Life by the Numbers
Optimizing Everyday Objects with Applied Mathematics
By Katie Smith ’15
Some people play golf in their free time. Rommel Regis, Ph.D., prefers math.
As director of actuarial science and associate professor of mathematics, Regis spends his days preparing budding actuaries for their professional exams. He teaches courses as complex as mathematical optimization and as elementary as The Whole Truth about Whole Numbers, a course for non-math majors. Between classes, he advises students, as well as new faculty members, about realizing their career goals.
For his research, Regis designs algorithms used by engineers to solve design optimization problems in various industries. He also collaborates with international researchers in the field, writing articles for submission to academic journals and, for fun, working on theoretical math proofs.
His dedication shows. Regis is a widely cited scholar of applied mathematics in academic journals — particularly in the area of black box optimization. Researchers in this field design algorithms to develop innovations for major industries, where physical tests and experimental designs would be too expensive or time-consuming to produce. Mathematical optimization applies to almost anything, from developing lighter airplanes that still fly safely to more effective radiation treatments for cancer patients that cause less damage to surrounding tissue.
“It’s math that improves people’s lives,” says Regis.
Regis’ 2014 paper published in Engineering Optimization debuted his COBRA method, short for “Constrained Optimization by Radial Basis Function Approximation,” which has become a benchmark algorithm in the field of optimization. At the time of publication, COBRA was regarded by Regis’ peers as one of the most efficient methods for solving black box problems — used anywhere from the aerospace industry to environmental engineering. Since then, Regis has continued to refine the method and has developed more effective algorithms.
COBRA’s success has garnered international attention, particularly at General Motors, where the company strives to build the most fuel efficient car without sacrificing crash test performance. His work is among the first steps in the larger research and development of a new vehicle.
"It’s math that improves people’s lives."
Rommel Regis, Ph.D.
“My algorithm delivers the 124 specifications for the lightest vehicle possible to industry specialists, while still satisfying over 68 different constraints in the car’s design and safety,” says Regis. “Researchers, then, use the algorithm in a computer simulation that evaluates some of the potential designs to find the most promising ones — before creating and testing prototypes.”
While he could have worked for the optimization arm of a major corporation, like Boeing or Ford, he chose academia. Regis explains, “Teaching grounds me and keeps me from getting stuck in my own bubble — and I get to stay up-to-date with every aspect of the subject.”
His love for mathematics has been lifelong. Originally from Naga City, Philippines, Regis began his mathematical journey at age 12, when he was one of 250 students (out of 16,000 applicants) accepted into the Philippine Science High School, the country’s best science secondary school. After teaching himself college-level Calculus I through III, he graduated at the age of 15 and majored in math at Ateneo de Manila University, a Jesuit institution. He went on to earn a doctorate in operations research from Cornell University, under the direction of Christine Shoemaker, Ph.D.
Regis strives to support motivated math and actuarial science students, particularly those who engage in long-term research as Summer Scholars or Honors students. His mentorship of ICC Scholar Luigi Nuñez ’17, who majored in math and computer science, lead to the development of an article that is currently under review for publication in the Journal of Computational and Applied Mathematics.
Nuñez received a Global Health Corps Fellowship in 2017 and currently works for the Program for Accessible Health Communication and Education (PACE) in Kampala, Uganda. He serves in PACE’s IT sector, evaluating data to determine the success of its projects and working to improve the efficiency of their health equity initiatives.
“I remember how strongly I loved math and wanted to achieve my dreams as a young student,” says Regis. “If I encourage that in my students, who knows what innovations they’ll pioneer.”