New ISyE chair Albert sees growth in data, equity

// Industrial & Systems Engineering

Professor Laura Albert, David H. Gustafson Chair of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Years ago, when several of Laura Albert’s mentors in operations research tried to nudge her to consider a career in academic administration, her initial reaction was less than enthusiastic.

“I just wanted to run away,” the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor recalls.

Yet here she is in July 2021, taking over as David H. Gustafson Chair of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and speaking effusively about her enjoyment of strategic planning.

Since arriving at UW-Madison as an associate professor in 2013, Albert has further established herself as a prolific researcher, applying operations research methods to an array of public sector challenges, including homeland security, emergency medical services and critical infrastructure protection like information technology and election systems.

She’s also prioritized sharing her insights with the broader public through interviews with news outlets, op-ed pieces, her “Punk Rock Operations Research” blog and Twitter—efforts that helped earn her recognition as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

But it took a combination of gaining leadership experience through several forums of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences, her field’s largest professional society, and some self-reflection for Albert to envision a path into administration. She credits Professor Sheldon Jacobson, her PhD advisor at the University of Illinois, for helping her think strategically about her career arc and intended impact.

That reflection prompted Albert to serve as the College of Engineering’s assistant dean for graduate affairs from 2017-19 and then to succeed Harvey D. Spangler Professor Jeff Linderoth as chair of ISyE.

“I have always enjoyed giving back to early career researchers in the discipline, and academia is such a great place to do that because every year we’re educating the next generation. And the department chair and the assistant dean positions have given me unique opportunities to not just help people on an individual level but more on a structural level, where you can make lasting policies and structures,” says Albert, who is also a Harvey D. Spangler Faculty Scholar. “This is a place where I really want our assistant professors and graduate students to thrive.”

And, as a department, Albert sees ISyE as particularly poised to thrive in an era where data science is informing nearly every field, including historic department areas of strength like healthcare systems, human factors and manufacturing systems engineering.

The department rolled out a revamped undergraduate curriculum incorporating a stronger emphasis on data analytics in fall 2020, along with a new introduction to engineering analytics course that will serve as a core course for all UW-Madison engineering students. In recent years, ISyE has also hired faculty members—Justin Boutilier (fall 2019), Yonatan Mintz (fall 2020) and Qiaomin Xie (fall 2021)—whose research is driven by data science methodologies such as machine learning.

“We have such a potential to be leaders in data science, engineering analytics and artificial intelligence. There are opportunities there that industrial engineers can uniquely tackle, and we can build upon this great ecosystem that we have here at UW-Madison,” says Albert, pointing to the creation of the American Family Insurance Data Science Institute and the School of Computer, Data & Information Sciences in recent years, as well as the rapid growth of the computer science and data science majors on campus.

And she’s also keen to continue driving ISyE forward in the areas of equity and inclusion in student recruitment and retention, education and research. Associate Professor Nicole Werner will be leading the department’s new equity task force, while Albert and Assistant Professor Gabriel Zayas-Caban have both earned awards for their efforts to improve representation in the field.

Werner, through her work on the hidden workloads of family caregivers for people with dementia and children with medical complexity, is among the ISyE faculty members whose research explores areas of inequity. Ditto for Boutilier’s research on healthcare in international, low-resource settings, Mintz’s on bias in automated decision-making, Albert’s own work on public sector infrastructure decisions, and others across the faculty.

“We have faculty who have interest in application areas where equity is really at the forefront,” says Albert. “So I think for us, it’s particularly driven by the research. It kind of spreads everywhere.”

Author: Tom Ziemer