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Researchers transcend boundaries for science

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.