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The science of strategy

Raga Gopalakrishnan uses mathematical modelling to make sense of the world around us
Rebecca Harris
Raga Gopalakrishnan studies how managers deal with customer lineups

The first time Raga Gopalakrishnan taught math it was to an audience of no one. That’s because he was just a boy in the backyard of his home in Chennai, India, teaching his favourite subject to an imaginary class. He had pestered his parents to have a blackboard painted on a portion of a wall, and his mother — a schoolteacher — had brought home chalk.

“At a young age, I observed my mom marking papers and drawing up lesson plans,” recalls the assistant professor of operations management who joined Smith in 2019. “It kindled a lot of curiosity and my passion for teaching. I was also drawn to math from a young age and research was very appealing to me.”

Gopalakrishnan went on to study computer science and engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and then completed his master’s and PhD in computer science at the California Institute of Technology. During his studies, the concept of game theory caught his attention “because it involves multiple layers of anticipating what your opponents are trying to do to arrive at the best possible winning strategy,” he says.

An early supervisor and a collaborator sparked another area of interest: queueing theory, or the mathematical study of waiting in lines. Today, his research partly focuses on how customers, servers and managers deal with queues, which can then help practitioners (in business management, for example) provide targeted recommendations to organizations.

“It’s a combination of queueing theory and game theory, and that combination turned out to be the sweet spot that I was looking for,” says Gopalakrishnan, whose latest research looks at how server work speed is affected by managerial decisions. “I felt that exploring the field of queueing games might allow me to find more applications for my work. I wanted to move in a direction that was motivated by problems encountered in real life.”

Why is queueing a problem? Gopalakrishnan says the negative consequences can range from “something trivial like getting annoyed waiting in line at Starbucks, to ‘I die because I’m waiting for surgery’ because there’s a shortage of resources in health care. So, long wait times might just be catastrophic.” As a theoretical researcher, he adds, “I view my work as contributing to an important pillar of strategic managerial thinking even though it doesn’t directly tell managers exactly what they must do in those situations.”

When he’s not doing research or teaching, Gopalakrishnan also enjoys “recreational math”, which includes learning fun facts about math. “There is a cliché that math is boring, but there are often quirky little stories behind many mathematical discoveries,” he says.

But his life is not all math. Gopalakrishnan is keen to get back to long-distance running, a hobby that fell by the wayside in the pandemic. He also loves to travel and often combines it with his love of movies and television. On a recent vacation, Gopalakrishnan explored various Harry Potter filming locations across England and Wales. His most memorable trip came in 2016, when he toured the islands of Hawaii. “I’m a big fan of Lost, so I went to a lot of locations where they filmed the show,” he says. “They were the best two weeks of my life.”