Forecasting the future of health and science
October 04, 2011
# World-renowned statistical physicist Alessandro Vespignani has conducted landmark research on the spread of viruses.
In 2009, the newly appointed Sternberg Distinguished Professor of Physics, Computer Science and Health Sciences—with appointments in the College of Science, College of Computer and Information Science and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences—developed a computational model that accurately predicted the spread of the H1N1 virus.
Taking a proactive approach to tracking the spread of a biological virus, Vespignani says, could have the power to transform drug deployment. As he puts it, “My dream is to forecast pandemic-spreading like a weather forecaster predicts a hurricane days before it hits. We have to anticipate the spread of a disease so doctors and policymakers can plan how to use their resources in the most intelligent ways.”
Prior to joining the Northeastern faculty, Vespignani served as the James H. Rudy Professor and Director of the Center for Complex Networks and Systems at Indiana University. He earned his PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Rome La Sapienza in 1994.
His landmark research on the spread of viruses, in which he proved that even weak strains can proliferate in a real-world, nonrandom, scale-free network, has transformed the analysis of spreading processes and shaped policies aimed at eradicating infections ranging from HIV to computer viruses.
Backed by a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Vespignani and his research partners are currently developing computational tools to measure the spread of pandemic diseases and social contagions, such as smoking. He plans to share the results with policymakers and health-care stakeholders.
He and his colleagues – including principal investigator David Lazer, an associate professor of political science and computer science at Northeastern and a pioneer in the field of computational social science – have also received a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study how Internet memes, rumors and even political revolutions spread on social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.
The recent wave of political protests and demonstrations that have swept through the Arab world picked up momentum through Facebook, Vespignani says.
“Social networking sites can be very powerful mechanisms with very deep political implications,” he explains. “This study will help us understand how certain tipping points for social changes may occur.”
The self-described geek is fascinated by the practical implications of network science research. “For a long time, I was trying to answer abstract math questions, and I lost contact with reality,” he says. “What I do now has an impact on society and can help us understand diseases or develop new information technology.
“When you show that your model is an accurate predictor of a social phenomenon, that is really exciting.”
Vespignani also hopes to collaborate on groundbreaking research projects with world-renowned network scientist Albert-László Barabási, the founding director of Northeastern’s world-leading Center for Complex Network Research.
“Northeastern is a very exciting place to be right now,” Vespignani says. “It is a great opportunity for me to join this group of scientists and try to move our leadership in network science to another level.”
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