Researchers transcend boundaries for science

By Angela Herring | Northeastern News | February 19, 2013

To under­stand and over­come the com­plex­i­ties of cli­mate change, sci­en­tists, engi­neers, social sci­en­tists, and policy makers must tran­scend the bound­aries that have tra­di­tion­ally con­fined their work, according to North­eastern Uni­ver­sity pro­fessor Matthias Ruth. He deliv­ered the state­ment on Sunday at a sym­po­sium he hosted on urban adap­ta­tion to envi­ron­mental changes.

As Con­gress races to find a solu­tion to impending cuts to research and other funding, com­mu­ni­cating across dis­ci­plines and other tra­di­tional bound­aries was a recur­ring theme at the 179th annual meeting of the Amer­ican Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence, where Ruth’s ses­sion was one of hun­dreds aimed at high­lighting the “Beauty and Ben­e­fits of Sci­ence” — the summit’s theme. An esti­mated 8,700 scholars from around the globe descended on Boston’s Hynes Con­ven­tion Center between Feb. 14–18 to share their work at the meeting, which is billed as the world’s largest sci­en­tific conference.

Throughout the con­fer­ence, North­eastern fac­ulty led pre­sen­ta­tions high­lighting their work to address real-world chal­lenges in areas ranging from health to tech­nology to sus­tain­ability. April Gu, a civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering pro­fessor at North­eastern and one of three scholars pre­senting in Ruth’s ses­sion, noted that our cur­rent strate­gies for water resources man­age­ment may not stand the test of time. “Water quality reg­u­la­tion itself is not enough,” she said. “We need a gov­er­nance way beyond that.”

David Lazer, pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence and com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ence, hosted a ses­sion on Friday on the sci­ence of pol­i­tics, in which he and five other scholars from around the nation argued for a more rig­orous sci­en­tific approach to under­standing and working with gov­er­nance struc­tures. “The ques­tion is can we come up with an objec­tive sci­en­tific under­standing of polit­ical processes,” Lazer said.

“Astronomers do not have to worry that when they point that tele­scope to the heavens, that the stars are going to twinkle because you’re looking at them,” said Lazer, whose work focuses on using net­work sci­ence to under­stand the spread of polit­ical memes. “But when you look at social sys­tems that’s cer­tainly a challenge.”

The same chal­lenge was dis­cussed on Sat­urday in a ses­sion on pre­dicting human behavior, which was hosted by world-renowned net­work sci­en­tist Albert-László Barabási, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics with joint appoint­ments in biology and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence. In this ses­sion, Alessandro Vespig­nani, Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of Physics, pre­sented new research using math­e­mat­ical mod­eling to map the spread of epi­demic diseases.

“As soon as you plug in some level of aware­ness of the dis­ease, you get the dis­ease spreading slower and there’s a little less impact on the pop­u­la­tion,” said Vespig­nani, who holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence, the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ence. Nonethe­less, his work, which aims to inform dis­ease mit­i­ga­tion and con­tain­ment strate­gies, showed that travel restric­tions would need to limit human mobility around the planet by a stag­gering 99 per­cent to have any mean­ingful impact.

Throughout the con­fer­ence, it was evi­dent that Ruth’s com­ment about the com­plexity of cli­mate change could easily be extended to all of the major chal­lenges facing our planet today: Dis­ease man­age­ment, just like secure and sus­tain­able infra­struc­tures, requires a com­mit­ment to cross-pollination by our scholars and policy makers.

But none of this will be pos­sible without a cul­tural shift toward under­standing and appre­ci­ating the ben­e­fits of sci­ence. Christos Zahopoulos, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of engi­neering and exec­u­tive director of Northeastern’s Center for STEM Edu­ca­tion, spoke at the asso­ci­ated Inter­na­tional Teacher-Scientist Part­ner­ship Con­fer­ence, noting that his Retirees Enhancing Sci­ence Edu­ca­tion through Exper­i­ments and Demon­stra­tions, or RE-SEED pro­gram, has been inspiring the next gen­er­a­tion of sci­en­tists for more than two decades.

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