Imre Polik, senior operations research specialist in the operations research group, truly qualifies as a math lover. Having studied math his entire life—and having taught it for two years—Imre offers some valuable words of wisdom and experience. He even has a couple of stories and jokes up his sleeves! Read the entire interview below, and be sure to check out the rest of the SAS Loves Math series and the SAS STEM webpage for more information!
What kind of work do you do at SAS?
What I do is optimization software development. It’s kind of a cross between mathematics and computer science. We are implementing mathematical algorithms for optimization. The problem I’m working on is generally called linear programming. One specific example is the diet problem. Essentially, you have some budget that you want to spend on nutritious meals. The question is, given this budget, what is the best diet that you can come up with? It’s an optimization problem, and it was one of the earliest documented uses of linear programming. There are sophisticated ways to model this that account for variability as well. These days, similar models are used in every industry—what I work on is the optimization engine at its core.
How do you use math in your job?
A lot of the math I implement is already well-known and out there, but how best to implement it may be tricky. But we also come up with new things. When we have an idea, we’ll work it through on the whiteboard, then test it out to see if it works or doesn’t work, and maybe write a paper about it. We do some original research. We also do patents. At the core of it, it’s all mathematics.
What is your educational background?
The first part of my education was in Hungary. I went to high school and university there, and I also got a master’s degree there in mathematics. I specialized in operations research and linear programming. Then, continuing down the same path, I got my PhD in Canada. I was less computational during my PhD, however. I eventually came to the U.S. and I became a professor for two years in Pennsylvania at Lehigh University.
All of my degrees are in straight mathematics. I don’t have any degrees that say I can do programming—I just learned it the hard way. I did it on the side while I was doing my PhD.
What about math appeals to you?
In elementary school, I had three main subjects: math, physics, and chemistry. But in high school, I realized that in chemistry and physics, you have to memorize a lot of information. What I always loved about mathematics is that if you don’t remember something—and you’re smart enough—you can figure it out. If you don’t remember a formula, you can figure it out. That happened to me a lot. Math is self-contained.
Another good thing about math is that it has a very wide applicability. If you are doing just mathematics, you still have wide-open choices. What I’ve been taught and also what I’ve experienced is that in getting the domain knowledge of a specific field, it’s always easier if you have a mathematical background.
Do you have any other advice you would give to students studying math?
Something I always wanted to pass on to my students was that in mathematics, the most important thing is that you understand what you’re doing. If you just learn a formula, that isn’t really useful. Maybe you can apply it, but you won’t really understand it. Also, do math! It’s fun.
Do you have any funny stories about math you’d like to share?
When we were at university in Hungary, not all of us always attended lectures, but we wanted to get the lecture notes. We had a friend who was good at taking notes, and after lectures we made copies of his notes and split them. One day, a friend of mine and I copied two sets of 8 pages each. Each page was 7 forints (the currency of Hungary) and the total was 112 forints.
The question was how to split the cost between the two of us, a fairly simple question. Our first answer was 61 forints each, but we thought about it and realized that 61 couldn’t be the correct answer because it was not a multiple of 7. Then, we thought it was 51, but that that was not a multiple of 7 either. Finally, we realized that the answer was 56, which is a multiple of 7. Of course, it was easier for us to determine that 51 and 61 could not be the cost because they were not multiples of 7 than it was to simply divide 112 by 2! We’ve been joking about that for a long time.
I also know some math jokes. Here’s one: there’s a small red ball. How do a mathematician, a physicist and an engineer measure the volume of the ball? The mathematician measures the diameter and uses a formula. The physicist submerges the ball in water and measures the displacement. And the engineer picks up his catalog of small red balls and looks up the model!
What are your favorite math blogs and journals?
I have several that I read regularly, but not all of them are strictly math: Michael Trick’s Operations Research Blog; Combinatorics and More; Gödel’s Lost Letter and P=NP; OR in an OB World; Punk Rock Operations Research; and Vi Hart’s Blog. Also, PhD Comics is worth following.
Do you have any other hobbies or interests?
I play the organ. I have one at home. That I enjoy very much; I find a strong connection between math and music. I also play Ping-Pong and do fencing.
If you know someone at SAS who really loves math, nominate them for an interview! Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.