Student discovers ‘natural charm,’ potential power of O.R.

By Nick Cullen

In very few disciplines are we given the opportunity to bridge the gap between the beautiful rigidity of mathematics and the viscous decision-making of business. One of those disciplines is operations research.

There’s an interesting dichotomy to be found in the idea that it’s hard to imagine many young kids alluding to a career in operations research when their parents bring up the “what do you want to do when you’re older” question. In my experience, even many high school students don’t have much sense of this aforementioned offshoot of industrial engineering.

However, the unintended splendor of a situation such as this lies in the idea that somewhere along the way, every person currently involved in the O.R. field had to take a leap of faith – had to make the conscious decision to hop on the path toward some future in this field.

Lately, as a third-year university student studying industrial & systems engineering (ISE) and hoping to pursue a graduate degree in O.R., I’ve thought a great deal about my own “leap of faith.” In this piece, I hope to fully articulate exactly what I discovered about how people (including myself) may trace their academic beginnings.

Choosing a Major

Entering college, my interest in the relatively obscure aspects of certain majors was what enticed me to seek out the ISE major at the University of Florida. I didn’t know much about ISE, and I didn’t yet know many other people that wanted to become an ISE major. I wanted to set my own path and make my way in unfamiliar territory.

In high school, I had been all over the STEM spectrum: I had tried my hand at programming some interesting games in TI-BASIC on my graphing calculator, I had fiercely applied myself in my calculus classes, and I had really enjoyed the way statistics lessons could make sense of the seemingly random world.

As fate would have it, my college freshman advisors described ISE to me as “a blend of computer science, mathematics, statistics and business.” I enjoyed all those subjects and didn’t want to limit the breadth of my studies to any single one of them. And so I decided to give ISE a try.

Declaring a major was just the beginning. Soon, I realized that my major was incredibly broad, so I set out to discover what one actually does with this degree. That inquiry led me to operations research. Through online research, reading and talking with professors and peers, I discovered a field of study that was fascinating, exciting and ever-growing in our society.

The Natural Charm of O.R.

Looking back, I think the wheels that led me to this point were set in motion long before any high school math class.
The initial – subconscious, in a way — attraction to operations research emanated from hearing about companies “increasing their efficiency tenfold and reducing their costs substantially” and so on, due to an ingenious process improvement.

In short, the direct application to the real world of so many important O.R. concepts was the first charm for me. I found myself wanting to make a difference when I heard stories like that of Toyota, which “donated” engineers, in lieu of money, to a local homeless shelter. Those engineers developed a more efficient structure of waiting line queues at the shelter, decreasing wait times for food by half. Practitioners of O.R., I learned, also help determine the complicated regular season schedules of the NFL, NBA and MLB professional sports leagues.

Role for INFORMS: Recruiting

I was truly enthralled and, well, validated in my choice of a career path when I learned just how much work INFORMS does in advancing the supported disciplines. I believe that the way INFORMS continually strives to structure a community around the profession is probably what convinces many people, especially those who are on the fence about their future livelihood, to pursue a career in O.R.

The importance of INFORMS to the future of the profession is why the members of this organization have, in my opinion, an important responsibility to recruit. Convincing students and showing them what’s out there should be what professors and practitioners alike do, either with explicit suggestions to students or with their implicit actions. If not from INFORMS and its members, then from where else will students learn about this field? Word-of-mouth is not enough.

In a recent issue of OR/MS Today, I read INFORMS President Steve Robinson’s column entitled “Making Connections.” In his piece, he asked for thoughts on how INFORMS could “expand its connection effort” and continue to grow as a field.

Well, here’s one possible answer from myself, a student: more outreach, more analytics competitions, more conference scholarships, more everything for students.

The fact that a student like myself can have a voice is already a true testament to the virtues of this organization. So I hope the time, money and effort that INFORMS dedicates to future student outreach and recruitment grows just as steadily as the organization itself. I have no doubt that it will.

If this happens, I have no doubt that there will be an endless influx of students in years to come – students who are enthusiastic about the field and can’t wait to see what they can do in this competitive, challenging environment.

Nick Cullen (class of 2015) is an ISE major at the University of Florida.