CEMS creates new center dedicated to complex systems activities
Release Date: 11-27-2006
Drs. Maggie Eppstein and Adel Sadek of the University of Vermont's College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences (CEMS) have been appointed co-directors of the new UVM Complex Systems Center. The motto of the new Center is "Achieving Insight, Innovative Design, and Informed Decision-Making through Systems Thinking."
The new Center will serve as a hub for the unifying theme of complex systems activities both within the College and across the UVM campus, addressing some of the world's most pressing problems, such as remediating major environmental concerns, creating sustainable transportation systems, maintaining species diversity, unraveling the mysteries of the genetic code, and informing public policy in these areas.
According to Professor Eppstein, the methodological tools required for complex systems science are exactly the types of quantitative and analytical skills housed in the College, so it's a perfect fit for CEMS to establish itself as the UVM center of expertise in complex systems.
Uniting complex systems study at UVM
"One goal [of the Center]," Eppstein said, "is to synergize UVM strengths by establishing more cross-college collaborations between CEMS and other strong research programs outside the College in systems biology and biomedical science, ecology and environmental science, as well as with the new UVM Transportation Center."
The Center will be unique in that it will unite mathematics, engineering and computer science to work together within the College, while also strengthening cross-college collaborations at UVM, all with the goal of attracting National Science Foundation Engineering Research Centers (NSF-ERC) for the future.
"This marks a new period in the long and distinguished history of our College," said CEMS Dean Domenico Grasso, "one in which we will marshal our resources, work with colleagues across the university, and move together to create national and international spires of excellence and recognition, and create economic development that attracts companies, or parts of companies, to work with our faculty to create new spin-off businesses."
Eschewing a reductionist approach
According to Professor Eppstein, science has taken a reductionist approach to solving engineering problems for many years. "But increasingly," she says, "we recognize that most of the important problems are too complex to be studied from a reductionist viewpoint system properties emerge as a result of nonlinear, dynamic, and adaptive interactions of the components."
Professor Sadek agrees. "In order to understand systems as a whole," he says, "we need to focus on the system as a whole." An example of a reductionist approach, according to Sadek, would be the way in which the interstate transportation system was built in the 1960s. Although the system helped to promote economic growth and connect people to one another, it had several unforeseen negative results in terms of air quality, congestion, urban sprawl, and increased volume of commuters from suburbs to work.
"We cannot isolate the issue of mobility from land use, the environment, and energy consumption," Sadek explains. "We need to look at the whole picture. Complex systems analysis and modeling takes this broader viewpoint." Thus by looking at transportation as a "system," issues such as interaction with the environment and land use can be studied, leading to the creation of effective strategies and policies that not only correct problems, but also prevent other problems from being unintentionally created during the process.
Which brings us back to Professor Eppstein in an example of the sort of collaboration the Center will promote.
One unintended consequence of increased global transportation and associated changes in land use and resource availability has been the reduction in species diversity. "[This has been] caused in part," Eppstein says, "by the introduction of exotic plants that then become invasive in their new habitats." She, along with UVM plant biologist Dr. Jane Molofsky, are taking a complex systems approach to studying how environmental feedbacks influence invasiveness in plants species.
Another example of research where a complex systems approach is useful involves the study of genetic regulatory networks. The humane genome project resulted in a flood of new information regarding human genetic makeup that scientists are using to piece together how genes interact. New analytical and computational tools are needed to extract information from the growing genetic databases and to model how the interconnected genetic, proteomic, and metabolic regulatory networks function. "We now know that our genetic code is extremely non-linear," Eppstein explains, "comprised of a variety of interactive feedback loops; and just as with the transportation system, if you try to alter individual components, the treatment often has unintended consequences that lead to other problems."
From yet another perspective, scientists' growing understanding of the marvelous complexities of biological systems has stimulated the development of various biologically inspired computing technologies and has informed their approach to the design and engineering of systems.
For example, scientists have developed computational methods modeled after the way the human brain functions, and CEMS faculty, such as Dr. Donna Rizzo, are developing and using these "artificial neural networks" as effective tools in recognizing emergent patterns that arise in a variety of systems. Similarly, the powerful adaptive capabilities of biological evolutionary processes have inspired evolutionary computational techniques. Dr. Joshua Bongard has created robots that form their own internal models of how they function, and therefore can adaptively respond to unanticipated changes. Similarly, Dr. Dryver Huston is developing adaptive, robotic, mobile sensor systems for structural assessment of structures such as bridges.
New course offerings
CEMS has already begun introducing several interdisciplinary graduate course offerings in complex systems related areas. For example, Eppstein is currently teaching a course in Evolutionary Computation, and new course offerings in Spring 2007 include: Dr. Peter Dodds' Complex Networks; Dr. Chris Danforth's Chaos Fractals and Dynamical Systems; Dr. Josh Bongard's Human-Computer Interactions; and Dr. Robert Snapp's Information and Complexity.
"We anticipate continued increases in the development of graduate curriculum, targeted towards graduate students not only in CEMS but across the UVM campus," said Eppstein.
In addition, the Center's website will include a database of faculty expertise in complex systems activities, courses, and related research projects. It will be a place where researchers can pose problems and identify potential collaborators, people of complementary strengths and interests. Eppstein and Sadek see the UVM Complex Systems Center as a hub for promoting interdisciplinary research as complex systems serves as a unifying theme for research activities across campus and beyond.
"We see this as completely aligned with the University of Vermont's focus on health and the environment," said Eppstein. "In addition, we will seek to build collaborations with industry, government, and other complex systems initiatives across the country. The fun has just begun!"
For more information
For more information on any of the topics mentioned above, please contact:
Dr. Maggie Eppstein, Maggie.Eppstein@uvm.edu
Computer Science, 327 Votey Hall
Dr. Adel Sadek, Adel.Sadek@uvm.edu
School of Engineering, 213B Votey Hall
Phone: 802- 656-4126