Simply put, Eva Lee loves math. She studied theoretical mathematics as an undergraduate, and when she came to the U.S. for graduate school, she thought math was the only subject of study to choose. That is, until she learned about operations research (O.R.). “All of the problems I love to do include math, and the desire to solve them lends itself to O.R. applications,” she says.
Along the way, Lee’s trajectory took a turn toward medicine, which she says has been easily the most challenging part of her career. “It is difficult – emotionally and physically – having to deal with life-and-death situations,” Lee says.
How did this begin? Two months after becoming the first female faculty member in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research at Columbia University, Lee attended a clinical seminar for medical research, where she was the only mathematician in the room. She had some thoughts and ideas she wanted to share during the seminar but was too afraid to speak up – so she didn’t.
“I think this was a test, and I might have failed in some sense,” Lee says. However, she emailed the medical director a week later to discuss her ideas, which turned into her first medical-focused O.R. project. This pioneering work won the 2007 INFORMS Edelman Award for using O.R. at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to develop sophisticated optimization modeling and computational techniques for real-time (intraoperative) treatment of prostate cancer.