Network institute launches

Photo by Brianna Loo.

On Wednesday afternoon, roughly 75 members of the Yale community braved the icy weather to celebrate the launch of an academic experiment designed to pull together network science researchers from across the University.

The Yale Institute for Network Science (YINS), located on the third floor of 17 Hillhouse Ave., is an interdisciplinary research center which aims to provide a space for collaboration among Yale faculty members with interests in network science, a field that studies the connections and interactions between individual parts of a system. YINS promises to foster intellectual cross-pollination among disciplines as diverse as the social sciences, computer science, mathematics, biology, and engineering, according to Daniel Spielman ’92, professor of computer science and mathematics and co-director of YINS.

“We contain people who use networks to do things like improve public health outcomes and advance technology, but we also have people like myself who spend their time analyzing networks, developing statistics and algorithms for networks,” he said. “The goal is to get these two groups together – the people who provide the means can help the people who provide the ends, and vice-versa.”

The traditional ribbon-cutting ceremony was renamed to the more network-appropriate “ribbon-tying” ceremony, and began with a series of speakers involved with YINS.

University Provost Ben Polak was among the speakers at the opening. He expressed his enthusiasm for the program, and his belief that the interdisciplinary-spirit embodied by YINS will spread to other academic disciplines at Yale and universities.

“This is very exciting,” Polak said. “This is something which is, right now, uniquely Yale. It’s really pulling things from across the whole of Yale, and it’s kind of risky. This is a big investment that we believe will be intellectually important. It’s going to stretch from the sciences to the social sciences. I think we will see it in the humanities too — not yet, but we will. We kind of think this is the future.”

The workspace of YINS occupies the entire third floor of 17 Hillhouse. A large conference area offers a space for collaboration in the middle of the lab, while flanking floor-to-ceiling white boards and large flat screen TV’s line the outer walls. On display at the launch Wednesday were publications from researchers involved with YINS, including work in decision-making, genomics, gun violence, social cooperation, and industrial evolution. Currently, the institute has almost 50 members and is growing.

According to Nicholas Christakis ’84, a Yale professor of social and natural science and co-director of the institute, YINS’ goals fall in line with an emerging trend in academia. He said research has focused overwhelmingly on breaking down objects and phenomena into smaller parts, opening up a niche for network science, the field which attempts to uncover how the organization of these individual parts in a system leads to complex outcomes. Christakis cited the emergence of more macroscopic specializations like systems biology as evidence of this shift.

“We’ve disassembled life into organisms, then organs, then cells, then macromolecules, and then genes, and we have disassembled matter into atoms, then nuclei, then subatomic particles, and so forth,” Christakis said. “I think across many disciplines, scientists are now struggling with how to put the parts back together again, whether it’s macromolecules into cells, neurons into brains, nutrients into foodstuffs, species into ecosystems, or people into [social] networks. Network science is part of what I would call the much broader assembly project of modern science.”

The unique approach of YINS also comes with challenges, said Akihiro Nishi, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute and a recent graduate of the Harvard School of Public Health.

“If I like medicine, I just need to know medicine,” Nishi said. “But here I need to study genetics, sociology, evolution, and networks science. It’s very difficult to decide what I should learn and do, but it’s exciting.”

YINS will begin hosting seminars on network-related topics every Wednesday at 12:00 p.m. starting next week. In addition to hiring postdoctoral fellows and researchers, the institute also expects undergraduate positions to open as its projects become more defined.

For Sekhar Tatikonda, a Yale professor of electrical engineering and statistics and YINS faculty member, the promise of the Institute goes beyond supporting innovative research.

“I’m hoping that eventually, in addition to fostering collaborative research projects, that we’ll have a curriculum, and maybe even a program or a degree — maybe a department,” he said. “But I think there is a core set of courses that we could easily teach that would be beneficial to lots of people on campus.”

Araba Koomson ’17 said she attended the event because she is enjoying Christakis’ class, “Health of the Public,” adding that the subject of networks is a relevant and interesting break from her pre-med requirements.

Christakis joined the Yale faculty last summer after 12 years at Harvard.