Innovative minds and collaborative spirits came together for two featured events on Monday at the opening of Northeastern’s Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex: “NU Talks: Innovating Across Disciplines” and a panel discussion on the future of interdisciplinary research.
Health, security, and sustainability—these are the key areas of research at the university, said Kenneth Henderson, dean of the College of Science, who introduced three pairs of faculty speakers who would describe their areas of study in a series of TED-style talks. “Interdisciplinary research is necessary to solve these problems.”
‘Balance connectivity and privacy’
How do we secure global information networks? Carla Brodley, dean of the College of Computer and Information Science, and David Luzzi, vice provost for research innovation and development and vice president of Northeastern’s Innovation Campus in Burlington, Massachusetts, addressed that question.
“Two things keep me up at night,” said Brodley. “There are now devices on the road connected to computers, including in cars.” Then she flashed a slide of the Nest Learning Thermostat. “The devices in our homes have turned us into a surveillance state,” she said. Add to that people’s continual postings on social media sites—posts that “live on forever,” she said—and the challenges of maintaining security increase immeasurably.
“The challenge is to mitigate the vulnerabilities in our systems to balance connectivity and privacy,” she said. “Northeastern’s new Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute, with its collaborations throughout the world, will do that for individuals, industry, and government alike.”
Luzzi introduced Northeastern’s George J. Kostas Institute for Homeland Security, the site of multidisciplinary teams of academic, federal, and industry researchers undertaking use-inspired research to develop tools that enable communities, systems, and infrastructure to deal with disruptive events.
When talking about cybersecurity, he said, everyone points to the cloud. “The network is the cloud but we, all of us, represent the tactical edge of the network—where cyberspace and physical space connect. Our appliances, our cars—they lie at the edge.” We cannot forget the human factor in addressing security issues, he noted.
Thriving in the face of trauma
On sustainability, professor Geoffrey Trussell, director of Northeastern’s Marine Science Center and chair of the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences, addressed the “collision between humanity and the environment.” How, he asked, can we create cleaner, safer, smarter coastal communities?
He cited three major threats to coastal regions—storm surges, global fisheries, and climate change. Twenty-five percent of the world population relies on fisheries for a protein food source, he explained. “We must design and implement fish farms so they function in a sustainable way.”
Regarding climate change, he recommended shifting attention from what might cause it to the fact that “things are changing, the sea level is rising, and we have to adapt.”
“Humans impact every dimension of life,” he said. “We must get in the thick of it, work on the front lines of humans and the natural environment. That’s our approach at the Marine Science Center in Nahant.” Establishing partnerships, such as the recent one between Northeastern and Cuba, is crucial to ensure sustainable communities and a healthy ecosystem.
Professor Stephen Flynn, founding director of the Global Resilience Institute, zeroed in on the issue of interdependence “of systems, networks, and communities.” “Our systems today are built for efficiency but not security and resilience,” he said. “How do we retrofit resilience into those existing systems and also go forward.”
He used Superstorm Sandy as an example. Electric grids, transit systems, hospitals, and dialysis units all went down for two to three weeks, he said. We need to understand how the shock to one node influences shocks to the connecting nodes, and so on.
“The average American stays put,” he said. Of those who do, “90 percent will come face to face with some disaster.” Hence the need for extraordinary collaboration among researchers from fields as varied as network science and mechanical engineering to protect our networks. “How can we design systems so we can respond nimbly?” he asked. “Our goal is not just to help us survive in the face of global trauma but to thrive.”
Collaborating for health
Michael Pollastri, associate professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, brought Northeastern’s place at the center of healthcare research into sharp focus with his discussion of repurposing existing drugs to treat neglected tropical diseases, including malaria, African sleeping sickness, and Chagas disease.
“This is not a small problem,” he said about NTDs, noting that 1.1 billion people were infected with them, many in some of the poorest countries in the world.
“The best way to discover a new drug is to start with an old one,” said Pollastri, who directs Northeastern’s Laboratory for Neglected Disease Drug Discovery. He provided an example: Ivermectrin, known among dog lovers as Heartgard, has a new use treating river blindness, a tropical skin disease caused by a parasite.
Researchers in Pollastri’s lab take an FDA-approved drug, test it against particular parasites, and then “reengineer its chemical structure” to enhance its therapeutic effects and reduce its side effects. In this drug development process, collaboration—with pharmaceutical companies, the military, and other institutions—is crucial. “Northeastern is at the center of these interdisciplinary collaborations,” he said.
Rebecca Carrier, associate professor and associate chair of research in the Department of Chemical Engineering, takes a more internal approach: In one line of her research, she investigates the human gut microbiome, the community of microorganisms living in the human gut. “We are not alone,” she said, noting that our guts contain “a thousand more microbe genes than human genes.”
Carrier, who heads Northeastern’s Advanced Drug Delivery Research Laboratory, investigates, among other areas, how the food we eat affects our health by altering the microbiome. Exposure to certain factors has been associated with diseases including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression, she said. In the lab, she and her colleagues are developing tissue-engineered cell-culture models to learn about the gut’s components, exploring the relationship of the gut microbiome to the brain and the immune system through collaborations with Northeastern researchers, pharmaceutical companies, and hospitals.
ISEC as a template
The individual NU Talks gave way to a panel discussion on “The Future of Interdisciplinary Research.” Moderated by Roderic I. Pettigrew, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at the National Institutes of Health, it featured four panelists representing private and academic institutions.
Pettigrew set the stage by laying out three themes that underlie ISEC’s collaborative approach: convergence, use-inspired research, and innovation. “The phrase ‘invention put to good use’ characterizes all of them,” he said.
James Bradner, president of Novartis Institutes of BioMedical Research, based in Cambridge Massachusetts, noted how much Novartis has in common with Northeastern given its efforts to reinvent itself. “Connectivity is our new priority,” he said. “In ISEC you have research into biology, robots, computer science, chemistry, and more. That is what training in the sciences will look like in the future.”
The research of Beth Stevens, BPH’93, who is associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, has provided unique insights into how the brain is wired. She discovered that immune cells called microglia both protect the brain and “prune” connections during development. The findings suggest that diseases such as schizophrenia may stem from abnormal activation of this pruning function.
“If we hadn’t partnered with immunologists, we would not have learned what was going on in the brain,” Stevens said. “That is where the magic starts happening: When immunologists, geneticists, and microbiologists sit down at the table and discuss hard problems.”
John Manferdelli, executive director of the Northeastern University Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute, applauded ISEC’s openness to novelty. “ISEC provides an opportunity to be more adventurous,” said Manferdelli, engineering director at Google before coming to Northeastern. “Rather than solving a single problem, in a place like this you can dive into an entire area.”
Jonas Svedlund, general counsel for GE Ventures, which has an office in Boston, also noted the likenesses between his company and ISEC. “We follow an innovation model, investing in areas from healthcare to software,” he said. “Consider our work on jet engines. We bring together teams from many disciplines—materials science, digitization, physics, and more. Our interdisciplinary thrust is not just inward facing; we collaborate with outside partners as well.”
Beth Stevens summed up the influence of ISEC well. “ISEC will serve as a template for others,” she said. “Bringing people together, which is what this building will do, leads to rapid progress.”