Yale launches institute to study networks

Faculty from a number of disciplines will be a part of the Institute of Network Science.
Faculty from a number of disciplines will be a part of the Institute of Network Science. Photo by Yale Daily News.

Yale will launch an Institute of Network Science, or YINS, this summer to study the nature of complex interactions in fields ranging from sociology to biology.

The center, based out of 17 Hillhouse Ave., will serve as a hub for interdisciplinary research as well as a forum to develop innovative ways to teach about networks ranging from microscopic cells to human populations. The institute will be led by Yale computer science professor Daniel Spielman ’92 and Harvard sociology professor Nicholas Christakis ’84, who will join the Yale faculty this summer.

“I think it’s a very exciting opportunity to gather researchers from many different disciplines together who have a common interest,” Spielman said. “It is a chance to really foster interactions on problems that seem to be related to each other. I have great hopes for what it is going to do.”

Among many initial research objectives, Spielman said YINS will investigate how social networks influence public health and how to build robots that explore an environment by communicating with one another as opposed to a central base. Spielman won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2012 for his work on communication networks.

Apart from research efforts, Christakis said he hopes to use the center to devise laboratory courses in the social sciences. For example, he said students can use online labor markets like Amazon Mechanical Turk to study networks.

“You are not just doing psychology experiments on individuals, you are doing experiments on whole social systems — whether it is markets or networks or other kinds of social systems,” he said. “I think it should be possible to develop classes where students learn about things like networks or markets and then go to a laboratory and actually create their own networks and markets and see how real people behave in them.”

Yale faculty proposed the idea for YINS about a year ago, said Deputy Provost for Science and Technology Steve Girvin. While seed money from Yale will help establish YINS, faculty affiliated with the center will ultimately support operations with external grants, Girvin said.

Christakis holds many ties to Harvard, with appointments in the sociology department and at the medical school. Since 2009, he has also served as Master of Pforzheimer House at Harvard College. In that year, Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Girvin called it a “real coup” for Yale to have recruited Christakis, not only because of his research accomplishments but also for his skills as a “fabulous” teacher. Christakis, who will hold a primary appointment in the Sociology Department at Yale next year, will bring “Medicine and Disease in Social Context,” a popular undergraduate course at Harvard, to Yale undergraduates. He added that he may also help lead “Great Big Ideas” in the fall.

“I think what is happening at Yale is very exciting to me at the moment,” Christakis said. “It was moving much more in the direction I was moving in the intersection of the natural and the social sciences.”

The institute will open on July 1.

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