Richard Francis Memorial

“The most important person in my career” by Erhan Erkut

I believe I was Dr. Richard Francis’ 12th PhD student.  Back in 1980 when I found out that I was accepted into the University of Florida’s PhD program, I asked my classmates if they had heard about any of the faculty members in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering as there was no Internet back then. One of them said they several good ones had recently left but there was a Professor Francis there and we even had a book written by him in the library. Upon further inquiry I found out that his 10th PhD student was also Turkish, I found his address and contacted him via a handwritten letter. As it turns out he was doing his military service at the time near the Iraqi border, and he wrote me a long letter telling me about Dr. Francis, his interests, his character, and what I should expect. Upon his advice I wrote to Dr. Francis a letter asking him to send me some papers to read before my departure. A thick envelope with about a dozen papers arrived and read most of them during the summer holiday sitting on the beach. I think this introduction was instrumental for my relationship with Dr. Francis.

After arriving in Gainesville, I started taking graduate classes. I was determined to get good grades so Dr. Francis would accept me as a PhD student. I was happy to take his facility location class early in the program. I remember working extra hard on his course so he would notice me. In fact, I extended one of the take home questions and solved not only the exam question and my extension as well.  I had graduated from a strong undergraduate program which had prepared me well for graduate courses.  Hence, my early grades were quite high and signaled a good prospect for a PhD student.  

At the beginning of my second year Dr. Francis accepted me as a PhD student and introduced me to the topic of his most recent NSF grant: constrained tree network facility location problems.  We were trying to find the optimal location of multiple facilities of different kinds with upper bounds on the distances between them on tree networks. I liked these problems for several reasons: I enjoyed spatial problems linked to maps and road networks; they were tractable as the mathematics was not terribly complex; and I knew Dr. Francis had considerable experience with them and could help me out when needed.

Even though my grades were quite good, I was a terrible PhD student for several reasons. I did not have a clue about doing research and I knew even less about technical writing as I had not written an MS Thesis (which was my own choice). I also did not have the motivation to work hard and finish quickly, as I did not really know much about an academic career and I was not fond of uncertainty of a career. In fact, I recall slowing down intentionally so as not to graduate too soon after passing my proposal defense. The proposal was not too bad as it is just a list of promises you make, and I guess I was good in making promises.  Then I started writing the thesis—or I thought I did.  I submitted Chapter 2 to Dr. Francis.  It came back a few days later with more red ink on it than I had ever seen before. Dr. Francis had meticulously corrected my text and wrote notes on the margin for the first four pages and then he had given up as my writing was atrocious, and he wrote me a long letter of warning.  My first submission was full of speculation of how the problem could be solved and had none of what was expected—namely a theorem-proof treatment of the problem leading to an algorithm for the solution.  

I tried to change but progress was slow and painful. I remember that I ended up with at least a dozen versions of Chapter 2 before it was up to Dr. Francis’ standards.  Throughout we would meet once or twice a week and he would not only help me improve the writing but also give me hints on how to approach the problem and its solution.  At times I felt that he had solved the problem in his head but he was trying to guide me to the solution so I would feel a sense of accomplishment.  I would say that Chapter 2 became my introduction to PhD level research and writing. At the time I used to complain to my friends about how demanding Dr. Francis was, but a few years later I realized that his approach was the only one to rescue me and my thesis.  In fact, at this point in my career I cannot believe how gentle and patient he had been with me (as I surely must have come across as a hopeless case). 

Chapter 3 went much faster, and I was only halfway through Chapter 4 when I got a full-time job at the University of Alberta in Canada. In retrospect I think it was not a terribly good idea to leave with a half-completed thesis, but I guess I got confident with my late-found success.  It is fair to say that I became much more studious and acted more responsibly after starting my job. We started exchanging faxes and emails and progressed quickly while I was teaching.  I visited Gainesville during the Christmas break for a few weeks, and I came back to town in May for the final 2 months of my writing. 

I remember defending my thesis on July 3, 1986 successfully as I recall joking to my friends that the whole country was celebrating the completion of my thesis the next day.  In retrospect, my thesis was mostly the result of plug-and-chug hard work (of 220 pages) as opposed to one containing brilliant insights.  It did contain some theorems and proofs, but it was somewhat short on groundbreaking theory and relatively long on computational testing of algorithms.  While it was my thesis, most of the results and many of the crucial steps of the algorithms were contributed by Dr. Francis while he worked hard to give me bits and pieces and let me connect the dots so I could call the thesis my own. In return I spent many hours coding and testing the algorithms as that came easy to me.  In hindsight I must say that the thesis was a true collaboration with Dr. Francis. He contributed to it as much as I did. He was too gentle to compare me to his former PhD students, but I suspect I might have been the most difficult case for him.  Fortunately, four papers came out of the thesis (one from each chapter except the Introduction and Conclusions), and I was more than halfway to my tenure thanks to this thesis.

I recall walking into the woods and crying after the completion of my thesis. I felt quite confused as I felt three distinct emotions or thoughts at the same time towards Dr. Francis.  After completing the work, I knew quite well that I was not ready to start a PhD thesis at the time I did.  It was also quite clear to me that I had failed to deliver more than once during the research, and many supervisors would have given up on me long before the completion.  While I was happy that the whole thing was behind me, it was not clear to me that I had earned my degree.  Perhaps for the first time in my life I felt that I may not be deserving or the status that was bestowed upon me.  Hence, I was mad at him—for two reasons.  He had first shown me many of my weaknesses (which I did not like at the time), and then he had turned around and given me a degree that I was not sure I had deserved (as I started to appreciate what it took to be a PhD).  These strange negative emotions (which I had never felt before) were mixed with a heavy dose of thankfulness for the man since he was so patient with me and helped me through an impossible maze to turn a clueless graduate student into a colleague.  As if these conflicting emotions were not enough to create a storm within me, I also felt a deep respect for his intellect, his passion for solving new problems, his ability to foresee difficulties as well as results, his gentleness with people around him, and his joy upon seeing the fruits of hard work. I had never met anyone so focused on inquiry and advancing the frontiers of knowledge before. All my life I worked hard to be deserving of the informal title “Dr. Francis’ PhD student,” tried to make him proud of me, and I think this was crucial in whatever success I had as an academic.

It is fair to say that Dr. Francis was the most important male in my adult life. In fact, when it comes to forming and advancing my professional career, he was by far the most important person. Yes, he did teach me the scientific method, how to conduct research from conceptualizing a problem to writing up the results, and yes, I had what most would call quite a successful research career. However, his biggest gift to me was not that.  I learned from him that we should believe in people’s potential, not give up on them quickly, work hard to uncover their potential, and help them reach new heights. It is possible for people to redefine their potential if there is someone who believes in them and works with them. After almost 40 years of academic career, I now know that this is my life’s goal, and this is how I can create meaning and make the biggest difference in the world. This I owe to Professor Richard Lane Francis.  He brought out the best in me, and he made me want to do the same to others.  It is my duty to continue doing his good work as long as I live. Thank you, Professor Francis!

Erhan Erkut

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