Numbers Guy Tackles Security and Health Concerns
Sheldon Jacobson, professor and Director of the Simulation and Optimization Laboratory at the University of Illinois.
Credit: University of Illinois
In his roles as a professor and Director of the Simulation and Optimization Laboratory at the University of Illinois, computer scientist Sheldon Jacobson has tackled critical issues ranging from security to health. He and his collaborators have used operations research to produce such results as more effective airport security systems, better approaches to stockpiling pediatric vaccines, and even computational tools for rezoning political districts. He was recently featured in a podcast talking about his work modeling vaccination programs for H1N1 (also known as swine flu), and below he answers the ScienceLives 10 Questions.

Name: Sheldon H. Jacobson
Age: 49
Institution: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Field of Study: Operations Research and Industrial Engineering

What inspired you to choose this field of study?
A passion for numbers and how they exhibit a natural beauty in their inherent patterns, order and precision.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
Just show up and do not give up (be persistent).

What was your first scientific experiment as a child?

Being enamored with numbers, my discovery of compound interest early in elementary school was absolutely fascinating. I was also intrigued by sequences of numbers, like the Fibonacci series, and the patterns they exhibited.

What is your favorite thing about being a scientist or researcher?
The thrill of discovering what no one else has seen before. Also, having the privilege to advise and guide young people in their pursuit of knowledge is a great joy.

What is the most important characteristic a scientist must demonstrate in order to be an effective scientist?
Persistence. It is easy to get frustrated and sidetracked when the desired results are not forthcoming. However, taking that extra step often leads to important leaps of knowledge.

What are the societal benefits of your research?

Our research on aviation security system design and analysis has provided new paradigms of thinking in what aviation security systems may look like in 10 to 15 years. Our research on pediatric vaccine economics has provided valuable insights within the public health community in shaping pediatric immunization policy.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher?
Theodore Roosevelt. He was a true maverick in doing what was right, even when it was unpopular. He was also highly principled in his beliefs.

What about your field or being a scientist do you think would surprise people the most?
Operations research touches almost every facet of our daily lives, from how airlines schedule their flights, to how call centers are staffed, to how goods are manufactured, to how health care is delivered.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be?
The backup hard drive for my computer and three photos that my wife took and framed for my office (she is a superb photographer).

What music do you play most often in your lab or car?
I rarely listen to music. I like to sing songs that I make up on the fly, and sing them exclusively for my wife.