by Sage Wesenberg
Matt Simonson is not your typical mathematician. The first-year Network Science PhD student at Northeastern intertwines quantitative mathematical rigor with the study of political conflict and genocide around the world. As the recipient of the 2016 National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship, Simonson is excited at the opportunities this funding will give him to learn more about how and why the world responds to humanitarian crises. In his words, he hopes to “use math to save the world.”
The NDSEG Fellowship is a competitive award sponsored by the Department of Defense that is granted to U.S citizens in doctoral programs. Students in 12 areas of study may apply, including chemistry, physics, medicine, and behavioral science. This award lasts for three years and covers full tuition and a $102,000 stipend. Through encouragement from Kate Coronges, the Network Science Institute Executive Director, and help and support from his advisor, David Lazer, Simonson was well on his way to earning this fellowship for his unique discipline. It was important for him to apply for funding outside of Northeastern in order to give him flexibility in working on his own research projects and to support the Network Science doctoral program.
Simonson’s unique path to Northeastern gives insight to his desire to put a humanitarian twist on a hard science. Simonson graduated from Williams College in Williamstown, MA with a BA in math and international studies. From there, he taught math at Milton Academy in Milton, MA, while also working at the Seeds of Peace International Camp for eight summers. This camp offers a unique opportunity for teenagers from conflict regions to make friends and engage in dialogue with one another, despite having grown up on opposite sides of a violent conflict. With both of his majors satisfied, Simonson didn’t expect to see a way to use them both at the same time.
That is, until he discovered Northeastern’s Network Science program. This unique program works to uncover how complex network systems organize together to solve the problems in many realms of the world including security, public health, and social science. Simonson described it as a way to use his math background to understand any type of network that links people together. In his case, Simonson wanted to focus network science on how the international community responds to humanitarian crises and genocide.
These passions and Simonson’s research have brought him all over the world including to Mongolia, Ghana, and Mexico. In June, Simonson will begin a new two-month research project in Kampala, Uganda, studying how slum populations get access to water. He will be looking at who/what has control over wells, public water taps, and open springs and what conflict that may generate. Some of the main questions he will be asking surround how these limited resources give rise to conflict. Is it through class or ethnicity? Do groups fighting over water take sides based on the languages they speak or the regions they’re from?
Simonson loves being a part of the Network Science Institute at Northeastern. He appreciates the special opportunity to be able to work with and across different disciplines, from the College of Science to the College of Computer and Information Science and the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. He hopes that this new program will become a model for others to follow that will create more exciting and successful interdisciplinary opportunities like Network Science has done for him.