By Richard Silberman, Writer/Researcher, IBM Communications
For a PhD who spends his days writing complex algorithms and running computer models, Dan Iancu sums up his life’s work quite simply: “I try to find better ways to do things.”
As a Goldstine Fellow spending a year doing research at IBM, Iancu is developing models to enable better decision-making in complex operational settings — from finance and healthcare to commodities acquisition and electricity smart grids. His drive to develop more efficient processes might have something to do with his childhood in communist Romania, where he experienced scarcity and economic disparity firsthand.
“I was occasionally able to get one Pepsi or a can of Coke and you would not believe the type of happiness it would give me,” Iancu said. “Doing without taught me that even the smallest changes can make a big difference, and that things can often be done more efficiently or equitably than what the status quo dictates.”
Bad scenarios, good outcomes
During his fellowship, Iancu is continuing research he began for his doctoral thesis in operations research at MIT. He is developing powerful methodologies to help managers make better decisions in the face of great uncertainty and risk. Iancu’s innovative approach to risk analysis is a key factor that distinguishes his work.
“Most decisions are based on lots of uncertainty — things you do not know at the moment or cannot measure exactly,” Iancu said. “For instance, you may be unsure of how many customers you will have, or exact costs, or precise timing.”
“The idea is to build mathematical models that capture this uncertainty and lead to robust decisions that mitigate risk and help ensure good outcomes, even in the worst scenarios.”
Research rooted in the real world
Iancu is engaged in some highly abstract work — but always with an eye on the real world. “I believe in practical applications grounded in good theory. I want to see my work solve real problems,” he said.
Much of his research at IBM involves finding optimal ways to manage inventory and procure commodities. “Billions of dollars are still wasted annually in inventory costs because it’s very, very hard to manage it well. You always have either too much or too little,” Iancu said. “I’m trying to change that.”
Iancu is also helping develop a more efficient electricity smart grid for IBM. The goal is a grid that can optimally dispatch energy so to satisfy customer demand, minimize the cost of production — and even incentivize customers to use less energy.
In all his research, Iancu is helping find smarter ways to acquire and allocate limited resources. Some of his work is already finding its way into internal IBM software solutions and, ultimately, much of it may prove useful in various client solutions.
Next stop, Stanford
Iancu received his undergraduate degree from Yale, masters from Harvard and PhD from MIT. Next stop, after his fellowship ends this week: Assistant Professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he’ll continue his research and teach first-year MBA students.
One of the key values Iancu carries with him from his childhood, which runs through his work and he hopes to instill in his students, is a strong sense of fairness. “This may sound idealistic, but I like to think that if my research helps a business operate more efficiently and cut costs, at least some of the savings could be passed on to the customer,” Iancu said.
In Dan Iancu’s world — where mathematical models yield less risk, greater profit and a more equitable resource distribution — everyone can come out ahead.
The Goldstine Fellowship is an opportunity for post-doctoral students to spend a year at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York pursuing their own research in pure and applied mathematics and in theoretical and exploratory computer science. The fellowship provides an opportunity for researchers to work with IBM teams and apply their theories to real data and real problems, and to mingle and exchange ideas with some of the smartest minds around the world in IBM’s labs. As resident department members at the Research Center, Goldstine Fellows enjoy all the privileges of IBM researchers.