and national security, so I’m really looking forward to our upcoming discussion of disasters and homeland security later in this course. My (brief) time in the “real world” has given me a great appreciation for how much Operations Research has to offer outside academia. I’m definitely excited to see how OR – particularly Optimization – can help solve public sector problems. Personally, I’m just finishing up a research project that involved implementing a heuristic Progressive Hedging algorithm for a mixed-integer, multi-stage stochastic problem. My hope for my next research project (which is still in the pipeline) is that I can focus more on application and implementation. One reason I’m eager to be part of this class is the opportunity it will provide to explore historic and current OR issues that have a broad societal impact. As I’m figuring out my next research direction, I’d love to use the information I gain this semester to delve deeper into public sector issues and find new ways to apply Optimization techniques and theories to problems such as disaster relief and homeland security.
During my 5+ years at UW, I’ve taken some very technical classes and some not-so-technical ones, and possibly the most impactful class of them all was a tiny 1-credit course entitled “Social and Ethical Impacts of Technology.” Though it’s buried under a ton of higher credit classes on my student transcript, I honestly think no other class has had a greater impact on my academic mindset. Throughout the semester, we examined engineering failures and tried to determine why they occurred. We tried to answer several questions: What could have been done to prevent such disasters? What are we doing now to ensure nothing like that happens again? What technologies are we currently developing that have potentially negative impacts we don’t see? As Dr. Ian Malcolm so succinctly remarks in the movie Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should” (emphasis mine). I think asking questions like these is especially important in projects with public-facing aspects. Granted, the OR researcher isn’t recreating dinosaurs, or even necessarily developing new technology, but I do think it’s something we should always be thinking about. How will our work impact others? Will a recommended staffing change significantly reduce the hours of an employee who can’t afford that reduction? How are we accounting for the intangibles in our models?
I know we aren’t going to be exploring these issues explicitly this semester, but the inherent ethical and societal issues are what fascinates me about public sector OR, and I can’t wait to see what the semester has in store!