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MCLAY

Laura Albert, a University of Wisconsin-Madison associate professor who is an expert on lottery odds, says there are legal ways to increase the chances of winning the lottery.

PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

Even though she knew the odds were astronomical, Laura Albert McLay was still tempted to buy a Powerball ticket.

McLay, an associate professor of engineering at the UW-Madison, did a bunch of interviews recently about the $136 million Powerball jackpot and the 290 million to 1 odds against winning. (Her tip: No set of numbers are “luckier” than any other, but if you pick higher numbers, and you win, you stand a greater chance of not having to split the winnings with others. Although, if she had bought a ticket, she still would have lost.)

But McLay’s field of operations research, in which mathematical models are used to aid decision-making, offers much more benefit to the world than trying to win the lottery. Originally developed by the British to aid in decisions on the battlefield, operations research has been used for everything from battling HIV to planning marathon routes to getting aid supplies to victims in disaster areas.

McLay keeps tabs on some of the most interesting applications of OR on her blog, Punk Rock OR (punkrockor.com). It’s a fundamentally optimistic discipline, based in a belief that people can use math to find better, more efficient ways to do things.

McLay talked with the Cap Times about using operations research to predict March Madness and college football rankings, what OR and punk rock have in common, and why she hasn’t quit her job to make a million dollars in Vegas like Kevin Spacey in “21."

What is operations research?

Operation research is the science of making better decisions. What we do a lot of the time is use mathematical models to aid decision making. Even though there’s a human element — a decision maker — there’s also a mathematical element. At the end of the day, we’re guiding CEOs or UPS truck drivers. There’s a human in the loop in a lot of big systems somewhere. That’s what we’re really good at doing.

This initially started as a military application.

Military operations are so incredibly expensive that little improvements you can make — in terms of their route, filling their rations, getting them from point A to point B – those things you can improve on the margins can result in millions of dollars in savings. So that’s where it really took off.

How did you get involved?

A lot of people don’t grow up knowing about our field. I always say that if you really hate waiting in line you’ll love our research. It took me until college to discover the field. It’s just a good fit.

What kinds of research are you doing?

I’m working on a few areas. One is cybersecurity project management. And I’m also working on emergency response in a big collaborative group looking at the role of analytics and social networks, and community networks. When you have a disaster, there are also human social networks of community responders or people that need help. We’re looking to figure out what’s happening, figuring out what’s going to happen, and then what I’m interested in is figuring out what you’re going to do about it.

Obviously emergency response is an area in which operations research can dramatically help people.

We’re really good at how to figure out how to use scarce resources wisely. I don’t know anybody who has all the resources they need.

I understand that operations research is one of the areas of STEM education that has the least gender disparity, relatively speaking. Why is that?

We do pretty well. A lot of the faculty are in business schools, and that’s heavily becoming dominated by women, way more than engineering.

I didn’t realize that something like operations research would be part of engineering.

OR usually has a foot in industrial systems engineering. You’re modeling large-scale systems. But it also has one foot in applied math because you’re using math models. And also one foot in business, because we’re guiding the math models for managements. Math has always done much better with women than engineering.

Why is there such a gender disparity in STEM and what could be done to improve it?

In some ways, we’ve gotten a lot better. But in engineering specifically we’ve stagnated at the bachelor’s level for a long time. We’ve attracted women to medicine, to a lot of different STEM fields. But they’re not in engineering as much.

Women have been getting 20 percent of engineering degrees since 1990. But only 10 or 11 percent of people who self-identify as engineers are women. So there’s a lot that are lost. A lot leave the profession and don’t come back.

There were certain male aspects of our culture that I just think we ought to know better. When there aren’t a lot of women around, certain biases and problems exist, because nobody is getting corrected. It’s a big complicated issue, and I talk about it as much as I can. I definitely would like to see more underrepresented groups get involved in engineering.

What is the biggest misconception about operations research?

What we’re really good at, and what a lot of people don’t know we’re really good at, is managing systems where there’s a lot of interconnected parts. When you have interconnected parts, if you change one part of the system, it propagates throughout the system. You can’t eyeball anything. That’s where things get challenging, getting the different pieces of the system to work together. You can’t just guess.

So why aren’t you a billionaire? Is this something where you could game a system for your own personal gain?

My students last semester asked me if I saw the movie “21” because I reminded them of the evil Kevin Spacey character! I think there’s a compliment down there somewhere. There’s a lot of risk involved, and I like being a professor.

That’s interesting. Your answer is not “I couldn’t do that.” It’s “I could do that, but I’ve chosen not to.”

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A lot of our graduates definitely go off and do things in finance and so on. You hear about all the amazing things they’re doing and the millions of dollars. But I’m happy where I’m at.

What do you like about being a professor?

You get to build the knowledge base. I tell people a lot that when you were in college, you read all those textbooks, and all that stuff in the textbooks came from research. I like asking questions and thinking about stuff that’s never been thought of before.

I like doing research with students. I really like educating the next generation a lot. It’s a very rewarding part of the job.

What are the applications of operations research? Are the possibilities endless?

The possibilities are definitely endless. There are a few big sectors where our students get hired. Transportation for one — UPS, airlines, any truck companies. Also health care now. We have the best medicine in the world, and you look at how much of our GDP is spent getting health care. We have good health care, we don’t have good systems. That’s a really exciting area right now.

Why did you start a blog, and why did you call it Punk Rock OR?

I like to write, and I wanted to start a blog to talk about all the amazing things that we’re doing, especially since our field is not heard of. There’s a definitely a good benefit to getting the word out.

IT’s named Punk Rock OR because — well, I wanted a snazzy title. A lot of my research is in homeland security, emergency response — very public sector problems. There’s this great history in punk of being concerned with making the world a better place. There’s also that do-it-yourself attitude that I like.

I understand you’re going to try and predict the NCAA March Madness rankings using operations research.

Yes, I have a model for ranking the team, and I have the team rankings up every week. My main model is forecasting the college football playoffs, which is pretty cool. The rankings tell you who are the best right now, but if you look at the season, you can see some paths to the playoffs are easier than others.

Since there’s so many slots (in March Madness) I can’t just pick the top 64 teams. There’s a human element (in how teams are picked). I’m not good at modeling how people think. People are not robots. But it’s pretty neat because I use methods that I can teach in class. Everybody understands winning or losing games, so it has brought appeal to the casual fan.

Do you find that understanding how these systems work enriches the way you look at life, or does it take some of the magic of it out?

There’s no “magic” in my life. Somebody asked me, “Oh, don’t you think some things are meant to happen?” and I said, “No, it’s just a coincidence. Sorry! I know you’re trying to have a moment here.”

In general, I think it enriches. That’s where the magic is for me. Once you start to see patterns and connections in your life, it’s just so enriching to think about it and dissect it. I think I’m always going to be a student of life.

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.