NSF awards IU $3 million to train researchers 'fluent' in complex networks and data

Highly selective grant creates innovative Ph.D. program to better prepare researchers for tackling society's biggest challenges

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The dual Ph.D. program will train students in both complex networks and systems and another discipline from the natural and social sciences.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The National Science Foundation has awarded Indiana University nearly $3 million to train future research leaders in the skills needed to tackle society's most urgent subjects.

"The biggest challenges currently faced by society require large teams of people who are 'fluent' in more than one scientific discipline," said Luis Rocha, professor in the IU School of Informatics and Computing, who will lead the new program. "But the current education model in academia is still largely focused on training researchers who know how to set up independent labs with agendas driven by a single person.

"If we want to take on the really big problems, we've got to create more scientists with deep expertise in multiple areas."

The highly selective grant from the NSF's Research Traineeship Award will create a dual Ph.D. program at IU to train graduate students to be proficient in both a specific discipline, such as psychology or political science, as well as network and data science. IU is one of only 17 institutions funded under the NSF grant program this year.

The new Ph.D. program will also leverage the strengths of IU's Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research, or CNetS, and the Indiana Network Science Institute, or IUNI, with additional support from the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences, the University Graduate School and IU School of Informatics and Computing.

A student studying neuroscience, for example, might work not only in the lab of a faculty member studying Alzheimer's disease but also with a researcher studying the application of neuroscience data to understand the effect of social networks on disease progression.

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Luis Rocha. Photo courtesy of the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência

All students in the program will train in both a "domain-specific" discipline and in the complex networks and systems track of the informatics Ph.D. program at the IU School of Informatics and Computing, with two co-advisors from each program.

A total of 34 two-year Ph.D. fellowships will be supported, with 22 supported by the federal funds and 12 supported by the university. The first students to participate in the program will hail from informatics, psychology and brain sciences, cognitive science, sociology, political science, physics and economics, with others considered on an individual basis.

Each student will also receive equal training in complex networks and systems and in data science.

"People who study computer science are really generalists in the sense that computers are universal machines," Rocha said. "You can use a computer to study society as much as you can use it to study biology, for example, since you can abstract relationships among domain-specific concepts until you reveal principles of organization, like networks, that are common to all disciplines."

IU's selection for the grant was based in part upon the university's pioneering role in applying data-driven methods to study complex networks and systems across disciplines. This leadership is reflected in the establishment of CNetS in 2009 and IUNI in 2014, the latter of which recently hosted the world’s largest conference of network scientists.

"We're already producing highly skilled graduates with experience in multiple disciplines through the complex systems track of the informatics Ph.D. program," said Rocha, who is also director of that track. "The NSF award recognizes that IU has a strong track record in this area and will help us take our success to the next level."

Additional IU faculty members serving as co-primary investigators on the NSF grant are Katy Börner, the Victor H. Yngve Professor of Information Science in the IU School of Informatics and Computing; Bernice Pescosolido, IU Distinguished Professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Sociology; Armando Razo, associate professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Political Science; and Olaf Sporns, IU Distinguished Professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. Pescosolido and Sporns are also co-directors for IUNI.

The first year of the dual Ph.D. program will be limited to graduate students currently enrolled at IU. Next year's class will include students beyond the university. The application deadline for the fall 2018 semester is December.

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