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Solving the Grand Challenges with Mathematical Models

Jong-Shi Pang brings his expertise in optimization and operations research to USC Viterbi’s Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering
By: Stephanie Shimada
September 03, 2013 —

Jong-Shi Pang

For as long as he can remember, Jong-Shi Pang has had an insatiable curiosity about why things work. It is this curiosity that inspired, and continues to inspire, the new USC Viterbi Epstein Family Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering’s vision for using mathematical models to solve the major issues facing society, from health and social sciences, to homeland security and communications systems.

Pang joins the USC Viterbi Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering this fall, where he hopes to continue his research efforts, tap into USC’s diverse, multi-disciplinary resources, and collaborate on the cutting-edge research that is being done at the Viterbi School.

“I’d like to participate in efforts of solving the Grand Challenges to the extent that I can,” Pang, who holds a Ph.D. in operations research from Stanford University, said. “USC is at the leading edge of knowledge in these areas, and I am happy to be a part of it.”

Pang’s research provides solutions for a myriad of challenges such as helping farmers to decide on farming for food or fuel crops: the former to be sold to markets for consumption and the latter to be sold to biofuel companies for producing fuel. Such decisions are complicated by the presence of competition among different farms and the profits from the different kinds of crops. This is an example of one aspect of his research that has to do with gaming among competing economic agents with conflicting objectives and limited resources. Perhaps most remarkable about his models and results are their wide applicability. One algorithm can provide solutions for multiple problems crossing disparate industries, such as reducing costs or improving efficiency, which can help the electricity markets, transportation, oil markets and more. It can also be used to explain both physical and conceptual phenomena, such as why physical objects are stable when you hold them, which has taught researchers how to program robots to hold objects.

Pang’s work falls into the realm of equilibrium programming, a form of optimization that uses mathematical algorithms to facilitate efficient system design, which helps companies with basic operations, such as manufacturing, production, pricing and more. His research involves figuring out how to get competing entities to come to equilibrium, which is when opposing forces, such as supply as demand, shift until they reach a balancing point that satisfies both. For instance, consider the wholesale markets for electricity and gas. Each industry has multiple agents - consumers, competing companies - involved who are all vying to have their needs met. Pang’s research can help all agents come out with the best possible outcomes, such as the lowest purchasing price for the consumer and maximum quantity of product for the company.

“Pang’s work on equilibrium programming has actually opened up a whole variety of new applications for power, gas and robotics,” Suvrajeet Sen, USC Viterbi professor of industrial and systems engineering, said. “People can now do important science or engineering work because of the kinds of models Professor Pang has been working on.”

“I enjoy exploring how mathematics can be applied to realistic situations, and I strive to push foundations and create new knowledge and foundational methodologies that can be applied to other areas,” Pang said. “I am interested in discovering how they can link back to the source problems. And how to create new tools and methods to solve these problems.”

Pang is well known within the optimization circles because of the groundbreaking work he has done, Professor Sen said. He is among a small group of scholars who have received both the George B. Dantzig Prize, which is jointly awarded by the Mathematical Optimization Society (MOS) and the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), and the Frederick W. Lanchester Prize, which is awarded by the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science.

In addition to his research, Pang has served as a leader in both the academic and administrative sides of the field. Having worked extensively as a professor, department head and program director, Pang truly understands the ins and outs of the field, including the opportunities and challenges. He has considerable experience teaching future researchers in the lab at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and John Hopkins University, among others, on one hand; and making key decisions on research funding at the National Science Foundation on the other.

Pang most recently served as the inaugural head of the Department of Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering at the University of Illinois, where he helped build the department. With the department now on solid ground, he is ready to embark on his next challenge: to help take USC Viterbi’s research and stature to the next level.

“I came here because of colleagues and the ambition of the engineering school,“ Pang said. “The School is always becoming better and is highly productive. I see this as an opportunity where I can help.”