I am the editor in Chief of INFORMS Journal of Optimization and former department editor in Optimization for Management Science and in Financial Engineering in Operations Research. I am also a member of the National Academy of Engineering since 2005, an INFORMS fellow, and have received numerous research awards including the Morse prize (2013), the Pierskalla award for best paper in health care (2013), the best paper award in Transportation (2013), the Farkas prize (2008), the Erlang prize (1996), the SIAM prize in optimization (1996), the Bodossaki prize (1998) and the Presidential Young Investigator award (1991-1996).
In 1999, I co-founded Dynamic Ideas, LLC, which developed machine learning methods for asset management. In 2002, the assets of Dynamic Ideas were sold to American Express. From 2002-2010, I was the head of the quantitative asset management group of Ameriprise Financial, responsible for $12 billion of assets. In 2001, I cofounded D2 Hawkeye, a data mining health care company and responsible for its machine learning capabilities. The company was sold to Verisk Health in 2009. In 2011, I cofounded Benefits Science Technologies LLC, a company that designs health care benefits, and Savvi Financial LLC, a financial advice company. In 2015, I cofounded P2 Analytics LLC, a consulting company and in 2018 Interpretable AI, a machine learning company. In 2019, I cofounded Alpharoute, a company that provides optimized routes for schools and limo services. In 2022, I cofounded Groundtruth Analytics, a personalized agriculture company. Also in 2022, I founded Holistic Hospital Optimization, a company that helps hospitals improve their operational characteristics.
This document outlines my philosophy and values as an advisor and more generally in life. My hope is that younger generations, particularly my students and their students, will benefit by considering these thoughts.
We live rather limited life spans and I feel that for our lives to have a meaning we should all consider the question of what is important in life. Different people may give different answers, but I think it is critical, for every one of us to attempt to answer the question.
This is a question that has occupied my mind for a long time. My experiences have led me to define what I consider important in life:
My life path, sometimes intentionally, sometimes accidentally has led me to seek to achieve these objectives through science. I have been associated with educational institutions all my life, the first 25 years as a student and the last 27 years as a university professor. The key methods I have been using are:
As I reflect back on my life, the one thing I am very proud of is my graduate students. When I meet them they are typically in their early twenties, they have been among the very best in their undergraduate institutions, with high aspirations, exceptional ability, various degrees of maturity, a bit inexperienced, without often a clear vision of their future and direction. Not too different from the way I was at their age. It has been my great privilege and joy to serve as their advisor. I consider being the advisor of my graduate students far and away the most important aspect of my life as an academic. My graduate students have been and continue to be my first priority.
The superficial objective is to teach them the principles of Operations Research, my area of expertise. I feel this is the minimal and not a particularly important objective. The most important thing I aspire to help them learn is why research is important and especially what research is important.
In my opinion, research is serious business and is linked to what is important in life I outlined earlier. The key principles in research in my mind are:
It took me more than a decade to fully crystalize these principles. I see a lot of people, including myself in my early years, who aim to impress rather than change the world. More than the specific areas of research, my central aspiration is to help my graduate students learn these principles.
I have been privileged to be at MIT, a world class research university, since my early twenties. It is my aspiration to generate new knowledge that I consider important in life and teach the next generations by introducing new classes and writing books. I also believe that this responsibility is increasing with age, that is as the depth of my understanding and experience increases, I feel an increased sense of responsibility to transmit the understanding and experience I have achieved to help the young generation.
I have been a serial entrepreneur in the last 20 years, and I intend to continue to do it with increasing intensity until I cannot do it anymore. Given my love of being a university professor, it is reasonable to ask why.
I believe that research and education can affect the human condition and influence a limited number of human lives. It is possible that others can take the research ideas scientists generate and create significant impact. My observation, however, is that the limited number of scientists who have produced research that is capable of affecting the lives of millions of people created the companies themselves. It is my belief that the major way to affect the human condition in large scale is to build a successful company. From my experience, the only way to build a successful company is to inspire a team of people, create a common vision and execute the vision successfully.
Money is not my primary motivation. I see money as an enabler for changing the world, as a consequence of being successful in changing the world, but not as the primary objective. In fact, I agree with Steve Jobs: “My aspiration was never to be the richest person in the cemetery,” even though he is in fact.
In the first half a century of life, I have formed a system of beliefs and values. I have tried to conduct my life in accordance to these principles. I aspire to continue to use these principles in all aspects of my life:
1. Merit should guide decisions.
MIT is by and large a meritocracy, and to a large degree, in my opinion, the reason it became a world-‐class institution during the 20th century. In my experience, merit in the end carries the day and the best way to achieve a merit based environment is to encourage an open ideas environment. In my experience, the best idea should be followed, not whose idea it was.
2. Integrity matters.
I learned from my father that honesty and the truth are how one should contact his/her life even if sometimes it is inconvenient. I feel it is important to do what you say and, independent of contracts and agreements, your word should matter.
3. High aspirations matter.
We should aim to change the world, if we have a chance to do it. I do not know of many examples of people who changed the world without aiming to do so.
4. Be a master of your destiny.
All my life I have tried to be in a position that I can affect my future. I have always put more weight on my own beliefs. I have also tried to form beliefs independently, judge people and ideas on their merits.
5. Surround yourself with exceptional people.
In my experience, first rate people surround themselves with other first rate people, but second rate people surround themselves with third rate people. In my experience, one cannot succeed to change the world alone. A superb team is necessary.
6. Good judgment is critical.
In my experience, there are few important decisions in life that have a first order effect in our trajectory and impact. Exhibiting good judgment during these decisions can affect our lives to the first order.
7. Loyalty matters.
I have tried to be loyal to the people who are close to me, especially my students. They have entrusted their future in my hands and I take this responsibility very seriously. I have also experienced that loyalty is reciprocated.
8. Positive reinforcement.
Especially with young people, it is critical to give them positive reinforcement: an encouraging word, a positive comment goes a long way to empower very talented but a bit uncertain young people to achieve their potential.
What follows is an excerpt from a speech made to a recent graduating class:
As a speaker today I chose to tell you three stories from my life that affected it and taught me something that I think may be of some value to you.
I am the only child of a middle class Greek family. I was raised in Athens Greece, where I finished high school and university before coming to MIT in 1985 as a doctoral student. My mother was an elementary school teacher and my father was an engineer. I was always very close to my parents, and despite the long distance between Boston and Athens, I saw my parents twice a year for Christmas and summer. I was particularly close to my father. In March of 2007 I received a phone call from my cousin that my father had gastric cancer. I immediately arranged for my father to have surgery from the best Greek surgeon on these matters that was arranged for early April of 2007. The night before the surgery the surgeon told me and my wife Georgia that while he was optimistic about my father, there was a possibility that the cancer might have spread outside the stomach area, in which case, he was not going to continue the operation. The next day, half an hour after the surgery started, the surgeon came out and told me that the cancer has spread and he would not continue the operation.
For the first time in my life I could not speak for several minutes as I knew what this meant. I arranged for my father to come to Boston and to do chemotherapy at the Massachusetts General hospital on the other side of the river visible from here. My parents stayed for six months, my father responded well to chemotherapy, and in October 2007, they went back to Greece. My father had a good year. Unfortunately after a year, in October 2008 his condition worsened as the cancer started to grow again, and passed away in March 2009 almost two years from diagnosis.
The following month, the sister of my mother, my only aunt, who was very close to my family, passed away, and in the August of 2009, my mother passed from complications of diabetes. My mother as well as my aunt had diabetes for a significant part of their adult lives. In a span of five months in 2009 I lost three out of the four people in the world I have been closest to.I have always been interested in medicine, but this experience led me to initiate a research program in personalized medicine, under which the treatment of a patient is adjusted to the genomic and phenotype characteristics of the patient.
It is with some pride that together with 3 of my students, we won the first prize in healthcare from INFORMS (the professional society I belong) for a paper we wrote about gastric cancer that was inspired by my father’s illness. And earlier this year, a paper on personalized diabetes management inspired by my mother’s illness with another 3 of my students was published in Diabetes Care, the top journal for diabetes in the world. Today, more than half my research group are working on their PhD in personalized medicine with the aspiration to affect the practice of medicine and using analytics, especially Machine learning, to make it more effective. Overcoming the sadness of losing 3 of the closest people in my life and transforming a very difficult experience to a positive outcome, has made the journey and my life more meaningful and worthwhile.
The normal duration of studies in the department of EECS of National Technical University of Athens, where I studied is five years. You have to take 60 classes in order to graduate. So naturally, nobody has ever attempted to graduate in less than five years. With the objective to find my boundaries, I set a goal of doing exactly that despite the advice of my father not to do it as I may compromising my grades and that might have an effect on being admitted on a top doctoral program, which has always been my goal. With lot of dedication and positive energy, I finished my studies in four years and was accepted as a doctoral student at the department of applied mathematics at MIT in 1985.
When I came to the mathematics department at MIT I learnt about the Operations Research Center and I loved it. So I decided to try to finish a PhD in both programs and try to do it in 3 years. Again with dedication and positive energy, I finished my studies in 1988, the year I joined the Sloan school as an assistant professor. In the summer of 1989, as an assistant professor I set a goal to prove that a central algorithm in optimization was faster than previously thought possible. This would have been a major research development. We were moving houses that summer and my wife complains that I did not help in the move as the proof was coming any minute. In the end I did not succeed in this goal, but my understanding of optimization deepened considerably.
As a professor, I have tried to teach my students to aim high, even higher that they think they can achieve and dedicate themselves to achieve it. I have observed both from my personal experience as well as from the experience of my students that those that have a positive orientation towards the goals they set typically achieve them. In fact, it has been my experience that the most important quality for determining success in life, more than IQ or EQ is positive energy, the belief that you will succeed in whatever you set out to achieve. It is exactly this belief that I hope we installed in you, which I hope will be with you for the rest of your life.
From as long as I remember, I wanted to become a professor in a leading research university. I did not know very well what a research university was, and how it differs from others, but intuitively I felt that it had to do with a life of discovering new things and constantly learning. I have been privileged to be a professor at MIT, one of the finest universities in the world, since my early twenties.
In a typical day of my life, I meet with my doctoral students discussing ideas about making new discoveries, constantly learning new things. Every day is exciting as I meet with young people I love and respect trying to understand the world and making it better. I feel that I have found something that I love to do that makes my life meaningful. I would like to quote Steve Jobs, in his graduation speech he gave at Stanford in 2005:
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”
I wish the same things for you: to find what you love to do, to have high aspirations, to believe in yourselves and to keep a positive outlook in life.