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Notre Dame’s Interdisciplinary Center for Network Science and Applications (iCeNSA), established last year, is looking to expand and reach out to more faculty and students, David Hachen, co-director of the center and professor of sociology, said. iCeNSA

Laura McCrystal | Friday, October 9, 2009

Notre Dame’s Interdisciplinary Center for Network Science and Applications (iCeNSA), established last year, is looking to expand and reach out to more faculty and students, David Hachen, co-director of the center and professor of sociology, said.

iCeNSA is devoted to the study of networks in various disciplines. It includes faculty and students from the Colleges of Arts and Letters, Science and Engineering.

When students think of networks, they typically think of social networks such as Facebook, Hachen said.

Yet networks are apparent in all aspects of life. Examples include weather networks, ecosystems, food chains, business distribution networks, financial networks, electric power grids and the network of the human brain.

“There’s networks across all physical and social walks of life,” Hachen said. “The tools you use to study networks can be used in all domains, and insights gained in one domain can be used to help people in all domains.”

Nitesh Chawla, co-director of iCeNSA and professor of Computer Science and Engineering, said the Center itself is a network of faculty and students from different disciplines who collaborate together.

“We focus on fundamental methods, advances related to each of the fields,” Chawla said. “Together we also combine our forces so that the whole is greater than the sum of the products.”

Hachen said as a social scientist, he finds collaboration with people in the fields of Physics and Computer Science particularly useful.

“It looks like networks are easy things to understand, but it turns out the mathematics and the computations to understand networks are very complicated,” he said. “Usually we study things independently, but that’s not the way networks are – they’re highly interactive.”

Before iCeNSA was created, Chawla said there was a Center for Complex Network Research, which operated out of the physics department.

“We wanted to create a center that was multidisciplinary across all the colleges,” he said. “We’ve been trying to build the center as people interested in networks and network applications.”

During its first year, iCeNSA focused on finding grants for funding. Chawla said the center received $3.7 million in the past year and received recognition from the Army Research Lab, a distinction that has only been granted to a few other universities.

The center is currently looking to incorporate business into its research and involve faculty and students from the business school, Chawla said.

iCeNSA is also hosting a distinguished speaker series on social networks this year, which Hachen said is aimed at exposing students to iCeNSA and the study of networks. Katherine Faust, a professor from the University of California, Irvine, delivered the first lecture, “What is social about social networks?” Thursday.

“Although the subject is social networks, we expect that the talk will have all applicability,” Hachen said.

Chawla said the center launched a Web site, icensa.nd.edu, also with the goal of spreading the word about iCeNSA.

Faculty and students at the center are currently involved in several network research projects. One project studies social networks and the use of cell phones, Chawla said. Hachen said other projects involve the application of network science to climate change, health and disease and the brain.

“Really it means we are bridging across all these areas and learning from each other,” Hachen said.

There are already several professors, undergraduate students and graduate students working on network research through iCeNSA, Chawla said, but he hopes to see the center continue to grow and develop.

“We plan to grow and be more aggressive in bringing in more grants and writing quality papers,” he said.

The Center’s goals for the future include involving more students, Hachen said.

Last year, iCeNSA applied for but did not receive a grant to create a graduate program in network science, but Hachen said he hopes that they will eventually achieve that goal. He also said iCeNSA may develop an undergraduate concentration in network science.

In the more immediate future, iCeNSA will try to attract undergraduates through the lecture series as well as classes taught by professors who work with the center.

“I’m a little bit planning to throw the ball in the undergrads’ lap as we evolve and looking at what they want to do [for network research],” Hachen said.

Hachen said there are endless possibilities for research in the area of network science, and iCeNSA will continue to unite various disciplines under network research.

“It turns out there’s a lot of people that are interested in networks … but they don’t really know that there’s other people on campus, that we’re doing the same research as well,” he said. “We want us to be a resource for faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, and also internationally.”