Jeff Wu's Vision of World-Class Statistic's Program in ISyE Realized

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Barbara Christopher
Industrial and Systems Engineering
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Recognized as an icon in the field of engineering statistics, Jeff Wu, professor in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) and Coca-Cola Chair in Engineering Statistics, has galvanized ISyE"s statistics group since coming to Georgia Tech in 2003 and has strategically drawn to the program some of the most talented young statisticians and PhD students in the world.

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  • Seated: Jeff Wu. Standing (left to right): Yajun Mei, Ming Yuan, Nicoleta Serban, Roshan Joseph Vengazihiyil, and Nagi Gebraeel. Seated: Jeff Wu. Standing (left to right): Yajun Mei, Ming Yuan, Nicoleta Serban, Roshan Joseph Vengazihiyil, and Nagi Gebraeel.
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  • Jeff Wu, professor in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering and Coca-Cola Chair in Engineering Statistics Jeff Wu, professor in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering and Coca-Cola Chair in Engineering Statistics
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Recognized as an icon in the field of engineering statistics, Jeff Wu, professor in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) and Coca-Cola Chair in Engineering Statistics, has galvanized ISyE"s statistics group since coming to Georgia Tech in 2003 and has strategically drawn to the program some of the most talented young statisticians and PhD students in the world. 

”You couldn’t write a case history or a template much better in terms of how you can create a program and enhance it any better than by following the recipe that Jeff did, “states R. Gary Parker, ISyE professor and associate chair for graduate studies. “But through the strength of his own personality, will, and established reputation, Jeff put it together, and this is what you get.”

What Georgia Tech has gotten is the elevation of ISyE’s engineering statistics program to world-class standing as evidenced by an extraordinary five National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER awards among the first five faculty Wu hired into the existing program.

Wu joined the Georgia Tech faculty following a search initiated by then ISyE chair Bill Rouse. With an unfilled Coca Cola chair in 2001, Rouse queried a lot of the ISyE faculty, asking them if they could hire only one senior, well-known person in any area, where would it make the most difference. “The notion,” explains Rouse, “was to pick a group where we could invest and rapidly advance their credibility.” And the consensus was statistics.

A member of the National Academy of Engineering and former head of the statistics program at the University of Michigan, Wu is a well-known entity in engineering statistics, and he had a very clear vision of what he wanted to do once he got here.

Coming to a school strong in science and engineering, Wu wanted to build statistics research that would allow for interaction and collaboration with engineers and scientists and information technology. He envisioned a diversified faculty where every member of the statistics group would collaborate and do joint work with other groups across disciplines.

“I was given a mandate,” Wu explains, “to try something no one had tried before, namely building a strong statistics and quality program within engineering.”

To fulfill that mandate, Wu asked for and was granted five assistant professor slots to be filled one a year over five years. Using his network of professional colleagues internationally allowed Wu to get to know some of the people he brought in before he hired them and to a level of depth where he could identify significant talent.

Within three years, Wu had filled the five positions, hiring Roshan Joseph Vengazihiyil, Ming Yuan, Nagi Gebraeel, Yajun Mei, and Nicoleta Serban, all of whom have received the NSF CAREER Award.

 “These CAREER awards are kind of rare to begin with, “explains Chip White, H. Milton and Carolyn J. Stewart Chair and Schneider National Chair in Transportation and Logistics .“To have the insight to be able to identify junior faculty capable of successful CAREER award winners is phenomenal.”

But, White points out that significant talent can flounder unless it is properly mentored, and according to his colleagues, Wu is the consummate mentor. Wu deflects that credit, pointing instead to the Georgia Tech, College of Engineering and ISyE environments as well as the students themselves and their work. Nonetheless, Wu has worked incredibly hard to take the talent he was able to identify and turn them into really remarkable researchers. “He’s definitely tilted the playing field in their favor,” White states, “and that is what we want to do for young faculty.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           According to both White and Parker, Wu also understands that the right environment for high-quality faculty includes high-quality PhD students. To be able to execute his vision, Wu would need to play a role in identifying good potential doctoral students and recruiting at that level as well.

“They go hand in hand, “ adds White. “High-quality faculty, high-quality doctoral students. The combination, if everything goes well, results in some really terrific synergies.”

Working closely with Parker, Wu has been able to attract to ISyE’s statistic’s program PhD applicants from around the world despite ISyE not yet having a dedicated PhD degree in statistics. Statistics is a specialization within Industrial Engineering (IE), and PhDs are awarded in IE. Though there is conversation about establishing a PhD in statistics, a few years away at best, one does not currently exist. That fact has not discouraged some of the best candidates from applying to Georgia Tech. And Wu has been very effective at making sure the statistics program is recognized. According to White, Wu has been very good in that regard because he is so well-connected.  

And that has paid off.  Tirthankar Dasgupta, who received his PhD in 2007 and is now assistant professor in the department of statistics at Harvard, cites two reasons for his decision to come to ISyE, the first being “the opportunity . . . to work under the supervision of Professor Jeff Wu, a true icon in the field of engineering statistics, and second, the fact that this was the top-ranked Industrial Engineering department in America having several eminent scholars amongst the faculty.”

With his most recent hire of Kobi Abayomi, Wu’s program has grown to fourteen (not counting the group of seven or eight probabilists in ISyE), which rivals the size of stand-alone statistics departments at other universities. And the boundaries in Wu’s program are very clear. “Of all the sub disciplines in ISyE,” states Parker, “it is probably the nearest sub group that really exists in a very, very defined way.” For the most part, the professors in ISyE’s statistics program teach only in statistics, and they attract students who come directly to work with them in terms of PhDs. “So it is extraordinary to have a group that has all the credentials, has the numbers, and the extraordinary stature of a stand-alone statistics department.” 

From an historical perspective, Parker explains that over the years, there had been several task-force level efforts put together to look into establishing a stand-alone statistics department at Georgia Tech, but those efforts never led anywhere. Ultimately, there were two units on campus that covered the interests in statistics: the school of mathematics and ISyE. Over time, however, a shift started to occur where the staffing of statistics started to draw down in math as interest in ISyE went in the other direction.

It was becoming clear that ISyE had a lot of interest with PhD applicants who had very serious statistics backgrounds and wanted more applied statistics. “We had some young statisticians that had just been hired,” says Parker, “a couple of senior people who were coming more from the culture of statistics. Their PhDs were in statistics from some of the top programs in the country (e.g., Wisconsin).”  So, the signs were there, but there still hadn’t been a big commitment, and that is where Wu entered in.

Parker says that he thinks it would be completely fair to say that Wu changed the dynamic, changed the culture. “He went after young people who he hand-picked and just kicked it up a whole different notch from where it had been, “ Parker explains, adding that he’s pretty sure that there is no place with ISyE’s reputation that exists this way.

Georgia Tech is possibly the only place where the statistics program is within the school of industrial engineering.” states Roshan Joseph Vengazhiyil, associate professor and one of Wu’s five initial hires. This is attractive to Vengazhiyil because his research interests are in engineering statistics. “I felt that my efforts would be most appreciated in this place.” For Vengazhiyil, working within an engineering school rather than in a department of statistics gives him better exposure to the latest developments and trends in engineering and provides him better opportunities to collaborate with the engineers.

And that collaboration was part of Wu’s vision, which is being realized. The tentacles that spread out from Wu’s group vis a vis research activities strengthen that bond within ISyE and across campus. Examples of its success include Nicoleta Serban’s collaboration with Bill Rouse and the Tennenbaum Institute on health care, Yajun Mei’s collaboration with the Georgia Tech Research Institute on indoor air quality, Ming Yuan’s revolutionary bioinformatics techniques to successfully address questions related to aging and diabetes and Nagi Gebraeel’s new degradation lab in the Manufacturing Research Center. White reflects that these links into other departments help ISyE extend its contribution to another school, and vice versa. “That helps to promote the synergies that you want to see in a university.”

And Parker agrees that ISyE’s program is often recognized as the statistics program for Georgia Tech. When other schools have a statistics issue, they frequently come to ISyE for that, and the Institute Graduate Committee, on which Parker served for years, is likely to refer petitioners to ISyE if they are proposing a statistics course that duplicates what is already being taught there. In fact, Parker states, the committee has often said, “’You have a stat department in engineering; it’s called ISyE.’ And that’s a very powerful thing.”

For a full listing of the Statistic / Quality Group faculty, the breadth of their research and the scope of their work, visit their website at http://www2.isye.gatech.edu/statistics/index.php.

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H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISYE)

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Engineering
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Keywords
Engineering Statistics, Georgia Tech, isye, Jeff Wu
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  • Created By: Edie Cohen
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  • Created On: Apr 6, 2010 - 10:50am
  • Last Updated: Oct 7, 2016 - 11:05pm