From Draft Picks to Organ Transplants

Joel Sokol discusses the value of analytics in decision-making

December 13, 2018 | By GTPE Communications
Joel Sokol smiles while he leans against a brick wall. The Georgia Tech Trolley passes in background.

Joel Sokol originally turned his attention to analytics when he recognized its intersection of data, modeling, and real-life applications. Today, as professor of industrial and systems engineering at Georgia Tech, and director of the Master of Science in Analytics degree on campus and online, he continues to help others see the patterns.

Sokol grew up in northeastern New Jersey and says that while he took to engineering, math, and computer science as an undergraduate at Rutgers University, analytics wasn’t initially on his radar.

“My first two to three years of college, I had no idea what I wanted to major in,” Sokol said. “One of my roommates was required to take a course on optimization (these days, it's a big part of analytics, but of course analytics wasn't a buzzword back then), and he convinced me to take it with him because he thought it sounded like the sort of thing I'd enjoy. So I took the course, and as we learned more and more about how the material could be applied to so many different real-life situations, I knew more and more that this is what I want to do.”

Sokol graduated in 1994 with three majors in Applied Sciences in Engineering, Mathematics, and Computer Science. He went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned his Ph.D. in Operations Research. He made the move to Georgia Tech back in 1999. Here, his research has focused primarily on applied analytics – leveraging mathematical modeling, operations research, and statistics to streamline and improve operations in a number of fields – including professional sports.

In fact, Sokol has worked with teams or leagues from all three major American sports with decision making and system designs. One example of Sokol’s work is aiding decision-making in drafting players. “Before the draft, a team’s experts disagree about which players will be better for the team, and which players there's more uncertainty about,” Sokol said. “How do they combine all of those opinions into an overall draft priority and value those players compared to draft picks and potential trades?” Some of Sokol’s other work includes determining teams’ playoff chances (and how can they improve them), how teams should use their tracking data from games and practices, and how to rank teams that haven’t played each other. On this last topic, Sokol’s Logistic Regression Markov Chain (LRMC) predicative modeling of the NCAA basketball tournament continues to stand as an industry leader and has received significant publicity.

In addition to sports analytics, Sokol’s work also impacts the world of personalized medicine and surgical intervention. 

“Some of the work that I'm doing right now is around organ transplants,” Sokol said. “We're looking at better ways of predicting, given a specific organ and a specific potential recipient, how long might that recipient live if he or she takes the organ to be transplanted. This can help patients and physicians make better decisions about whether they should take organs that are offered, and help make better matches between patients and organs that are available for transplant.”

These analytics applications, Sokol said, could improve medical outcomes and help ensure successful organ transplantation – saving lives in the process.  

Ask other learners at Georgia Tech about Joel Sokol, however, and they’ll likely focus on his other major achievements: teaching,  curriculum development, and guiding future and current industry professionals along their educational paths.

For these efforts, he earned recognition from both the Institute of Industrial Engineers (now the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers) and the National Academy of Engineering – as well Georgia Tech’s biggest teaching awards. Most recently, he was honored with the inaugural MS Analytics Outstanding Faculty Award. He also served two terms as vice president of education for the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS), where he also served as founding officer of its sports operations research section.

Sokol has watched online learning explode during his time with Georgia Tech – and he’s continuing the trend with the Online Master of Science in Analytics (OMS Analytics).

Sokol directs both the traditional, on-campus MS Analytics program and its online counterpart. He attributes the success of OMS Analytics to both the value of the degree and the overall experience. While someone who has never experienced it might dismiss online learning as “just videotaping a lecture,” the full package entails faculty content experts, instructional designers, online format experts, graphic designers, and video producers all interacting to create an outstanding educational experience.

OMS Analytics marks Sokol’s first dive into the world of online teaching, but he’s embraced it fully. He believes the experience improved his overall teaching ability, continuing his nearly two decades of commitment to Georgia Tech.

The experience has also given Sokol insight into other application areas for analytics, such as the railroad and petroleum industry. Plus, the resulting professional connections are also rewarding.  

“I have 600 people in my online course this semester, and it's just going to get bigger,” Sokol said. “A few years down the road, all these people will be working in analytics, and that range of professional connections will be great. I think in general that's a big benefit, both for me and for everyone in the cohort.”

It’s also a future in which analytics itself will continue to revolutionize the way industries make decisions and respond to change.

“I think there's going to be a lot more emphasis on using analytics for fundamental decision-making in a lot more ways,” Sokol said. “And down the road, I also think that the impact of people, with all of our quirks, will be taken into account better than it is now.”

Written by Robert Lamb