OR/MS Today - December 2003|
Was It Something I Said?
Just Say No? No Way!
By Vijay Mehrotra
One key objective for my first semester as a professor was to take on no additional commitments in order to focus on my teaching, research and consulting. Alas, I am by nature drawn to new projects like a moth to a flame, and this semester has been no different. I'm chairman of a committee to create a department Advisory Board. I'm leading an independent study on applications of probability to baseball for an undergraduate management major. I'm collaborating with an MBA student on a conference paper. I've agreed to referee a couple of journal papers.
I'm not clueless. I know that I've got to be careful about getting overextended, especially as a newlywed with his first baby on the way (it's a girl!) and with a new class to teach in the spring and a backlog of research work to do. I understand the value of focus.
Yet, I've got two things working against me. First, each of the projects that I've taken on this term has been inherently compelling. Secondly, at a visceral level, I have a deep sense of the importance of encouragement from another interested person.
A few short years ago, I was a struggling graduate student, plodding away without much confidence or direction and searching for a topic worthy of a Ph.D. thesis. After reading one of Ward Whitt's papers on queueing networks, I came up with an idea that I thought might be a good dissertation topic. After that initial insight, however, I spent nearly a year looking at all sorts of things that led nowhere in particular.
I had a strong sense that I was on to something, and yet I lacked the gumption to simply pick up the phone and call up the great Ward Whitt. I was in awe of this man he had forgotten more about probability and queueing than I had ever known and I was terrified of revealing my ignorance and my utter lack of genius. Heck, I didn't think he would even take my call.
When I happened upon a program of the 1990 ORSA/TIMS Conference in Philadelphia, I saw that Whitt would be presenting a paper. In a desperate moment, I decided to go to the conference with the sole purpose of meeting him.
I had never been to a conference before, and traveling across the country only heightened my anxiety level. Once there, I felt completely like a fish out of water as I roamed through the halls of the conference hotel. The sessions were a blur as I sat through one unintelligible presentation after another. All the while, I felt paralyzed, wondering how I might approach Ward Whitt.
On Sunday, I couldn't find him. Translation: Consciously or unconsciously, I had gone out of my way to avoid sessions where I might run into him.
At the Monday night reception, I finally spotted him thank God for name tags but the loud and crowded room seemed like a less than ideal setting to talk about two-moment approximations. Translation: I chickened out.
My last chance was a Tuesday morning session where he was presenting. Arriving late, I slipped into a chair in the back of the room, my heart pounding. Afterwards, I struggled to my feet and approached the small crowd that had gathered around the presenters. Meekly awaiting my opportunity to speak, I finally heard a pause in the conversation and, somewhat hesitantly, waded in. "Do you perhaps know," I asked timidly, "if anyone has done anything with the Fixed Population Mean method?"
He looked at me with pure kindness in his eyes, and his words were like music to my ears: "You know, no one really has, and I really think it is worth looking into further!" Encouraged, I stammered out a few more sentences, trying with each word not to humiliate myself. Ward gave me his business card and several enthusiastic off-the-cuff suggestions. I thanked him profusely. Hell, I could have kissed him.
Back on campus, with a newfound sense of purpose, I spent the next few days writing up a 12-page document that outlined the problem statement and my proposed solution methodology. When I finished, I printed out a copy and sent it off to Ward.
Less than one week later, I received a thick Bell Labs envelope with Ward's initials on the return label. In it, I found detailed, line-by-line comments about the document that I had sent him, along with several papers that were relevant to my research. The feedback did wonders to bolster my confidence, and the papers were an invaluable set of references for my work.
To this day, I feel greatly indebted to Ward, and I marvel at the generosity of this man, an extremely talented person with seemingly nothing to gain by helping out someone like me.
So maybe I have gotten a bit carried away with things this semester. Perhaps I should have avoided some of these projects. Maybe I should have just said "no thanks" to some of the more offbeat requests for my time and energy. And maybe Ward Whitt should have just simply steered clear of a painfully needy student like me. I'm just thankful that he took a little time to work with me. It made all the difference.
OR/MS Today copyright © 2003 by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences. All rights reserved.
Lionheart Publishing, Inc.
506 Roswell Rd., Suite 220, Marietta, GA 30060 USA
Phone: 770-431-0867 | Fax: 770-432-6969
Web Site © Copyright 2003 by Lionheart Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.