New institute will advance the interdisciplinary study of networks

Yale will establish an Institute of Network Science to bring together researchers from many disciplines to advance the study of networks, President-Elect Peter Salovey announced April 11.

"The study of networks is dramatically transforming many academic fields and practices,” Salovey said. “The Yale Institute of Network Science (YINS) will be a novel collaboration of faculty from the sciences that explore and contribute to this exciting new interdisciplinary field of knowledge.”

YINS will be co-directed by Daniel A. Spielman, the Henry Ford II Professor of Computer Science and Mathematics, and sociologist and physician Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, who will be joining the Yale faculty this summer. 

“The study of networks helps to explain how a whole comes to be greater than the sum of its parts — whether that whole is an organism or a society or a telecommunication system.  Since many vexing social problems affect us as a group, and not just as individuals, network science offers great promise for concretely addressing them,” Christakis said. “Amazing new capacities at the intersection of the computational, biological, and social sciences are enabling us to develop startling new insights into individual and collective human behavior,” Christakis continued. “YINS seeks to deploy this emerging area of study to its full potential: driving fresh discoveries, applying novel methods of analysis, and developing more effective approaches to interventions.”  

“We believe that researchers will benefit greatly from better understanding the approaches taken in other disciplines,” said Spielman. “YINS will achieve synergy by gathering faculty who analyze networks with those who use networks to make predictions and those who attempt to design and control network processes.”

The fields involved include engineering, computer science, the social sciences, biology, math. physics, and medicine. Among the faculty who will be associated with the Institute are James Baron (the William S. Beinecke Professor of Management); Scott Boorman (professor of sociology); Dirk Bergemann (the Douglass and Marion Campbell Professor of Economics); Ronald Coifman (the Phillips Professor of Mathematics and professor of computer science); Emily Erikson (assistant professor of sociology); Mark Gerstein (the Albert L. Williams Professor of Biomedical Informatics, Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry and Computer Science); Marissa King (assistant professor of organizational behavior); Andrew Papachristos (associate professor of sociology); David Rand (assistant professor of psychology); Nicholas Read (the Henry Ford II Professor of Physics, Applied Physics, and Mathematics); Olav Sorenson (the Frederick Frank ’54 and Mary C. Tanner Professor of Management); and Sekhar Tatikonda (associate professor of electrical engineering and statistics).

Examples of network phenomena from many disciplines that faculty affiliated with YINS may study include:

• the design of power, communication, and sensor networks, as well as dynamically changing robotic networks

• the conduct of large-scale experiments with online and offline networks to facilitate the emergence of desirable properties, such as cooperation, innovation, voting, and health

• the impact of social networks on the diffusion of individual behaviors and forms of collective action

• the properties of communication and exchange within different networks that determine the outcomes of diverse markets

• algorithms for the analysis of networks

• systems biology and gene regulation networks, and their role in pathogenesis and drug discovery

• phase transitions in spin glasses and complex systems

• using online and offline networks to track communicable diseases

• epidemiology and the use of field trials in settings as diverse as American schools and developing world villages to enhance public health

These topics crosscut disciplines. For example, said Spielman, “a focus on interactions among agents in complex systems traverses engineering and the social and natural sciences. A goal of YINS is to expose researchers to the phenomena, measurements, methodologies, and challenges of those from different disciplines so that, through cross-fertilization, new techniques and methodologies can be developed.”

This is precisely what Kyle Vanderlick, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, finds promising and worthy of support. "This new institute,” she said, “is exactly the type of interdisciplinary initiative that Yale's School of Engineering & Applied Science thrives on. We will recruit several new engineering faculty who will contribute to this nascent and growing area where technology plays a central role."

While the fields that study network interactions create different abstractions and measure networks in different ways, they share common technical and scientific challenges, including the development of tools for processing big data; developing new models for complex networks; understanding how networks change; developing techniques for learning and inference in networks; developing methodologies for the design of networks; and understanding how local interactions can lead to emergent global behavior. The practical implications are wide-ranging.

Exploring these areas is valuable, Christakis noted, because, “Understanding the structure and function of social, biological, and communication networks will allow us to address important epidemics — of germs, of misinformation, of financial panic, of behaviors as diverse as smoking and violence. We can use network science to intervene in the world to make people’s lives better.”

YINS, which will launch July 1, will be housed at 17 Hillhouse Avenue.

YINS co-directors

Spielman focuses his research on the design and analysis of algorithms, graph theory, machine learning, error-correcting codes and combinatorial scientific computing. He has been granted four patents on error-correcting codes that he presented in scholarly papers, as well as a fifth patent for his invention — while still in high school — of a device for calling lines in tennis.

A 1992 summa cum laude graduate of Yale, where he earned exceptional distinction in computer science and the Beckwith Prize in mathematics, Spielman received his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He taught there and was a postdoc at the University of California-Berkeley before joining the Yale faculty in 2005 as professor of applied mathematics and computer science.

Spielman was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2012 due to his achievements as “a theoretical computer scientist studying abstract questions that nonetheless affect the essential aspects of daily life in modern society — how we communicate and how we measure, predict and regulate our environment and our behavior.” Also in 2012, he was named by the Simons Foundation to the inaugural class of Simons Investigators, providing him and Yale’s Department of Computer Science with support for curiosity-driven research.

Spielman has been recognized with numerous awards and honors for his scholarly contributions, including the 2010 Rolf Nevanlinna Prize from the International Mathematical Union, the 2009 Fulkerson Prize, the 2008 Gödel Prize, an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship, and a National Science Foundation CAREER Award. He has served as associate editor of the SIAM Journal on Discrete Mathematics and on the editorial board of Theory of Computing.

Christakis will join the Yale faculty on July 1 as the Sol Goldman Family Professor of Social and Natural Science. He is currently an internist and social scientist at Harvard University, where he directs the Human Nature Lab. He is a professor of sociology in the Department of Sociology at the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences; professor of medical sociology in the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School; and professor of medicine in the Department of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He received his B.S. summa cum laude from Yale, his M.D. and M.P.H. degrees from Harvard, and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.

His work involves the application of network science and mathematical models in order to understand the dynamics of health and other desirable properties (such as cooperation or innovation) in longitudinally evolving networks. Current work in his lab focuses on exploring fundamental properties of human social networks. Some work involves the use of large-scale, online experiments, or field trials in the developing world. Other work examines the biological determinants and consequences of social network interactions, with a particular emphasis on the genetic and evolutionary origins and implications of human network interactions.

His 2009 book, "Connected: The Surprising Power of our Social Networks and How they Shape our Lives," co-authored with James H. Fowler, has been translated into nearly 20 languages.

He was elected to the Institute of Medicime of the National Academy of Sciences in 2006, and was made a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2010.

“We are delighted to have attracted Nicholas Christakis to our faculty,” said sociology professor and department chair Julia Adams. “His transformative interdisciplinary work intersects in exciting ways with YINS, as well as breaking new ground in other areas. His Human Nature Lab is an incredible petri dish for the new biosocial science.”