What's Your StORy?

Chanaka Edirisinghe

Chanaka Edirisinghe

May 2016 What's Your StORy?
Kay and Jackson Tai '72 Chair Professor at Lally School of Management of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, NY.

This is a very exciting position that allows me to apply my skills in mathematical modeling and analytical techniques in the field of quantitative finance and risk analytics. In my previous job as professor at Haslam Business School of University of Tennessee, for over two decades, my research, teaching, and practice in the field of OR/MS brought me closer to various functions within INFORMS. However, it was during my graduate studies at University of British Columbia, Canada, that I first became affiliated with INFORMS (then known as ORSA/TIMS).

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What prompted you to enter this field? Why?
I can honestly say that my basic foundation for this field was formed during my undergraduate days in mechanical engineering in Sri Lanka when I first took a course in operations research, in which I studied the simplex method developed by Professor George Dantzig, father of linear programming. Later, during my master’s work in industrial engineering, I fell in love with the field of optimization and stochastics, partly due to my first real O.R. practical application in water reservoir design and operation for the energy authority in Thailand, which led to furthering my interests in this field at UBC where I completed my doctoral work in stochastic optimization. Professor Dantzig remains my role model to this day. I cannot think of an academic field more exciting than this because every application dealing with human-made systems, be it financial, healthcare, manufacturing, or supply chains, cost-effective design and efficient operation with limited resources, policy, and regulation are complex undertakings. The insights we develop through the use of OR/MS modeling, which are analytical in nature and deal with uncertainties of real life, have the potential to be at the core of making a serious impact for many stakeholders, including the society-at-large.


How do you define “analytics”?
Fundamentally, “analytics” is the field that combines the data and decision making in myriad applications. On the data side, we are concerned with models of data, information systems for efficient storage and retrieval, and issues with size of data – not just “big data,” but dimension as well. On the decision side of analytics, various INFORMS communities have made significant progress over the years, both in descriptive and prescriptive formats, exploiting the speed and network architectures of the modern computing environments. For analytics to continue to make significant impact, I think, data and decision modeling need to be viewed as “the hand and the glove,” respectively.


What INFORMS member benefit do you find the most useful?
First and foremost, networking opportunities for junior researchers are tremendous. As a young researcher, I found it extremely rewarding. Second, INFORMS is an exciting place to sharpen leadership skills within ones’ own passionate domain of OR/MS interest. These are provided through many societies and subdivisions. A wealth of free information is also available online for INFORMS members via TutORials, publications, and other resources. These three areas rank the best in my mind among a multitude of other benefits enjoyed by INFORMS members.


What are you most excited about as chair of the 2016 INFORMS Annual Meeting?
It is exciting to have INFORMS return to Nashville after 25 years – the last was in 1991. I learned a long time ago that success does not come by just working hard, but enjoying what you do is part and parcel. The most exciting part of this Annual Meeting to me is it is “INFORMS” (working hard) in “Nashville” (enjoyable). While we work hard to “fine tune decisions in the Music City,” I hope that each and every attendee will enjoy the superb cuisine and the variety of entertainment options that Nashville has to offer. So, I feel fortunate to be chairing this great meeting. I am also supported by a terrific core organizing committee of 14 people, and a great INFORMS staff.


What is something you learned in the last month?
Life is too short, for I narrowly escaped a road accident in San Francisco. On a more serious note, it reminds me that it is not worth doing things we don’t enjoy and feel proud of.


How have you seen the management science field change since you first entered it?
I recall what Professor Dantzig wrote in the 1991 history book: "it is interesting to note that the original problem that started my research is still outstanding … planning dynamically under uncertainty. If such a problem could be successfully solved it could eventually through better planning contribute to the well-being and stability of the world." It is still an important problem, and I think, remarkable progress has been made in getting closer to this goal. Initially, there was a lot of focus on large-scale models of real-life problems and their solution, leveraging efficient solution techniques and parallel computation. Combinatorial problems dealing with decision making under uncertainty was also a large part of it, which has led to efficient scheduling in air and ground transportation, among others. I also witnessed substantial inroads into developing and improving insights in several application areas, including finance. I believe we are currently at one of the most exciting times of this field, requiring a hard look at many different challenges: data-driven decision making environment with an abundance of data to provide real-time solutions; possible impact on major stakeholders due to behavioral issues; new societal challenges in energy, healthcare, retirement planning, and security, to name a few.


If we were sitting here a year from now celebrating what a great year it's been for you, what would we be celebrating?
I like to bring different disciplines and different people together because that is the only way we break boundaries and make advancement. I have applied that mindset even through the planning of the 2016 Annual Meeting – in this case, bringing worthy, perhaps under-represented topical areas to the forefront through invited and keynote lectures to the broader INFORMS audience. If most people agree with that at the end, then I would celebrate it as a success.


What interest do you have outside of work that might surprise us?
I don’t think there are surprises anymore. I would love to travel to different countries and spend some time learning a bit of language and culture – I have had the good fortune to do some of it, and it is amazing how it quickly transforms the way we think about the most mundane things. Also, I have great passion in the sports game cricket, which originated in England in the late 16th century. Now, it is played in a handful of countries with a following of over 1 billion (note “b”). It is sufficiently scientific and we ought to be able to subject it to sports analytics for improvement.