Friday, April 24, 2009

Traffic Assignment and the UMass Amherst INFORMS Speaker Series

Today we will be hosting Dr. Hillel Bar-Gera of Israel in our UMass Amherst INFORMS Spring 2009 Speaker Series. He will be speaking on a new algorithm for traffic assignment. His talk will take place at the Isenberg School of Management in Room 112 at 11AM. There is a lot of excitement surrounding his visit and presentation. Dr. Bar-Gera's dissertation advisor at the University of Illinois at Chicago was Professor David E. Boyce, who received the Robert Herman Lifetime Achievement Award from the Transportation Science Section of INFORMS (the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences). Professor Boyce is now a Professor Emeritus and is affiliated with Northwestern University. He is also a Fellow of the Regional Science Association International and renowned for his work in transportation and regional planning. Dr. Bar-Gera is spending this year in the US and has been based both at Arizona and at Purdue.

Effective and efficient algorithms for large-scale congested networks, including transportation, are critical in evaluating traffic flows on networks, and associated costs and travel times; where new roads should be built (or not); how to determine optimal tolls (a big topic now even in developing countries and especially in China); how to determine optimal and equilibrium product flows in supply chains, and even how to predict flows and prices in electric power generation and distribution networks. In today's competitive economies, one needs to be able to not only conceptualize difficult problems and to model them but also to solve them! Hence, algorithms and good implementation of them are essential to practice. I have been conducting research in large-scale network models, analysis, algorithms, and applications since receiving my PhD at Brown and teaching and researching in this area is always exciting and fun. Plus it is very rewarding to see one's publications not only cited but results in them applied.

This semester is the 10th semester that I have been advising and helping the award-winning UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter organize its Speaker Series, which has brought about 70 speakers to the Isenberg School. Students have heard talks this year by Tom Vanderbilt, the author of the book, "Traffic," by Professor Daron Acemoglu of MIT, who is a recipient of the Bates Medal, by Dr. Grace Lin, of Global Solutions at IBM, by Dr. Alex Pentland, the author of the book, "Honest Signals." The series also gave a platform to two of our newest faculty members at the Isenberg School, Professors Ahmed Ghoniem and Senay Solak, to speak on their fascinating and highly original research. Professor Kevin Fu of the Computer Science department at UMass Amherst spoke on implantable medical devices and security issues. This semester, we hosted Professor Ellis Johnson, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, who is from Georgia Tech. Professor Hari Balasubramanian of the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at UMass Amherst regaled the audience with his experiences of working and researching healthcare at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Professor June Dong of SUNY Oswego informed the audience of the unexpected and wide-ranging impact of supply chain disruptions.

On May 8, 2009, we will be hearing the last speaker in this year's series, Professor Robert Pollin, speak about "green jobs."

I believe that education takes place both in and out of the classroom. Organizing, running, advertising, etc., such a series requires a lot of hard work as well as financing, which we manage to stitch together creatively. The other day an undergrad (a junior) wandered into my office and we ended up talking for an hour about the speaker series, research on networks, and even PhD programs. This undergrad told me that on Fridays when there is no speaker he is disappointed. Hence, even with the economic and financial crisis affecting endowments in a major way, how can one turn off/shut down such a series?! Yesterday, another undergrad (a graduating senior) came to my office to chat. We talked about the transportation & logistics class that I taught last semester and that he took; we talked about how terrific the Operations Management major is at the Isenberg School; we talked about future opportunities and some contacts that I had had recently with companies interested in advancing their supply chains, and, yes, we talked about today's speaker, Dr. Bar-Gera, and his upcoming presentation on traffic assignment algorithms. One story that this undergrad shared with me that I really enjoyed was that his parents told him that even as a 5 year old he was absolutely fascinated by traffic!

So with renewed energy and enthusiasm, we are now in the process of starting to plan next year's UMass Amherst INFORMS Speaker Series. Many thanks for the support that we receive for doing this series. In the end, seeing the audience listening and interacting with the speakers and then continuing the discussions days and weeks afterwards is a priceless dimension of this addition to the educational/intellectual enterprise. I/we can't thank the speakers enough for their brilliance and generosity in sharing their work with us! You have opened the eyes and the world to many!