Monthly Archives: September 2009

a few thoughts on work-life balance, academia, and Kim Clijsters

Kim Clijsters - tennis star and mother

Kim Clijsters - tennis star and mother

I was really jazzed when new mother Kim Clijsters won the US Open this weekend, the first mother to win a Grand Slam since 1980.  The Guardian posted an article about work-life balance for tennis stars.  They write the following:

Clijsters is far from the first sportswoman to excel after having a child – Paula Radcliffe won the New York marathon in 2007 10 months after having a child, the Kenyan runner Catherine Ndereba broke the world records at 5k and 15k in 1998 a year after giving birth, and last month, the golfer Catriona Matthew won the British Open when her second daughter was just 10 weeks old.

But success in tennis has broadly eluded mothers, a comparative paucity perhaps explained by the punishing tournament schedule that requires players to travel the globe amassing points to qualify for the major championships. [Boldface added]

This issue resonates with me.  Perhaps tenure has broadly eluded mothers in academia because of conferences  and networking that require academics to travel the globe in order to amass a national research reputation?  Not that I am likening myself to an international tennis star, of course.  I enjoy going to conferences, discussing my research, and getting new research ideas.  However, I am anxious about the upcoming INFORMS Annual Meeting, since I will be away from my family for six days (four days of conference plus a day of travel on either end, since I am presenting talks in the first and last sessions of the conference and have to travel 3000 miles each way).

I’ve found that the downside to academic freedom is that it’s hard to hand off my work when I need time off.  When I had my first child as a graduate student, my advisor took over while I was on unofficial leave.  When I had my second child, I found it essentially impossible to hand off work (such as handling paper revisions, advising graduate students, and organizing sessions for conferences), despite receiving an excellent maternity leave.  I was caught off guard by this, and in retrospect, I should have put a better system in place before baby arrived.  I try not to dwell on these issues too much, because motherhood is challenging for everyone, and somehow we all manage.  The little ones make the challenges worthwhile.

Link:  watch an interview with Clijsters on work-life balance here.

Other athlete mothers that inspire me include Lindsey Davenport and Candace Parker (whose appearance on the cover of ESPN Magazine while pregnant resulted in a huge buzz among working mothers).

This isn’t entirely an issue for women.  Last month, I read an interesting article in the Washington Post that indicates that work-life balance issues for high school football coaches ultimately keep many from taking college coaching jobs that are necessary to make the leap to the pros.

“I’ve had opportunities in the past to go to college and the main reason why I decided to stay was, years ago when I did have the opportunity, my children were young and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to make the jump or didn’t want to make the jump,” said longtime DeMatha Coach Bill McGregor, who has compiled a 259-36-3 record during his 27 years as head coach at the Hyattsville school. “It sounds glamorous and looks glamorous and it’s better pay, but you don’t have an awful lot of security. . . . I know a lot of assistant [college] coaches right now and they’ve been at five, six, seven, eight schools. That’s a lot of uprooting and moving. I think it’s a tough life.”

What challenges do working parents in the field of operations research face?

What working parents inspire you?


OR *can* reduce health disparities

After attending the second day of the Virginia Health Equity Conference, I have been convinced that public health is a function of much, much more than just medical treatment.  Paula Braveman provided some figures in her keynote that indicate that the mortality and incidence rates of many infectious diseases drastically reduced before effective medical interventions were introduced.  I had heard this before, but a picture is worth a 1000 words.  I tracked down a few of the images online (see below).   Public health initiatives such as housing, ventilation, improved sewage systems, and education improved health outcomes much more than medical interventions that were later introduced.  This reflects the fact that there are many good proxies for public health that reflect infrastructure, networks, and transportation, all of which are things that we like to evaluate in operations research models.

It strikes me that any operations research models that reflect public health would fit in well with community-based OR initiative.  Those who do research in this area might be interested in a new Springer volume.  The call for papers is pasted below (I could not find a link).  Note that I am not affiliated with this effort.

Proposals for manuscripts on the topic of Community-Based Operations Research are being solicited for an edited volume to be published in the Springer International Series in Operations Research and Management Science, as part of the Advancing the State-of-the-Art handbook series.

Community-based operations research (CBOR) is defined as the collection of analytical methods applied to problem domains in which interests of underrepresented, underserved, or vulnerable populations in localized jurisdictions, formal or informal, receive special emphasis, and for which solutions to problems of core concern for daily living must be identified and implemented so as to jointly optimize economic efficiency, social equity, and administrative burdens. This domain was first discussed in a chapter in Tutorials in Operations Research 2007 – OR Tools and Applications: Glimpses of Future Technologies (INFORMS 2007) by Johnson and Smilowitz and subsequently in an article that appeared in the February 2008 issue of OR/MS Today.

As community-oriented operations research, as defined here, is central to the mission of the Section on OR/MS Applied to Public Programs, Service and Needs, submissions from SPPSN members will be especially welcome.

Chapters in this volume can describe current results for a specific research problem, a literature review, or a discussion of the nature of CBOR within the operations research/management science discipline.

Proposals for submissions to this volume should be not more than one page in length, describe the nature of the submission, and clarify if the submission is likely to be based on current or on-going research, a new research project, or synthesize previous findings. Submissions will be peer-reviewed. The deadline for submission proposals is October 16, 2009. The deadline for chapter submissions is February 1, 2010; final drafts of chapter submissions will be sent to the publisher on August 1, 2010.

Manuscript proposals, as well as inquiries regarding further details, should be sent to:  Michael P. Johnson, Ph.D, Department of Public Policy and Public Affairs, University of Massachusetts Boston, Boston, MA 02125-3393

Link to yesterday’s post about the conference.

Mortality rates from infectious disease in the US

Mortality rates from infectious disease in the USMortality rate of whooping cough

Mortality rate of measles

Mortality rate of measles

Mortality rate of tuberculosis
Mortality rate of tuberculosis
Mortality caused by scarlet fever in England and Wales (re-drawn from T Mc Keown, 1976)

Mortality caused by scarlet fever in England and Wales (re-drawn from T Mc Keown, 1976)


can OR reduce health disparities?

I am enjoying the Virginia Health Equity Conference.  It’s hard not to believe that operations research can be used to improve public health.

I particularly enjoyed Dr. Howard Frumkin’s keynote about public health and the built environment. His talk was particularly inspiring for operations researcher. We spend almost all of our time in built environments (home, school, work, transportation, parks), and there is an enormous body of research that suggests that our environment is a strong predictor of our health. Our built environment is the result of a series of decisions, some of which can be the result of good operations research and mathematical modeling. A good built environment offers a wide portfolio of public health benefits. Dr. Frumkin listed several opportunities for operations research modeling to improve our built environment (and in turn, public health), including:
• Investigating where to locate schools (perhaps using decision analysis),
• Improving school bus routes that are also safe (Safe Routes), including walking school bus routes (using network design),
• Improving and analyzing transportation networks in urban sprawl regions, which are plagued with low connectivity and low population density (this leads to a host of problems such as reliance on vehicles, low rates of physical exercise, poor access to emergency medical vehicles, etc.).
• Locating trees and green space in urban areas to “cover” poor neighborhoods.

Dr. Frumkin stressed that many of these decisions are generally not made by public health people (perhaps some can be made by operations researchers).


more to come on health care

I apologize for being offline for the past month. Between illnesses, weddings, and the start of the school year, I cut back on blogging and twitter. I finally feel like I’m back into the swing of things.

I am looking forward to the Virginia Health Equity Conference later this week. Although the conference will mainly be attended by medicine and public health people, I hope to blog about health care during the conference. So keep an eye on the blog.  You can follow the conference twitter feed here.

I have been closely following the national debate surrounding health care and health insurance. Although it seems like the issue is mainly a macro-economics issue, I really do think that OR has a lot to offer, particularly in predicting the costs and benefits of treatment and care. But I see so much misinformation (sometimes well-meaning people with the wrong information, and sometimes more sinister ulterior motives) that I easily get discouraged about having a rational, quantitative discussion using OR methodologies.

Last week, I tried discussing some of the health care issues in my class (probability and statistics for engineers). After introducing Bayes rule, I illustrated why it implies that preventive medicine costs so much, in general. I think the discussion backfired. David Brooks explains it better [podcast link here]–when I try, I come off sounding like a an insensitive monster that wants to deny people health care. Really, I just want good numbers to support the debate so we can make good decisions. I’m not sure what the answer is, because I have no idea what the facts are yet. I hope OR is instrumental in providing the facts.


airline overbooking

I read an interesting article about the history of airline overbooking  from the University of Illinois News Bureau.  Julian Simon, a former faculty member in Economics, pioneered the idea back in the 1960’s.  Simon “devised the notion of rewarding passengers on overbooked flights if they gave up their seats. The seemingly subtle switch provided a $100 billion jolt to the U.S. economy over the last three decades, says former colleague James Heins.”  What the article doesn’t say is that although an economist came up with the idea from which he  never profited, operations researchers ran with the idea, accounting for much of the $100B in savings.  If you google anything about airline overbooking, numerous operations research papers come up (such as the classic 1985 Marvin Rothstein paper).  I am more interested in a more recent history that highlights how operations research has contributed to airline overbooking.  Post a link in the comments if you know of any good overview articles. The Travel Insider has a good lay overview of how overbooking works, but it doesn’t mention OR, of course.  Link.


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