Alumni profile: Deriving an Impact

Monday, November 6, 2017 - 1:30pm

SEAS alumnus and applied mathematician shares career wisdom with students

Les Servi, Ph.D. ’81, head of the decision analytics group at The MITRE Company, shared insights from his wide-ranging career to kick off the first in a series of professional talks organized by the Harvard Applied Math Society (HAMS).

By offering tips from applied mathematicians working in the field, the series seeks to enlighten undergrads on the vast array of career options available to them. Topics range from graduate school applications and summer internships to how a doctoral thesis can apply to projects 20 years into a career.

Servi, who studied engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), imparted wisdom gained from careers in both industry and academia. He has worked at Bell Laboratories, GTE (now Verizon) Laboratories, and MITRE, in addition to serving as visiting scientist at MIT and Harvard.

He offered advice, presented in a framework that highlighted projects throughout his career. Among his tips: find a niche that balances your strengths and interests; learn the environment before branching out; follow your passion; trust your gut; seize opportunities; and impact trumps complexity.

Servi has been following this advice for years. For example, while enrolled in an advanced linear algebra course, a homework problem inspired him to study applications of nested square roots in finding more precise values of pi. At GTE, he began a pet project that involved using transactional data to infer queue lengths, despite doubts from many colleagues. Days after he published a short paper, GTE started him on a three-year project in this new field.

Throughout his career, Servi has remained focused on seizing opportunity. While working at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, he was involved in projects that ranged from tracking ships under attack by pirates to tracking Manchester United’s football record based on Twitter sentiment.

 “I never realized all the applications of applied math,” said Dillon Dunteman, S.B. ’19, a mechanical engineering concentrator. “Dr. Servi’s work involves modeling and data analysis that extends across multiple fields, showing the breadth of applied math, from Twitter to sports teams to pirate attacks to queues.”

Servi discussed his current projects at MITRE, which include working on a cyber operations research team and a bandwidth project for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), as well as contributing to the company’s work tracking and hunting terrorists.

One student inquired about the difference between work at MITRE versus what he might be doing had he stayed in academia.

“Being published doesn’t win me brownie points,” Servi responded. “What matters is the impact.”

This emphasis on impact shone through for the students in attendance. Miruna Cristus, A.B. ’19, is currently taking Introduction to Optimization: Models and Methods (AM 121), a course that is closely related to elements of Servi’s work.

“The range of different problems you can solve is phenomenal,” she said.

Applied math concentrator Amanda Zhang, A.B. ’18, a member of HAMS, was pleased with the uniqueness of the talk.

“At Harvard, we’re exposed to professors who are academic, and then to finance and tech recruiters,” she said. “The purpose of this career series is to expose students to less represented fields, intellectual work positioned in industry, and the idea that the incentive can be impact.”

Servi speaks with Miruna Cristus, A.B. ’19, an applied math concentrator, on her lingering questions after the event. (Photo by Alana Davitt/SEAS Communications.)