Scientist at Work: Alessandro Vespignani
Alessandro Vespignani arrived at Indiana University Bloomington little more than five years ago as part of a gamble by now retired IU School of Informatics Dean Mike Dunn to develop what Dunn hoped would be the foundation for a world-class research group for the study of complex systems and networks.
From cells and viruses to terrorists and food systems, a world of mobile, multi-tiered interconnectedness was being ever more evidenced and understood through the eyes of new technological tools, and for Dunn that made the study of complex networks a good "futures" bet for IU.
So in 2004 Dunn went "all-in," hiring Vespignani -- whom he described at the time as "the absolute leader on complex networks in Europe" -- as part of a year-long talent hunt that saw the IU Bloomington School of Informatics and Computing make 18 faculty hires, pulling researchers away from the likes of Apple Computer, Harvard and, in Vespignani's case, France's Laboratoire de Physique Theorique at the University of Paris-Sud, where he worked as a physicist for the French National Council for Scientific Research.
Today the feedback from peers, co-workers and bosses confirms the return on investment from this 44-year-old native of Rome, Italy, has been substantial in regard to new research funding ($4 million in five years), scholarly publishing (Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Physical Review Letters, Nature, among many others) and advancing the field of complex networks (IU Rudy professorship and American Physical Society fellow, both in 2008).
His touchstone work, the 2001 research paper "Epidemic Spreading in Scale Free Networks," co-written with the Spanish physicist Romualdo Pastor-Satorras, has been referred to as "a stroke of genius" and "groundbreaking" for its conclusion that viruses growing in random scale-free networks like the Internet can never be completely wiped out.
In all, Vespignani has published more than 100 research papers, along with three important books, inlcluding Evolution and Structure of the Internet, co-authored by Pastor-Satorras and published by Cambridge University Press.
Last year his work modeling epidemic pathways took on heightened relevance with the global spread of H1N1. Since April and after his technical results concerning H1N1 evolution had already appeared in scientific journals like PNAS, his views on modeling and predicting flu spread appeared around the world, including in interviews with The New York Times, Lancet, USA Today, Washington Post, BBC, Scientific American and Wired.
Supported by funding sources as varied as the complex networks he studies -- from federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, Army Research Laboratories and the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, to private foundations and international organizations -- Vespignani has been able to employ Indiana University's computing muscle to validate and expand upon the findings broached in that 2001 paper.
"That paper in 2001 contributed to making Alex well-known," said Associate Professor Filippo Menczer, a close friend and fellow IU informaticist. "But since Alex has come here, he has been able to take those models and use the mixture of large scale simulation power we have here at IU with the modeling sophistication from his physics background to produce some incredibly insightful work."
Menczer and Vespignani studied together as undergraduates at the University of Rome La Sapienza before Menczer moved to University of California San Diego for his Ph.D. in computer science and cognitive science while Vespignani stayed behind in Rome for his Ph.D. in physics. Following postdoctoral research stints at Yale University and Leiden University in the Netherlands, Vespignani worked at the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, but it was after taking a new post at the University of Paris-Sud's Laboratory for Theoretical Physics that he would run into Menczer and a path leading to IU Bloomington.
"We found each other again when I was giving a talk at Notre Dame. Alex was coincidentally visiting there while working on his book with Romualdo and came to my talk. It was then we realized we were both interested in complex networks, he from the physics side and I from the Web side," Menczer recalled. "Then in 2004, Mike Dunn had this vision that IU could bring together a world-leading group in complex networks, so I'm happy to say I helped convince Alex that Bloomington was a nicer place to live than Paris."
Both now share responsibilities at the IU School of Informatics and Computing's Center for Complex Networks and Systems (CNeTS), a center designed to foster interdisciplinary research in all areas related to complex networks and systems where Vespignani is director and Menczer associate director. Vespignani is also associate director of the IU Pervasive Technology Institute's Digital Science Center, another venue where collaboration, through computation, is hoped to become a tool for innovation and discovery.
IU School of Informatics Dean and Interim Vice President for Research Bobby Schnabel said Vespignani's work ethic exemplifies the goals of those centers and also what is at the core of many of the School of Informatics' successes: Collaboration.
"There are two characteristics of Alex that come to mind immediately, and the first is how collaborative he is," Schnabel said, referencing successful projects with investigators from the IU Department of Statistics, the School of Library and Information Sciences and the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. "Some successful, brilliant scientists, like Alex, are the sort who just like to lead their own empire. Alex, on the other hand, has a record of many successful collaborations with people from a wide variety of disciplines."
Schnabel pointed to Vespignani's collegiality as another attribute that, while tied closely to his willingness to collaborate, makes the researcher an attractive intellect to have on the faculty.
"It makes him a true pleasure to work with," Schnabel said.
Laszlo Barabasi is another of the nation's top complex networks researchers, but he's never published a paper with Vespignani. The distinguished professor of physics at Boston's Northeastern University has, however, spent time with Vespignani at numerous conferences and seminars around the world. They were in Shanghai together in 2008 and earlier this month (January 2010) attended a conference at University of California Berkeley. He agreed with Schnabel that Vespignani is a unique asset not only for IU, but also for the field of complex networks study.
"He has completely and fundamentally changed how we think about epidemic spreading in networks with a stroke of genius that was this clear, analytical result that he has since built into this huge simulator," Barabasi said. "But just as important, I must say, is the impact he has had on others, including the most-regarded researchers in this area in Europe. His impact has been on training others to carry the flag, and he's done it with a tone of civility and a collegial personality."
It's true. If both IU and complex networks research could have an ambassador it would be Vespignani. Rarely traveling on the university's dime and usually funded by his hosts, globe-trotting with iPhone and MacBook at hand, Vespignani has a tough time refusing an opportunity to promote his area of study.
A glance at his travel agenda over just 45 days from late September into November confirms his own complex mobility networking, as he had been speaking at conferences and colloquia in Kansas, Washington, D.C., Luxembourg, Berlin, and attended grant meetings and consultations in Illinois, New York and Virginia. All this during a Fall 2009 semester in which he taught Introduction to Complex Systems, a core course for Ph.D. students in the IU Bloomington School of Informatics and Computing.
"Alex's office is often at whatever airport he is at," Barabasi said. "I'm just amazed by all his flying, but he's such a good citizen. He's never anywhere it seems; he's everywhere."