Sheldon Jacobson receives 2023 INFORMS President's Award

12/18/2023 Amber Rose

Written by Amber Rose

Computer science professor Sheldon Jacobson has recently received the 2023 INFORMS President’s Award for “advancing the field of operations research through his research that has influenced national policy, his influential role in communicating his research contributions to the public, and for his exceptional service to INFORMS and the broader operations research community.” INFORMS (Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences) is the leading international association for professionals in the field of operations research, management science, and business analytics. The purpose of the President’s Award is to recognize and thereby encourage important contributions to the welfare of society by members of the profession at the local, national, or global level.

Two people stand in front of a yellow-orange backdrop of mountains and hold a large plaque.
Photo Credit: INFORMS
Sheldon Jacobson (right) receiving the INFORMS President's Award from President Laura Albert (left) [Photo Credit: INFORMS]

“Operations research is the mathematical modeling of decision making, where we use mathematical models and algorithms to help inform decisions and ultimately make the world a better place,” Jacobson explains. With its roots in World War II, operations research has transformed our world and evolved for use in areas such as homeland security, transportation, and finance. 

Jacobson, who also holds appointments in the departments of industrial and enterprise systems engineering (ISE), mathematics, statistics, and electrical and computer engineering (ECE), and the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, has been an influential name in the field of operations research for decades. Most notably, he started working on aviation security problems in the mid-1990s, and his career transformed after September 11th, 2001.

“In 2003, we proposed a new paradigm for airport security. It was an idea based on risk-based security, eventually transforming into what we know today as TSA PreCheck. The roots of PreCheck are actually at the University of Illinois,” Jacobson says.  TSA PreCheck is an expedited screening program that makes risk assessments about passengers prior to their arrival at an airport checkpoint, providing expedited screening for known and trusted travelers and allowing TSA to focus resources on high-risk and unknown passengers. Jacobson says this model saves the United States approximately $1 million every day.

Science communication is something Jacobson started doing relatively early in his career. Storytelling, he believes, is a crucial component of doing research. “I always like to say that there’s a story to be told, and if you are qualified to tell the story, you should. If you don’t tell it, someone else will, and they may not do as good a job,” Jacobson says. His role as a science communicator took off in 2006 when he had an influential paper published. Jacobson did 42 interviews in 72 hours (in a time without Skype or Zoom!). The experience “introduced me to the fact that when you do research, you can press buttons and influence people’s thinking. People will have a very visceral response to some of the things that you’re doing. That was my quantum leap into science communication, and I haven’t looked back ever since,” Jacobson says.  

Beyond influencing national security and science communication, Jacobson has served in numerous roles within INFORMS during his career at Illinois. He’s served as the general chair of the INFORMS annual meeting as treasurer, has sat on several committees, and has mentored many operations research community members.

Share this story

This story was published December 18, 2023.