Sunday, March 28, 2021

Celebrating Two Amazing Female Operations Researchers, Both 93 Years Old, for Their Contributions to Algorithms

Since this blogpost was published, sadly, Professor Ailsa Land passed away on May 16, 2021. Please refer to this obituary posted on the London School of Economics website. It was truly extraordinary that she and her husband could view virtually the panel in her honor on February 25, 2021,  that I wrote about below. Also, Dr. Land will be honored next month with the posthumous receipt of the EURO Gold Medal at the EURO Conference in Athens, Greece, which will have a flexible format. Rest in Peace, Dr. Ailsa Land, and thank you for all you contributions to OR and to making herstory!

This month is Women's History Month and also the month in which we celebrate International Women's Day.

I am writing this blogpost in order to recognize and to celebrate two amazing females, both born in 1927, whose algorithmic contributions and impacts continue to this day. Specifically, this post is about Dr. Ailsa Land and Dr. Marguerite Frank. Both are now 93 years old and I have had the pleasure of recently being involved in supporting tributes to them.

Dr. Ailsa Land is an Emeritus Professor of the London School of Economics (LSE) and the first female recipient of the Beale Medal.  She is renowned for her contributions to the development of branch and bound, an algorithm for discrete and combinatorial optimization problems. A nice biography of her can be found on the INFORMS website. An outstanding interview by Professor László Végh of LSE, along with the transcript, can be found on the INFORMS oral history page. Many thanks to the INFORMS History and Traditions Committee (I served on this committee for many years and regularly argued for the importance of having interviews done and posted of female luminaries) for making this possible. 

A few months ago, several of us were approached by Professor Emeritus Doug Shier of Clemson University to take part in a special panel honoring Professor Land's receipt of the Beale Medal, and organized by The OR Society of Great Britain. Professor Shier was a PhD student of Land's at LSE. The truly remarkable and very moving panel took place on February 25, 2021, and The OR Society has now made the video available for all to view. Joining me on the panel were: Professors Jeffrey Camm, Karla Hoffman, Ivana Ljubic, and Susara van den Heever of IBM, with Professor Shier as moderator. 

The video of the panel can be accessed here.

We heard from Dr. Land and her husband, Dr. Frank Land, that they very much enjoyed the special tribute.

I have posted my presentation from the panel on the Supernetwork Center site. I used direct quotes from the interview with Dr. Ailsa Land as the construct for my presentation.

After the panel,  Professor Karla Hoffman wrote that this was the best webinar experience that she has ever had! 

And, how remarkable, or should I say "serendipitous,"that  recently I was contacted to a top scholar from a major university in a lovely European capital asking whether I knew how to contact Dr. Marguerite Frank. Dr. Frank is the "Frank" in the Frank-Wolfe (1956) algorithm for convex optimization. I always enjoy asking my students about who they think the algorithm is named after - I have yet to receive an answer that the first one is a female (but maybe this post and other accolades will help). Some nice, fairly recent coverage of this algorithm, with input and reflections by Dr. Frank can be found in the Optima newsletter. I had coded the algorithm and even used it in my PhD dissertation at Brown University for computational comparisons with other algorithms for the solution of user-optimized traffic network equilibrium problems with separable user link cost functions. I have known Dr. Frank for many years - she and I share a passion for the Braess paradox and both of us have published a series of papers on this paradox. I even hosted Dr. Frank at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a visit I remember very fondly. Dr. Frank's PhD is in Mathematics from Harvard University.

In 2014, Dr. Frank took part in a special interview panel in honor of her contributions to the Frank-Wolfe algorithm. 

I very much like this article in which Dr. Marguerite Frank also mentions my dissertation advisor, Dr. Stella Dafermos, and the spelling of my surname has now been corrected from "Nagourney" to "Nagurney."

It is quite remarkable that the Frank-Wolfe algorithm is even being used now for machine learning.

What struck me so much about these two amazing women, who are also mothers, is their humility. They truly, until fairly recently, did not realize the impact of their research! 

And, as for an honor recognizing Dr. Marguerite Frank, I will let you know as soon as it becomes official. Through LinkedIn, I managed to connect with both of her daughters, who put me in touch with Dr. Frank, who had moved from New Jersey, where she had been a Professor at Rider University, to Palo Alto, when her husband moved from Princeton University to Stanford University. He had been a renowned scholar on Dostoevsky (one of my favorite authors of all time)! Marguerite is delighted by the forthcoming honor and I am thrilled that this initiative was taken by a male scholar, who had reached out to me. I am stubborn and I was determined to (re)connect with her and what a delight that has been.