Thursday, December 1, 2011

My Academic Mother

It was my second year at MIT.

My first year at MIT, back in 1988-1989, I had spent in the Transportation Systems Division in Engineering, supported by an NSF Visiting Professorship for Women (VPW). During that year, I taught a course and also organized a speaker series to bring Women in Operations Research to MIT, and their talks took place at the MIT Operations Research Center. My dissertation advisor at Brown University had been Stella Dafermos, who held appointments in Applied Mathematics and in Engineering. Stella also had had a VPW earlier at MIT and I had decided to apply and received the NSF grant/award.

My first year at MIT was terrific. I had received my promotion and tenure two years prior (four years after getting my PhD from Brown University in Applied Mathematics, with a specialty in Operations Research) and I was always open for new challenges and experiences.

UMass Amherst, I suspect, was pleased with what I was doing in terms of research and I was lucky to receive a UMass Faculty Fellowship after my VPW, which allowed me to take another year to think, conduct research, and to write, so I elected to stay at MIT. I loved living on Mass Ave (past Harvard right next to a trolley bus station), riding the T, interacting with the students and colleagues at MIT, and taking advantage also of seminars at Harvard. That year, I hosted several visitors from around the world, whom I would treat to the buffet lunch on the top floor of what was then the Sloan School of Management building.

I especially enjoyed running into the Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson, whether in the cafeteria, the snack shop, or the elevator, resplendent always in his bow tie, who seemed to like to eat as much as I did. His query: "Anna, have you proved any good theorems lately?" stays with me. It was a marvelous year and even on Saturdays (I won't mention names) there was always a Full Professor who put on the pot of coffee at Sloan. Surrounded by brilliant, collegial minds in operations research and in economics, life was good!

As Dickens, however, wrote in his Tales of Two Cities, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

That September, of my second year at MIT, my mother passed away and that April, shortly before she would have turned 50, my dissertation advisor, Stella Dafermos, also died. I received the phone call in my Sloan office just before I was to give a seminar at the OR Center, which I did. Stella's funeral in Providence and her burial in April, 1990 in the cemetery on Blackstone Boulevard, as the snow was melting and the daffodils were popping up, I will never forget.

Within 7 months, I had lost my two mothers.

Stella had been the second female PhD in Operations Research. I was asked to write several obituaries, including one that was published in Operations Research, and, as her first PhD student, this was a special, albeit painful, honor and privilege. In preparing my writeups I conversed with many leaders in OR (including Nemhauser) and we concluded that she had been the second female OR PhD (although some of us had thought that she had been the first). She received her PhD from Johns Hopkins University, moved on with her husband to Cornell, and then settled at Brown University.

I never had Stella as an undergraduate at Brown, but heard from my fellow Applied Math majors (many of whom were female), including my room-mate, about what a great teacher she was.

After receiving two degrees from Brown and working in the defense sector in Newport, RI, running marathons, and having my companies pay for my Master's degree at Brown, I decided to enroll full-time at Brown and Stella became my advisor. Her grants supported me and in 3 years I completed my PhD. Stella needed a student who was good at computing and since I had really enjoyed computing while at Brown and in industry plus I was always fascinated by transportation and networks, it was a great match. I also sought out the only female faculty member in Engineering and in Applied Math.

We would talk for hours in her office and even in her home, when she would welcome her children from school. Regularly, on Thursdays, she would go up to MIT for the OR seminars.

Together we published multiple papers that appeared in Operations Research, Mathematical Programming, Transportation Research B, and several economics and regional science journals.

We would read our papers out loud since not only did the work have to be good but it had to sound good --OR as poetry/literature (non-fiction, of course)! Manuscripts were written and rewritten multiple times until it was time to get them typed-up and then submitted.

Being a teaching assistant for Stella was always enjoyable, and with the likes of Irv Lustig, in classes, it made my job easy (and with Les Servi also at Brown then always pleasant).

Even as a doctoral student, I had opportunities to travel with Stella to conferences (sometimes with my husband as the navigator). At OR conferences, during the academic year, while I was an Assistant Professor, we would often share rooms at conferences (not only to save grant funds but because it was fun).

With Stella, we explored Tokyo, Athens (she was the guide there), and had some of our most memorable adventures in Amsterdam (en route to my first European conference, which was in Delft). We thought we would be settled in our hotel room, and then there would be a knock on the door -- it would be Stella asking us to join her on another adventure (in Amsterdam, we were even offered "family discounts" and on a dinner canal boat ride asked whether we wanted to be seated with our "mother-in-law" or not).

All four of Stella's PhD students (3 of whom were females) are now Full Professors (she died while her 4th student had not yet completed her PhD) and three of my former PhD students have also reached the Full Professor rank.

Stella, you gave us standards that we continue to aspire to.

Your legacy is eternal and your academic children, grandchildren, and cousins thank you.

This blogpost was written for the INFORMS blog Challenge on OR and Families.

For additional perspectives on academic genealogies and words of wisdom, connect with the writings of my fellow colleagues, Mike Trick and Laura McLay.