Northeastern launched its Network Science Institute at a gala event on Nov. 4

World-​​renowned scholars launch Northeastern’s Network Science Institute

by Thea Singer

The mood was fes­tive as Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun, net­work sci­ence lumi­naries, deans, stu­dents, and friends gath­ered on Wednesday evening on the 11th floor of 177 Hunt­ington Ave. to cel­e­brate the launch of Northeastern’s Net­work Sci­ence Insti­tute, home of the nation’s first doc­toral pro­gram in net­work science.

The Net­work Sci­ence Insti­tute brings together an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary team of renowned scholars from across the uni­ver­sity to dis­cover and inspire new ways to mea­sure, model, and pre­dict mean­ingful inter­ac­tions in social, phys­ical, bio­log­ical, and tech­no­log­ical sys­tems. Its theme, “Solving Prob­lems in an Inter­con­nected World,” speaks to its com­mit­ment to develop inter­ven­tion strate­gies that will improve the health and secu­rity of people around the world.

The “poster slam” fol­lowing the ribbon-​​cutting cer­e­mony dis­played the breadth of research already underway. Topics included a quan­tifi­ca­tion of the “sci­ence of suc­cess,” con­struc­tion of a “Twitter barom­eter” of public opinion assessing issues such as the 2016 pres­i­den­tial race, and mod­eling the spread of the Ebola epidemic.

Addressing the enthu­si­astic crowd of more than 150 in the open glass-​​walled space were Pres­i­dent Aoun; Alessandro Vespig­nani, the institute’s director and the Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor; Albert-​​László Barabási, director of the Center for Com­plex Net­work Research and Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of Physics; and Stephen W. Director, senior advisor to the pres­i­dent and former provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs.

Here are some excerpts from their remarks:

Alessandro Vespig­nani

“When I think about the insti­tute I think of a par­ticle accelerator—those big mon­ster machines for exper­i­ments in which you have par­ti­cles that col­lide. And in the col­li­sion they destroy them­selves but create new par­ti­cles. I like to think that here we have a lot of ideas from dif­ferent dis­ci­plines that col­lide and we create new sci­ence, new applications.”

Albert-​​László Barabási

“There has been a fun­da­mental tran­si­tion in the way we have under­stood how net­works form over the past 20 years. Before net­work sci­ence came along, we thought the way you form a net­work is to get a bunch of people and ran­domly con­nect them—and some­thing will come out of it. What net­work sci­ence dis­cov­ered is that big suc­cessful net­works form one node at a time. There’s always a first, there’s a second, there’s a third one—that is, growth is an essen­tial prop­erty. That’s a fea­ture of the net­work, and every­thing from the World Wide Web to the cell has gone through that par­tic­ular growth process.

“I feel that’s exactly what hap­pened at North­eastern. I came here eight years ago at the invi­ta­tion of Pres­i­dent Aoun. He and the admin­is­tra­tion of the uni­ver­sity had a dream—they set us on the path of growing a net­work. We started adding nodes, one node at a time. We were doing what suc­cessful net­works do. And the reason this was pos­sible was that every new hire built on the excel­lence that the pre­vious hires had made pos­sible. Every year [in our unique doc­toral pro­gram] we bring five to 10 new nodes, some of which will stay, some of which will take the buzz of net­works to other insti­tu­tions and let net­work thinking, which is the essence of the 21st cen­tury, grow further.”

Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun

“This insti­tute was made pos­sible by all the North­eastern deans, who from day one grabbed this oppor­tu­nity and said, “We have to push for it.” Our deans have not only been excited but have built this. Now, when László said net­works are built one node at a time, I com­pletely agree with him. But from the begin­ning the net­work was already there as a vision. So we didn’t come to László and say, “OK, let’s build the first node, let’s build a second node.” The vision was not quan­ti­fied based on the number of nodes but on the fact that from the begin­ning our goal was to build the best Net­work Sci­ence Insti­tute in the world. And we’re only beginning—the future is in your hands. Don’t stop. The sky is the limit.”

Stephen W. Director

“I do know some­thing about net­works as an elec­trical engi­neer who is versed in cir­cuits. I do know about graph theory. And nodes are impor­tant, but a net­work involves links. We have to be con­nected to one another. What makes this thing work is not just the nodes, because László and David [Lazer], and Alex could be nodes any­where. What really makes it work are the links, the con­nec­tions between them, and the con­nec­tions between all the other nodes that are going to be gen­er­ated. Con­grat­u­la­tions. We expect great things.”

Originally published in [email protected] on November 6, 2015.

College of Science