Northeastern launches nation’s first doctoral program in network science

This fall, Northeastern will begin offering the nation’s first interdisciplinary doctoral program in network science, an emerging field that researches the underlying complexity that governs all systems—be they comprised of atoms in a molecule or people using social media to communicate across the globe.

“As the first university in the nation to offer this degree, our world-leading research program in network science will allow us to train the next generation of leaders in this increasingly important field,” said Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.

Northeastern will begin recruiting the doctoral program’s first class of students this fall. The program will be housed in and overseen by the College of Science and will be offered through a collaborative effort with several other Northeastern colleges including the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, the College of Computer and Information Science, and the College of Social Sciences and Humanities.

“Most disciplines, from physics to sociology and health sciences, are confronted from complex networks,” said Albert-László Barabási, Distinguished University Professor at Northeastern, where he directs the Center for Complex Network Research and holds appointments in the Department of Physics and College of Computer and Information Science. “This new PhD program is not only about furthering the discipline of network science. It is also about training experts, who can enrich their respective discipline, helping their colleagues to deal with the complex systems they need to confront. It is a pioneering program that truly embodies interdisciplinary thinking.”

Laszlo Barabasi, Distinguished Professor of Physics, director for the Center of Complex Network Research, and a core faculty member of the new graduate program in network science. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Alessandro Vespignani is one of the program’s leading faculty members and is the Sternberg Family Distinguished Professor, holding joint appointments in the College of Science, the College of Computer and Information Sciences, and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. He explained that until now, “existing programs and organizations only indirectly train students in network science. Students may be involved in research projects using the tools of network science, but they are not being formally trained in academic programs focused on it.”

The field “has evolved into a full-bodied set of theoretical and applied tools,” said Vespignani. He noted that a doctoral program is the logical next step after several developments in recent years, including the establishment of several new journals on the subject and the Complex Systems Society, an international academic society for which Vespignani is president.

Alex Vespignani is the Sternberg Distinguished Professor of Physics, Computer Science, and Health Sciences and a member of the core faculty for the new graduate program in Network Science. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Vespignani, who uses computational modeling and human mobility networks to track the spread of epidemics around the globe, said that network science is inherently multidisciplinary. Because of this, students should be trained in a variety of disciplines and gain a foothold in the core technical and theoretical aspects of network science itself. All students in the program will take four core courses to learn these fundamentals, but will also specialize in a particular track such as epidemiology, physics, or political science.

Northeastern is already doing groundbreaking network science research. For instance, in order to control and protect against disease, Barabási is working to build the human diseasome—a network of cellular and genetic interactions that will help scientists better understand the causes of all kinds of illnesses and ailments. David Lazer, professor of political science and computer science, uses network science to study the political system, while associate professor of computer and information science Alan Mislove is interested in how social media data sets can inform these sorts of studies. In addition to his research on the spread of epidemic contagions, Vespignani is also looking at the spread of ideas and knowledge through social spaces.

Vespignani, Barabási, Lazer, and Mislove will lead the program as the initial core faculty. Additionally, faculty across the university with expertise in fields ranging from data mining to health science will round out the program’s offerings. The program will also initiate a renewed hiring effort to attract more world-leading network scientists.