Q&A: Moving forward with membership help – INFORMS President-Elect Brian Denton

Incoming INFORMS President Brian Denton discusses goals, aspirations and member-inspired ideas and initiatives for 2017.

INFORMS President-Elect Brian Denton

INFORMS President-Elect Brian Denton

By Peter Horner

Brian Denton recently recalled his  introduction to INFORMS. At the time, he was a grad student, pursuing a Ph.D. in management science at McMaster University in Canada. He was in Montreal to present a paper at an INFORMS Annual Meeting, his first. A native of Burlington, Ontario, Canada, Denton remembers being very nervous; he imagined a thousand people would attend his session.

Turns out about 980 fewer people showed up to hear his talk than he expected, but he left the conference full of excitement about his decision to pursue an OR/MS career and certain he had found his professional home in INFORMS.

Fast forward two decades. On Jan. 1, 2017, Denton will become the president of INFORMS after serving the past year as president-elect. Along the way, he served INFORMS in many other roles, including two terms as Board secretary, as chair of the INFORMS Health Applications Section, as program chair for the INFORMS Annual Meeting and as chair of the Franz Edelman Award Committee. He also picked up his share of accolades from INFORMS, including the INFORMS Service Section Prize and the INFORMS Daniel H. Wagner Prize.

Denton, who already held an undergrad degree in chemistry and physics (1994) from McMaster University and a master’s in physics (1996) from York University (Canada), completed his Ph.D. in 2001, and went to work as a senior engineer at IBM, followed by a two-year stint as a senior associate consultant with the Mayo Clinic. He returned to academia as an assistant professor in the Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering at North Carolina State University in 2007. In 2012, he joined the faculty at the University of Michigan, where today he is a professor in the Department of Industrial and Operations Engineering.

We interviewed Denton by phone on Nov. 8 and again a week later at the 2016 INFORMS Annual Meeting in Nashville. The conversations literally ranged from “A” to “Z,” from the state of the analytics profession and INFORMS, to his goals for his year as president, to his research interests in optimization and medical decision-making, to his fascination and fun with fly fishing and, of course, zombies. Following are excerpts:

What is the “state of INFORMS” from your viewpoint in terms of its major activities and its financial position?

The state of INFORMS is excellent. We are in really good shape. We have a large reserve fund that is making it possible to initiate new activities. We have more than 12,000 members for the first time, and things are going great with our portfolio of member services. We have a large group of exciting meetings, our journals are in great shape, and we have all kinds of new member services we are creating along the way.
Looking more broadly, what is the state of the greater analytics profession?

I think public enthusiasm about analytics is creating all kinds of opportunity for our membership. Whether our members consider themselves operations researchers or management scientists or data scientists or something else, analytics is creating a lot of new opportunities. I think much of it is driven by the fact that there’s increasingly easy access to data, and that’s creating more and more opportunities to use some of the approaches we’ve been developing for a long time, and it’s becoming much more popular with the general public. It’s also creating opportunities to do new stuff. I think our members are benefiting in terms of having the opportunity to work on new problems and use real data to help make better decisions, to hire new faculty, and to find new business opportunities because of greater public awareness of our field.
In your position statement, you said your first priority will be to focus on future strategic initiatives. What new initiatives are in the pipeline? Are you reaching out to the membership for ideas?

Absolutely. One of the things I’m very interested in is helping members make some of their good ideas come to light. INFORMS recently developed a proposal process that allows any member to propose new ideas. It’s not a complicated process, and it can provide the opportunity to get funding to do something new. We want to get as many of these new proposals as we can so we can select the best ones to create some new opportunities.
I’ve been spending time thinking about how to enhance this strategic proposal process and how to get the word out to as many people as possible.
Can you talk about specific new initiatives?

Sure, I’ll give you some recent examples I’m excited about. One is the development of ethical guidelines for our membership. I appointed Dave Hunt to a committee to lead this effort. Dave put together an amazing committee of members, including former presidents and editors-in-chief of our journals, and developed some guidelines that are aspirational so our members have some kind of idea of what they should aspire to if they work in our profession.

Another new initiative I’m very excited about is a diversity and inclusion initiative. Last January, I appointed an ad hoc committee with Michael Johnson as the chair. Michael recruited a great group of people to start developing some ideas around how we can lower the barriers to participation for our members, and to be more cognizant of our membership and the diversity of our membership. A proposal to make this a long-term sustainable effort was approved at the Board meeting in Nashville.

There’s a lot more in the pipeline, but I won’t ruin all of the surprises.
I don’t suppose you grew up dreaming about being an operations researcher or management scientist. What led you from a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in physics to a Ph.D. in management science, which ultimately became the foundation of your career?

Who does? I think we all discover operations research along the way. I guess everybody has their own story of how they discovered operations research. In my case, I was interested in finding something where I could use what I had learned in a more practical way, something with more opportunities for employment, and that’s when I discovered operations research. I found it’s a great field to be in; it’s just a fantastic way to use some of the skills that people develop in a lot of different disciplines such as math or engineering or basic sciences. There’s all kinds of important problems in the area of operations research that our members can impact.
Presumably you had some mentors who guided you and influenced your O.R. journey.

There are too many mentors to mention them all. I’ve really benefited from having many great mentors over my entire career. I will mention a few, though. One was my Ph.D. advisor, Diwakar Gupta at McMaster University. He really helped me to understand how to develop research ideas and how to do research.

After my transition from grad school to my job at IBM, many people helped me, especially my IBM colleague John Milne, who showed me the ropes about how things work in a research and development environment. If I had to mention two more people, they would be the first faculty mentors I had at North Carolina State University, Steve Roberts and Jim Wilson, both senior faculty members. Without their guidance I don’t think I would have been successful as an academic.
What’s the best advice you’ve both received and could give a young person contemplating an O.R. career?

Great question. For a young person, I can think of two very good pieces of advice. One is, operations research is such a broad area with so many opportunities, make sure you do something that you really care about and that you’re very excited about. Another piece of advice is not to listen to pessimists or negative people. Don’t let people tell you that your ideas are not any good. I guess the best advice I heard from one of my mentors was don’t avoid things because you’re worried about failing; failing is a natural outcome of learning. That was something that stuck with me early in my career.
As far back as your grad student days in the 1990s, you picked INFORMS as your professional home? What drew you to the Institute?

I never even thought that it was a choice. At the time, my grad school peers and faculty were all talking about INFORMS, and when I went to IBM for my first job, I was encouraged to stay connected to INFORMS. The thing that I was most excited about at that time was the conferences. At the annual meeting, there were 50 or 60 tracks of talks all going on at once. It was like being a kid in a candy store – just an endless number of things to learn. Now, much later in my career, INFORMS is still helping me develop my professional network of collaborators and helping me meet people of similar interests to my own.
Do you remember your first INFORMS Annual Meeting?

It was a meeting in Montreal, 1997 I believe, and I went there with a group of other grad students. I was giving a presentation, and I was both terrified and excited. I imagined there would be a thousand people in the audience. It turned out there were only about 20 people in my session, but it was still a great experience. I remember that distinctly. I was surprised at how comfortable I felt at the conference and how welcoming the people were. It changed from something that was maybe initially a scary experience to one where I really had a great time, and I wanted to go back to another INFORMS meeting as soon as I could.

Following your Ph.D., you worked at IBM and the Mayo Clinic before joining the academic ranks. What did you take away from that real-world practice experience?

Basically, I still think of myself as a practitioner, and I still have a lot of the friends at those places. A lot of the research that I do here at the University of Michigan finds its way into practice. I guess that’s the thing I took away from IBM and the Mayo Clinic: do research from the perspective of someone who has done it as a practitioner. I took away tons of ways to think about problems and a general understanding of how the world works when it comes to trying to have an impact.
Would you recommend that sort of real-world/academic combination experience? Does one help the other, and vice versa?

Students ask me that all the time. I would say the industry experience has helped me a lot. But for somebody who wants to be an academic, if that’s their major career goal, they should approach going into industry first with caution. There’s not one kind of academic position, and there’s not one kind of practice position. Some industry research positions will allow you to develop a CV that would be attractive to academics, and some would not. Will you be able to present your work at conferences? Is publishing one of the requirements for the job? These are questions I would ask.
Why did you decide to re-enter the academia world after several years in the practice world?

Well, I discovered that academic positions are actually a lot different than what I imagined, which is pretty strange because my father is a professor. I always thought I knew what it was like to be a professor. You go and sit in an office and read books, teach, and once in a while students drop by and talk to you. But while I was at Mayo, and working with people in engineering schools, I discovered that my perception of what an academic’s life is like is quite different than reality.

It’s actually very entrepreneurial; there’s an enormous amount of freedom to follow your research interests. There are many different ways to be a professor. You can be very theoretical or very applied or somewhere in between. I had the opportunity to learn that from some of the people I worked as external collaborators with while I was at the Mayo Clinic. I discovered I liked working with grad students a lot. I had a number of them come in as summer interns. Those are the things that changed my mind about academic positions, and then I was very lucky to have an opportunity to go to North Carolina State University. So the combination of my interests and having the opportunity was really what made me make that transition.

I really enjoyed my two years at the Mayo Clinic, but I found out an academic position really suited me and I could keep working with people at the Mayo Clinic, collaborators that I am working with to this day. Now I have grad students I’m sending to Mayo Clinic instead of advising them at Mayo Clinic.
Your research is focused on optimization under uncertainty with applications to healthcare delivery and medical decision-making. You’ve also chaired the INFORMS Healthcare Section. What about the healthcare sector attracted you?

Initially, I was interested in problems that were related to operations management and logistics such as planning and scheduling. That’s what I did during my Ph.D. thesis and during my time at IBM. Healthcare was always sort of an interesting, mysterious area to me; there didn’t seem to be as much operations research work in that sector compared to manufacturing, for example. So I learned something about healthcare logistics problems and found a position about it that was advertised in OR/MS Today. A big ad for Mayo Clinic positions. I sent off my CV.

I didn’t expect them to contact me, but it turns out most people didn’t have a whole lot of experience in healthcare operations research during those days. They talked to me about scheduling as related to surgery, and I admitted I had no experience in surgery scheduling. They were receptive to what I had learned in my grad studies and in working at IBM, they were convinced it was transferable, and they made me an offer. After I got there, I discovered that I was really interested in problems in the area of medicine, like how to screen for cancer and how to optimize treatment decisions for patients with the goal of trying to prevent heart disease or stroke. That would have never happened if I didn’t go to Mayo Clinic and get immersed in the topic area. Optimization in medicine is what I focus all my time on now.
The healthcare industry is a target-rich environment for optimization, but it has also been historically reluctant to optimization. How do you get the buy-in?

That’s a great question. I’ll try not to go on for hours. There are many different kinds of problems in the healthcare industry. There are very important business problems, operation management problems and strategic capacity investment problems, and optimization can play a really important role in all of them. One of the challenges is not so much explaining the concept of optimization. The big challenge that I see is the politics. Maybe a better way to say it is there are many stakeholders, and they naturally have different criteria in mind for what makes for a great healthcare system. Surgeons, primary care physicians, nurses, administrators – they all have overlap on what they think is important, but they don’t always agree on what the most important thing is. So one of the big challenges is getting buy-in on a solution.

If you think about optimization problems, we tend to think about an objective function in the simplest kind of context, but there’s obviously a lot of criteria, so they are very complicated, multiple-criteria optimization problems that require a lot of talking to people in order to understand what motivates their preferences. That’s on the operation side.

On the medical side, there’s more agreement on what the right thing to do is. People have the patient’s best interest in mind, so I find it’s not hard to explain ideas about optimization. It’s consistent with how people think about things. The hard part is convincing them and yourself that the model is well validated and trustworthy. What’s critically important there is developing approaches that are based on real data and recognizing some of the challenges that exist, including missing data, various sources of biases, etc. Those are critically important to getting buy-in and influence decision-making.
INFORMS has organized several conferences focused on healthcare, including the upcoming 2017 meeting in Rotterdam. Tell us about your involvement with the conference and the Healthcare Society of INFORMS.

A huge number of INFORMS members are involved in healthcare in some way. I’ve lost track of the exact number of Healthcare Society members, but it’s in the high hundreds. I was chair of it during a period of transition, when we went from a section to a society, with below 500 members to well over 500. It was an exciting time.

When I was chair of the Healthcare Section, tons of people were always saying, “We should have a healthcare conference.” So I put together a business case for the first healthcare conference. I mentioned to [then Director of Meetings] Terry Cryan that I thought there would be enough interest in healthcare to have a focused conference, and she said that fit pretty well with what they had been talking about at the Board level. I wrote up a short business case, gave it to Terry and she took it to the Board and got people behind it. That led to the first conference in Montreal, and now it seems to be enduring. I’ll for sure be going to the conference in Rotterdam.

The healthcare conference wasn’t really my idea; I’m just the one who conveyed it. There are a lot of members out there with great ideas, but maybe the Board doesn’t always hear them. That’s why I’m so excited about strategic initiatives and opening up the proposal process.
INFORMS is held in high esteem by the academic community because of its prestigious journals and conferences. How would you describe INFORMS’ standing or relevance outside the academic world? In the healthcare industry, for example, or the manufacturing industry?

That’s a good question, and it’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about. We actually have an enormous amount going on all over the place. In medicine, for example, there are thousands and thousands of articles on using stochastic models and optimization. They aren’t appearing in INFORMS or operations research journals necessarily. The vast majority of these articles are appearing in medical journals. This is just one example. Operations research is permeating industries in ways that we are not necessarily aware of as a membership or as an institution.

One thing that I think is really important, that [INFORMS President] Ed Kaplan and I and the Board have been talking about, is developing a means to monitor and discover the new ways that operations research is being used beyond our traditional journals and conferences. The goal is to shine a light on the many things that our members and our field is having an impact on, usually behind the scenes. We have a great opportunity to advertise the great work our members are doing all over the world.
Let’s talk about volunteering. Why do you and many other INFORMS members devote so much time and energy to the Institute and the profession?

Personally, I like most of all the opportunity to meet new people. By working with people on a volunteer project, whether it’s organizing a session at a conference or organizing a cluster or organizing a program for the annual meeting or whatever, you get to meet people and perhaps develop a lasting relationship. That’s something I really enjoy – meeting and working with interesting new people. By doing that, I can learn more about my research, more things that help my teaching in the classroom, but also more things I’m just generally interested to learn about out of curiosity.

All of this is a fun for me, but it’s also helped my career in a lot of ways. I’ve developed a network of people that I can communicate with who might, for example, be able to help one of my grad students find a new position. Sometimes I get advice on projects I’m working on or collaborate with the people I meet through INFORMS. These are all direct benefits from volunteering.
You’ve served a couple of terms on the INFORMS Board as secretary and now as president-elect. I would guess that volunteering has also bolstered your leadership skills.

I’ve had amazing volunteer experiences, starting with organizing a session at a conference. You sort of work your way up a ladder, doing more things, developing your leadership skills and sometimes making mistakes. You learn from those mistakes. We have really helpful people in our membership who are happy to provide mentoring.

Of course, being on the Board is an opportunity to learn leadership skills. During my time on the Board, those have included Rina Schneur, Terry Harrison, Anne Robinson, Steve Robinson, Robin Keller and now Ed Kaplan. It’s been an enormously valuable experience for me to watch and learn from them, and now I’m really excited about being president starting Jan. 1.
Did you seek the presidency, or, like many of your predecessors, did you respond to a call of duty from the Nominating Committee?

It was the second one: Steve Robinson from the Nominating Committee called me one afternoon and asked if I would consider running for president-elect. I was humbled that the committee would ask. It wasn’t a plan of mine, but when he asked, I didn’t have to think about it too long before I told him that I would be happy to run.
Having now served many years on the Board, what would you want the membership to know about INFORMS that they probably don’t?

One thing that comes to mind is this: It’s a lot easier to implement ideas that you as a member have than you might think. There’s funding, there’s people to help. Go back to the healthcare conference we talked about earlier. That was a member idea. You can have more influence on the society than you think. That’s one thing I’d tell members and want them to know.
So what do you like to do for fun when you’re not teaching, researching or volunteering your time for INFORMS?

I like spending time with my wife, family and friends, obviously. One thing that people might not know about me is I really like fly fishing. There’s some great fly fishing in Canada; I go up there quite a bit. Michigan is also good. Lately, I’ve gone to the Bahamas to fish. I’ve got fishing holes scattered all around. Maybe after my year as president I might find time to learn how to tie my own flies.

Another thing people probably don’t know about me is I’m a big fan of zombies. I follow the “Walking Dead” pretty closely; I’ve probably watched every episode twice. I even work zombies into some of my classes. I create optimization problems around zombies.
What’s cool about zombies?

Everything! In my class, if I give a problem on manufacturing or engineering in some generic context, and then I give the same problem in the context of zombies, students are all over it. They get more excited. I don’t know what it is.
Complete the following sentence: “I would consider my year as president of INFORMS a success if …

I don’t mess it up [laugh]. Honestly, if we can implement some of the ideas I talked about in my position statement – the diversity inclusion initiative, developing a strong repository of data for research and educational purposes, developing more exciting member services. If we can implement some of those things in a way that they are going to be enduring and have a positive impact on our membership, then I’d be really happy. Being president isn’t like running a 100-meter dash; it’s more like a relay race. I’ll pick up the baton from Ed Kaplan and hand it to Nick Hall at the end of the year. My goal is to hold up my end and leave things in great shape for the future.

Peter Horner (peter.horner@mail.informs.org) is the editor of OR/MS Today and Analytics magazines.