Nemhauser Honored with Class of 1934 Distinguished Professor Award

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ISyE Professor Hits Home Run with Top Honor

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Scratching his head, facing a chalkboard.

George Nemhauser is widely considered to be one of the world’s top optimization researchers, and he has received the official recognition to match: He is the A. Russell Chandler III Chair and Institute Professor in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial & Systems Engineering (ISyE), recipient of the inaugural Khachiyan Prize for lifetime contributions to the field, and the only person to twice receive the Lanchester Prize for best publication in operations research. He is also the first sitting professor at Georgia Tech to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Now, he is receiving the Class of 1934 Distinguished Professor Award.  

“Almost all the awards I have received have been from my profession,” Nemhauser said. “This is the Georgia Tech award. This means a lot to me because it connects directly to Georgia Tech.” 

The Class of 1934 Distinguished Professor Award recognizes outstanding achievement in teaching, research, and service. It is the highest award given to a faculty member. The award, instituted in 1984 by the Class of 1934 in observance of its 50th reunion, is presented to an active professor who has made significant, long-term contributions — contributions that would have brought widespread recognition to the professor, to his or her school, and to the Institute.

Letters of support for Nemhauser’s nomination came from colleagues and former students around the world. 

“My stimulation and the fact that I can still be working and having lots of fun — as old as I am — is because of what these people give to me,” said the 77-year-old. “I’m not this great humanitarian, unselfish guy by any means. It’s completely a two-way deal. When I get a chance to work with these young people, to me, that’s the greatest pleasure in life. That’s always been the best thing for me: to work one-on-one or with a small number of undergraduate and graduate students and young faculty. Those are the people who keep me on my toes.”  

From Center Field to Operations Research 

Growing up in New York, Nemhauser dreamed of playing center field for the Yankees. He estimated that by the time he was ready for the position, Joe DiMaggio would be retiring. That didn’t happen. He was a teen when DiMaggio retired, and Mickey Mantle took the position. 

“I played all sports — with lots of effort and very limited ability. I did not have talent,” Nemhauser laughed. “But I love math. I was the kid who could compute the other kids’ batting average. I wasn’t the best player, but if they wanted to know their batting average — see George.” 

When it was time to head to college, Nemhauser was leaning toward majoring in math, but his mother encouraged him to study engineering. It was during a summer internship that he first learned about optimization and game theory, and he was fascinated. He started graduate school in chemical engineering, but switched to operations research as the field was just starting academically. 

“Man, was I lucky,” he said. “Any success like this — honestly, so much of it is luck: being in the right place at the right time. I believe that 100 percent.”  

What is Optimization?

“Optimization is about decision making. Whether it’s a problem in business or a problem related to health or medicine, the notion is: ‘How can we use optimization to make better decisions?’ 

“Most of these optimization problems have a huge number of variables and constraints. The contribution from our optimization group here at Georgia Tech — which, by the way is the best optimization group in the world, independent of me — is that we build the algorithms that allow [for] efficient computations for problems with thousands of variables.” 

Nemhauser’s company, the Sports Scheduling Group, schedules games for the ACC, the SEC, the Big 10, and Major League Baseball. 

“Scheduling Major League Baseball is a big optimization problem. You have all of these games to schedule, and a lot of it is driven by television contracts, which is where the revenue comes from. If you don’t get the right games at the right time — that Saturday or Sunday afternoon game between the Yankees and the Red Sox — the contracts won’t be what they would be otherwise.”  

Having Fun

Having started teaching in 1961, Nemhauser has advised 65 doctoral students. Many of them are now on the faculty at MIT, Chicago, Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon, Berkeley, and other top universities around the world. One of the biggest changes he’s noticed over the 54 years he’s had dealings with graduate students is the interaction with them. 

“I’ve always tried to eliminate formality. I hate formality. I’m a very, very casual person,” he said. “When I started, there was more formality. To get a graduate student to call me ‘George’ was hard. But I needed to do that from the get-go, so I spent time trying to break down the formality that existed between faculty and students. Now, I think that problem has gone away. Things are much more casual.”

In keeping with his casual approach, Nemhauser says he doesn’t have a specific plan for the future. 

“I don’t know what’s next,” he said. “If I can keep my health and I’m having fun…  

“I’ve never made long-term plans. I don’t believe in them,” he said. “I’ve never had a five-year-plan in my whole life,” he said. “A one-year-plan? That’s good. 

“My basic philosophy is: No. 1 — have fun in what you’re doing. That, to me, beats it all.” 

Location

Atlanta, GA

Email

victor.rogers@comm.gatech.edu

Contact

Victor Rogers
Institute Communications
404-894-6398

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Thomas Earns Top Faculty Honor

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Robin Thomas

Robin Thomas has a remarkable record of teaching, service, and research. He is a Regents Professor, recipient of the Neuron Award for Lifetime Achievement in Mathematics, and a member of the 2012 inaugural class of American Mathematical Society Fellows. He has more than 100 papers appearing in top journals, and he has been awarded the Fulkerson Prize for outstanding papers in the area of discrete mathematics. Twice. This accomplishment has been matched by only four other researchers in the history of the prize.  

 

Thomas is now the recipient of Georgia Tech’s highest award given to a faculty member: the Class of 1934 Distinguished Professor Award. 

“This award is special because it’s from Georgia Tech,” Thomas said. “I’ve been at Georgia Tech for over 25 years, so receiving this award means a lot to me.”

The Class of 1934 Distinguished Professor Award recognizes outstanding achievement in teaching, research, and service. Instituted in 1984 by the Class of 1934 in observance of its 50th reunion, the award is presented to an active professor who has made significant, long-term contributions — contributions that would have brought widespread recognition to the professor, to his or her school, and to the Institute. The award includes a stipend of $20,000.

Letters of support for Thomas’ nomination came from world-renowned senior researchers familiar with the significance of his work, former Ph.D. students who wrote of his record as a teacher and mentor, and former postdoctoral fellows who praised his ability to develop young talent. 

Dean of Tech’s College of Sciences Paul Goldbart said, “Robin is a shining star in the international firmament of modern mathematics — a brilliant researcher, inspiring mentor, superb instructor, and treasured colleague. Just today, I had the pleasure of hearing from one of our mathematics graduate students about a glorious contribution of Robin’s to the famous four-color problem of map and graph theory.” 

Research in Discrete Mathematics

Before coming to Tech in 1989, Thomas worked at Bellcore, a telecommunication research and development company. 

“The reason I came here is because Georgia Tech made me an offer I could not refuse,” he said. “I was technically working in industry, but, in reality, I was also doing my own research. So, in that sense, the research part was not that different.” 

Thomas’ research in discrete mathematics is concentrated in the fields of graph theory and combinatorics, areas with applications across a wide span, from engineering and computer science to economics, biology, and social science. The issues being researched are often motivated by real-world problems in telephone network design, airline scheduling, online auctions, and Internet design and searching. Many of the problems solved by Thomas and his collaborators were open for several decades and had successfully resisted the best efforts of the world’s leading researchers. 

Thomas also is director of Tech’s Algorithms, Combinatorics, and Optimization (ACO) program, an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program linking the College of Computing, the School of Mathematics, and the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering. About half of ACO’s Ph.D. students go into academia and the others go into industry. 

Thomas has graduated 16 Ph.D. students at Tech, and he has been an informal advisor to many others.

In receiving the Class of 1934 Distinguished Faculty Award, he joins ACO colleagues Dick Lipton (Computer Science) and George Nemhauser (Industrial and Systems Engineering), who were honored with the award in 2012 and 2015, respectively.

Persevering with ALS 

In 2008, Thomas was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The disease is characterized by stiff muscles, twitching, and a gradual decrease in muscle  strength, resulting in difficulty speaking, swallowing, and eventually breathing. 

“It’s a progressive disease, where I’m gradually losing the use of my legs and other functions,” said Thomas, who uses a motorized wheelchair to get around.  

“I had to completely change the way I deliver lectures,” said Thomas, who is on faculty development leave this semester, but usually teaches Applied Combinatorics (Math 3012) and Graph Theory (Math 6014). “I can no longer stand in front of a whiteboard. At first, I was writing my lectures on paper and using a document camera to project it onto a screen. But that’s no longer possible.”

Now, Thomas prepares his lectures in advance, which he says is both good and bad. 

“It’s good because students get to see the material ahead of time. They can print it and bring it to class. The bad thing is that I have to anticipate the students’ questions. So I design my lectures where I ask the questions for them and then reveal the answers.”

Of course, Thomas cannot anticipate every question. When a student asks a question that he did not expect, he answers it and asks for a student volunteer to write the answer on the white board. He also has a teaching assistant to help him prepare for class. 

Although Thomas’ body is failing him, his mind remains sharp and focused. 

“There are lots of ongoing research projects that I would like to finish,” he said. “In terms of career moves, I don’t have any aspirations to be a department chair or anything similar. I’m quite happy with running the ACO Program.”

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