Life Stories

What follows is an excerpt from a speech made to a recent graduating class:

As a speaker today I chose to tell you three stories from my life that affected it and taught me something that I think may be of some value to you.

The first story is about death.

I am the only child of a middle class Greek family. I was raised in Athens Greece, where I finished high school and university before coming to MIT in 1985 as a doctoral student. My mother was an elementary school teacher and my father was an engineer. I was always very close to my parents, and despite the long distance between Boston and Athens, I saw my parents twice a year for Christmas and summer. I was particularly close to my father. In March of 2007 I received a phone call from my cousin that my father had gastric cancer. I immediately arranged for my father to have surgery from the best Greek surgeon on these matters that was arranged for early April of 2007. The night before the surgery the surgeon told me and my wife Georgia that while he was optimistic about my father, there was a possibility that the cancer might have spread outside the stomach area, in which case, he was not going to continue the operation. The next day, half an hour after the surgery started, the surgeon came out and told me that the cancer has spread and he would not continue the operation. For the first time in my life I could not speak for several minutes as I knew what this meant. I arranged for my father to come to Boston and to do chemotherapy at the Massachusetts General hospital on the other side of the river visible from here. My parents stayed for six months, my father responded well to chemotherapy, and in October 2007, they went back to Greece. My father had a good year. Unfortunately after a year, in October 2008 his condition worsened as the cancer started to grow again, and passed away in March 2009 almost two years from diagnosis. The following month, the sister of my mother, my only aunt, who was very close to my family, passed away, and in the August of 2009, my mother passed from complications of diabetes. My mother as well as my aunt had diabetes for a significant part of their adult lives. In a span of five months in 2009 I lost three out of the four people in the world I have been closest to.

I have always been interested in medicine, but this experience led me to initiate a research program in personalized medicine, under which the treatment of a patient is adjusted to the genomic and phenotype characteristics of the patient. It is with some pride that together with 3 of my students, we won the first prize in healthcare from INFORMS (the professional society I belong) for a paper we wrote about gastric cancer that was inspired by my father’s illness. And earlier this year, a paper on personalized diabetes management inspired by my mother’s illness with another 3 of my students was published in Diabetes Care, the top journal for diabetes in the world. Today, more than half my research group are working on their PhD in personalized medicine with the aspiration to affect the practice of medicine and using analytics, especially Machine learning, to make it more effective. Overcoming the sadness of losing 3 of the closest people in my life and transforming a very difficult experience to a positive outcome, has made the journey and my life more meaningful and worthwhile.

My second story is about aspirations.

The normal duration of studies in the department of EECS of National Technical University of Athens, where I studied is five years. You have to take 60 classes in order to graduate. So naturally, nobody has ever attempted to graduate in less than five years. With the objective to find my boundaries, I set a goal of doing exactly that despite the advice of my father not to do it as I may compromising my grades and that might have an effect on being admitted on a top doctoral program, which has always been my goal. With lot of dedication and positive energy, I finished my studies in four years and was accepted as a doctoral student at the department of applied mathematics at MIT in 1985. When I came to the mathematics department at MIT I learnt about the Operations Research Center and I loved it. So I decided to try to finish a PhD in both programs and try to do it in 3 years. Again with dedication and positive energy, I finished my studies in 1988, the year I joined the Sloan school as an assistant professor. In the summer of 1989, as an assistant professor I set a goal to prove that a central algorithm in optimization was faster than previously thought possible. This would have been a major research development. We were moving houses that summer and my wife complains that I did not help in the move as the proof was coming any minute. In the end I did not succeed in this goal, but my understanding of optimization deepened considerably. As a professor, I have tried to teach my students to aim high, even higher that they think they can achieve and dedicate themselves to achieve it. I have observed both from my personal experience as well as from the experience of my students that those that have a positive orientation towards the goals they set typically achieve them. In fact, it has been my experience that the most important quality for determining success in life, more than IQ or EQ is positive energy, the belief that you will succeed in whatever you set out to achieve. It is exactly this belief that I hope we installed in you, which I hope will be with you for the rest of your life.

My final story is about love.

From as long as I remember, I wanted to become a professor in a leading research university. I did not know very well what a research university was, and how it differs from others, but intuitively I felt that it had to do with a life of discovering new things and constantly learning. I have been privileged to be a professor at MIT, one of the finest universities in the world, since my early twenties. In a typical day of my life, I meet with my doctoral students discussing ideas about making new discoveries, constantly learning new things. Every day is exciting as I meet with young people I love and respect trying to understand the world and making it better. I feel that I have found something that I love to do that makes my life meaningful. I would like to quote Steve Jobs, in his graduation speech he gave at Stanford in 2005:

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it.”

I have always wished some things for myself:

  1. to do what I love.
  2. to continue to have high aspirations.
  3. to believe in myself, and
  4. to approach life in a positive way.

I wish the same things for you: to find what you love to do, to have high aspirations, to believe in yourselves and to keep a positive outlook in life.


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