Gursoy, Melike

Associate Professor
Areas of Interest: 
Stochastic Modeling, Optimization and Control: Markov Decision Processes; Stochastic Games, Queueing Theory, and their applications to Telecommunication, Supply Chain and Transportation Systems.
My Story: 
In my life, I’ve always wanted to be challenged and my family, most of whom were teachers, provided me with ample intellectual questions. My father always emphasized education to my sister and me, partly because he himself never finished high school due to his mother’s death when he was six years old. It was always accepted that I would go on to college.

The people that have most influenced me in life are the people that challenged me. One person I remember very well is my high school physics teacher who had her daughter in one of the top universities in Turkey. She would find problems from her daughter’s courses to give us as exam problems. Although I had a hard time solving them, the joy and satisfaction one feels was worth the hardship. I loved her, because I learned so much from her. 

My love of math and physics started in high school and led me to major in engineering at the public Bogazici University in Istanbul. My first choice though, earlier in my life, was to be an archeologist. I had a keen interest in history and archeology, and the way that archeology could uncover facts from Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman civilizations. Although, in addition, I loved outdoors and hiking, I soon gave up on that idea. 

During my time at university, I just loved being in this scholarly environment. I enjoyed the math behind Probability and Random Processes at my first encounter, seeing random events all around me happening by chance. I became fascinated by the control theory, learning the principles behind the Apollo mission of sending aircraft to the Moon. I realized that engineering via mathematics gives you the means to model and analyze complex systems, and usingthese models to improve people’s lives. The person who taught me all this, my master thesis adviser, Yorgo Istefanopulos, was also a person that challenged me with difficult exams. He would question us on problems that we could solve with our newly found knowledge from his classes. The questions seemed to be almost open-ended and you had to find your own way through them. To me, these exams were just more enrichment time, I loved the idea that you could go and find your own solution to a problem, instead of just memorizing. I was taught optimization and game theory by Tamer Basar, a visiting scholar from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champain. A lot of what he taught me, I still use today. I also used to go to these weekly seminars where people presented their own research, organized by Bulent Sankur. Both faculty members have had a major influence in my life. 

Bogazici University also provided me with excellent surroundings and extracurricular activities. Sitting on a hill overlooking the Bosphorous, Bogazici, I believed, has the most beautiful campus in the world. I was a member of the Folk Dancing and Spelunking Clubs, both very active. In the spelunking club, we would camp out on the Taurus Mountains, explore the caves, and, in the mean time, help villagers in keeping their water supply clean. Once we spent almost an entire day in a cave with many grand halls and lakes with waterfalls, sparkling stalagmites and stalactites under our carbite lights. Today, I’m still an outdoors person;I folk dance and will go spelunking given the chance.

By now, I was married to an engineer, with whom I still discuss many research problems today. My husband and I were of a similar mind: we both wanted to explore the world outside of Turkey, and look for a new challenge. We studied in Montreal, and later on at the University of Pennsylvania. Living in Montreal, and later in Philadelphia, was just wonderful. We bought our Peugeot bikes in Montreal and we would visit the shore and go shopping on our bikes carting watermelons. Bikes continued to be our only means of transportation in Philadelphia. Because of the people we’ve met, I could say that Philadelphia really lived up to its reputation as the “City of Brotherly Love.” During that time I met several professors, among who were Peter Caines, the late George Zames and my PhD advisor, Keith W. Ross. I have learned so much from them about the intricacies of Stochastic Control, H∞ Control, and Markov Decision processes. I am grateful for their generosity with their time and knowledge. 

Academia interested me from the start because of the amount of independence you have with your research. Here at Rutgers, we use mathematical tools to model real-life problems. One of the projects I’m working on is traffic modeling, an important research topic in a densely populated area like New Jersey. We try to figure out what the impact of random events like flooding, chemical spills, road work or traffic accidents will be on traffic flow, and advise policy makers on allocating emergency response vehicles, assigning service patrols, and introducing alternate routes. Recently, I’ve been involved in a project to study climate and health related issues. We are investigating policies to minimize the impact of isolated extreme climatic events on human health. 

Another project I’m working on is a production problem involving perishable products such as orange juice or olive oil. Here yearly demand is not known exactly at the time one needs to decide how much juice or oil to produce. Orange or olive yield is also not known, since it could be influenced by climatic events affecting a certain region. We are trying to find out how producers should adjust their production level in a competitive environment, how many trees should be leased, and what policy applies when a new producer enters the market.

One of the biggest challenges I have faced in academia has been time management. When my daughter was born, I was not yet tenured and had to manage all my projects. My parents and then in-laws came over from Turkey to help, my mother and my mother-in-law each stayed with the baby almost a year. With a lot of support from my husband, we managed for two and a half years before finding a daycare for her. I learned that children need twenty-five hours of your day and you have to be willing to accept help. Today, I am a proud parent of a sophomore studying astrophysics at Princeton.

With my students, I also try to challenge them, just like my mentors have inspired me by introducing me to new ideas. When studying real-life situations, it’s important to realize that many times there are several mathematical solutions to one problem, and there is no exact recipe that always works. I try to teach them, what I have learned through experience: that basic knowledge gives you mathematical intuition. With that intuition, you can create new solutions, new knowledge for problems more difficult than you have encountered before. Besides, one should not to be afraid of challenges, since they make our lives exciting.

Transcribed from an interview with Christina Leshko, with edits by Mariette Bliekendaal.