The newest department at Princeton Engineering is also one of the most popular and influential — it’s been home to the University’s two most recent valedictorians, and has produced creative and visionary graduates in recent decades. But it’s also perhaps the least understood form of engineering we offer. What exactly is operations research and financial engineering?


From which original Princeton Engineering department did ORFE spin off?


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In 1999, the Department of Operations Research & Financial Engineering was established as a freestanding department, after years of germinating within one of Princeton’s original departments. What was the original name of the department in which ORFE got its start? Bonus points if you can give the name that department went by just before the split. 

Although Princeton has a long and storied history in data science and decision making under uncertainty, modern-day operations research here had its origins in what was originally known as the civil engineering department. The department had undergone several name changes over the years to signify its evolving core research areas in addition to the study of infrastructure projects. By the late 1970s, civil engineering had expanded to include data and computing. For instance, in large building projects and complex civil engineering systems, there is the need to employ the art of statistical optimization — for scheduling construction, managing water resources, transportation, managing hazards and risk assessment, and more. The department had by that point absorbed several faculty members in statistics when that department disbanded; and one of its other faculty members, John Mulvey, became director of the Engineering Management Systems certificate program, which focused on using data and computing for modeling and analysis. As the department evolved, a growing group of faculty within the department identified with operations research, which combines the use of optimization, probability and statistics to solve problems in contextual domains such as business, energy systems, health services, financial services, telecommunications and transportation. It was such a big group, in fact, that by the 1980s the department had renamed itself the Department of Civil Engineering and Operations Research. But with some of the operations research faculty wanting to move into financial engineering — using math to solve problems in finance — it was a metaphorical bridge too far from the civil engineering department’s origins building bridges. Thus, Operations Research & Financial Engineering was spun off into its own department in 1999. Today, the department is very much its own entity. It has grown to 20 faculty members, eight master’s students, 78 doctoral students and about 220 undergraduate majors, making it one of the more popular majors at Princeton. It has been home to the last two valedictorians of the entire University. In fall 2021 ORFE welcomes 27 new doctoral students, its largest incoming class. The remaining department, meanwhile, became “Civil and Environmental Engineering” at the time of the split. 


“We don’t try to train people for any one job. We try to educate, to create intelligence through looking at general problems.” – Erhan Çinlar


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Erhan Çinlar, the founding chair of the Department of Operations Research & Financial Engineering, gained quite a following for his lectures by focusing not on reciting facts or solving statistical problems, but on learning how to use your brain. The Norman J. Sollenberger Professor of Engineering Emeritus taught students how to find mathematics in the real world, and use it to solve real-world problems. He came to Princeton in 1985 at a time when the statistics program here was nearing its end. Its faculty found a home in the civil engineering department, and he did too, connecting engineering and statistics in a way that served both fields. Enrollments in his classes increased; his undergraduate course “Probability and Stochastic Systems,” which describes the mathematical description of uncertainty and randomness, was known as one of the most challenging at the University. He taught grad students “Probability Theory” and “Markov Processes,” and top doctoral students followed him to Princeton. With that kind of demand, and with a growing faculty in operations research, the University founded ORFE in 1999, one of the only departments of its kind in the world. In a 2014 interview just before he retired, Çinlar said ORFE is successful because it deals in real-world scenarios. When hiring, he didn’t just look at backgrounds and credentials; he also looked at creativity and problem solving skills. Having that capability, and teaching it, prepares its graduates for careers on Wall Street, with financial institutions, and major corporations, he said. In 2013, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Engineering Council for excellence in teaching. “Why does a student come to Princeton?” he said during that 2014 interview. “My answer is that they come to Princeton because they want the sort of education that they can get here… What is liberal arts? We don’t try to train people for any one job. We try to educate, to create intelligence through looking at general problems.” 


Which ORFE grad coined the term “temptation bundling”?


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What holds people back from doing their best work and living their best life? Earlier this year, a graduate of the Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering released a book aimed at figuring that out. Part self-help book, part behavioral science, this much-publicized book suggests that people are more likely to do a less-desired but much-needed task, like working out, when paired with something they really like, such as a highly awaited audiobook. The author coined this term “temptation bundling.” Who is the author? 

Katy Milkman ’04 is a behavioral scientist and the James G. Dinan Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. This Operations Research & Financial Engineering graduate recently released a book, “How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want To Be.” In the book, she discusses the various reasons people fail at their goals, from procrastination to laziness to impulsivity and more. And she writes about how people can tackle those problems. One of them is the concept of “temptation bundling.” As she told Knowledge@Wharton: “I was struggling to get myself to the gym at the end of a long day in class, even though I knew exercise would ultimately make me feel better and more energetic. I just couldn’t motivate myself. And I was simultaneously tempted to dive into these novels. I realized I could solve both of those problems at once. All I had to do was only let myself read the next chapter in whatever novel I was enjoying while I was exercising.” Although her work sits somewhere between economics and psychology, her ORFE major allowed her to tap into data to help quantify how people can change their approaches toward such behaviors as savings, exercise, and vaccinations. She is remembered as a student leader within the ORFE department, having founded the Operations Research Society and graduated summa cum laude, and today she is on ORFE’s Advisory Council. Her work is a good example of the many applications of an ORFE degree, including communications, finance, energy and the environment, social, behavioral, physical and biological sciences, robotics and cyberphysical systems, social networks, and transportation. 


“You’ve got to be willing and able to be decisive… And if we were wrong, we’ll admit it, and we’ll fix it. But we won’t just stand there.” – Laura Forese ‘83.


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Laura L. Forese ’83, an orthopedic surgeon, is executive vice president and chief operating officer of NewYork-Presbyterian, a system of academic medical centers, regional hospitals and physicians in metro New York. The system has 10 hospitals and more than 40,000 employees. She is a trustee of Princeton University and has been named ​​among the 50 most powerful women in New York by Crain’s Business. She received her B.S.E. in civil engineering and operations research from Princeton, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. She has credited her education in systems engineering and operations research at Princeton with preparing her for an “unorthodox” career path, giving her a framework to solve problems in many different situations. In a 2010 interview with Princeton Engineering, she reflected on the decisions surgeons need to make, and what they have in common with leaders. “You’ve got to be willing and able to be decisive. In an O.R., the patient’s not going to make it if you just stand there. And similarly, as a leader, sometimes you don’t have all the information that you want. You’ve got to be willing to say, I’m going to go with the best information that I had, I’m going to make the best decision that I can. And if we were wrong, we’ll admit it, and we’ll fix it. But we won’t just stand there.” Today, operations research at Princeton continues in the Department of Operations Research & Financial Engineering.

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