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Northeastern launches nation’s first doctoral program in network science

by Angela Herring

This fall, North­eastern will begin offering the nation’s first inter­dis­ci­pli­nary doc­toral pro­gram in net­work sci­ence, an emerging field that researches the under­lying com­plexity that gov­erns all systems—be they com­prised of atoms in a mol­e­cule or people using social media to com­mu­ni­cate across the globe.

“As the first uni­ver­sity in the nation to offer this degree, our world-​​leading research pro­gram in net­work sci­ence will allow us to train the next gen­er­a­tion of leaders in this increas­ingly impor­tant field,” said Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs.

North­eastern will begin recruiting the doc­toral program’s first class of stu­dents this fall. The pro­gram will be housed in and over­seen by the Col­lege of Sci­ence and will be offered through a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort with sev­eral other North­eastern col­leges including the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, and the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties.

“Most dis­ci­plines, from physics to soci­ology and health sci­ences, are con­fronted from com­plex net­works,” said Albert-​​László Barabási, Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor at North­eastern, where he directs the Center for Com­plex Net­work Research and holds appoint­ments in the Depart­ment of Physics and Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. “This new PhD pro­gram is not only about fur­thering the dis­ci­pline of net­work sci­ence. It is also about training experts, who can enrich their respec­tive dis­ci­pline, helping their col­leagues to deal with the com­plex sys­tems they need to con­front. It is a pio­neering pro­gram that truly embodies inter­dis­ci­pli­nary thinking.”

Alessandro Vespig­nani is one of the program’s leading fac­ulty mem­bers and is the Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor, holding joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence, the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ences, and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences. He explained that until now, “existing pro­grams and orga­ni­za­tions only indi­rectly train stu­dents in net­work sci­ence. Stu­dents may be involved in research projects using the tools of net­work sci­ence, but they are not being for­mally trained in aca­d­emic pro­grams focused on it.”

The field “has evolved into a full-​​bodied set of the­o­ret­ical and applied tools,” said Vespig­nani. He noted that a doc­toral pro­gram is the log­ical next step after sev­eral devel­op­ments in recent years, including the estab­lish­ment of sev­eral new jour­nals on the sub­ject and the Com­plex Sys­tems Society, an inter­na­tional aca­d­emic society for which Vespig­nani is pres­i­dent.

Vespig­nani, who uses com­pu­ta­tional mod­eling and human mobility net­works to track the spread of epi­demics around the globe, said that net­work sci­ence is inher­ently mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary. Because of this, stu­dents should be trained in a variety of dis­ci­plines and gain a foothold in the core tech­nical and the­o­ret­ical aspects of net­work sci­ence itself. All stu­dents in the pro­gram will take four core courses to learn these fun­da­men­tals, but will also spe­cialize in a par­tic­ular track such as epi­demi­ology, physics, or polit­ical science.

North­eastern is already doing ground­breaking net­work sci­ence research. For instance, in order to con­trol and pro­tect against dis­ease, Barabási is working to build the human dis­ea­some—a net­work of cel­lular and genetic inter­ac­tions that will help sci­en­tists better under­stand the causes of all kinds of ill­nesses and ail­ments. David Lazer, pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence and com­puter sci­ence, uses net­work sci­ence to study the polit­ical system, while asso­ciate pro­fessor of com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ence Alan Mis­love is inter­ested in how social media data sets can inform these sorts of studies. In addi­tion to his research on the spread of epi­demic con­ta­gions, Vespig­nani is also looking at the spread of ideas and knowl­edge through social spaces.

Vespig­nani, Barabási, Lazer, and Mis­love will lead the pro­gram as the ini­tial core fac­ulty. Addi­tion­ally, fac­ulty across the uni­ver­sity with exper­tise in fields ranging from data mining to health sci­ence will round out the program’s offer­ings. The pro­gram will also ini­tiate a renewed hiring effort to attract more world-​​leading net­work scientists.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on July 9, 2013

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