Building sustainable cities, understanding the Earth’s oceans and climate, and ensuring access to energy, food, and clean water and air are priority research and educational activities in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), aimed at creating a sustainable future. These grand challenges are extremely complex, and they require scientists and engineers from multiple disciplines to work together and think creatively. The annual CEE Research Speed Dating event, held this year on Feb. 7, is designed to expedite that process.
“From the massive amounts of materials we use to build our cities to the oceans that sustain life on our planet, many of the problems are highly interconnected, and require us to break out of conventional thinking and academic disciplines,” says Professor Markus Buehler, head of CEE. “Accelerating research breakthroughs requires new cross-disciplinary approaches. Research Speed Dating helps to identify synergies among faculty and students, and inspires new research.”
To speed up the discovery of new research connections, two MIT students devised a conference takeaway called the Speed Dating Network App that helps attendees keep track of people they want to connect with and see how those people connect with everyone else at the event. The app debuted at the CEE Research Speed Dating event, where it showcased exciting opportunities for faculty, students, and staff to connect on research methods and domains.
Designed by graduate students Christos Nicolaides and Jameson Toole working with Assistant Professor Marta González and Assistant Professor Pedro Reis, the app builds a network map during a conference based on real-time input from attendees using computers or mobile devices.
Research Speed Dating featured 25 four-minute sound-bite talks followed by one minute of Q&A that could lead to research “matches” or collaborations. The interactive map built by the Speed Dating Network App reveals these potential matches, allows users to move nodes around to see all the connections on the network, and remains in existence after the conference has ended. The app could eventually be used in other ways, for instance by corporations wanting to maximize creative synergies by placing key employees’ offices near one another.
“People talk about academic silos, but this event shows that really, in CEE at least, that’s not the case,” says Toole, who works with González on projects applying network science to human mobility and other aspects of urban life. “Our app provides a new way to get a picture of an academic department and to quantify the connections being made at a conference.”
Mapping the connections
Two faculty members who joined CEE in January, Assistant Professor Ben Kocar and Assistant Professor Lydia Bourouiba, both made many potential future connections across the department. In fact, Bourouiba — whose keywords included fluid dynamics, interfacial flows, droplets and bubbles, infectious disease transmission, mathematical modeling, physical modeling, dimensional analysis, flow visualization, and microscopy high-speed videography — had more potential future connections than anyone else at the event. “How long would it have taken her to find this out, without this tool?” says Nicolaides. “Now she can go back to the network map, find those people, and make contact with who she wants.”
Nicolaides works with Associate Professor Ruben Juanes on projects involving the flow of fluids (oil, water, gas) in porous media using quantitative tools that can also be applied to questions in network science. He recognized the overlap when he took González’s class in network theory a few years ago. That led to a collaborative project between the González and Juanes groups that ranked U.S. airports by their ability to spread contagious disease.
It’s exactly this sort of collaboration that Reis (who has been promoted to associate professor effective July 1), González, and other junior faculty members in CEE hoped for when they established Research Speed Dating four years ago as a means of sharing research and ideas among the diverse disciplines represented in the department.
The data generated at the event shows how interconnected the people in CEE are, and what tremendous opportunities lie ahead. “CEE is home to extraordinary people, and it is exciting to discover the connections of people within the department, and to the MIT community at large,” says Buehler. “The Research Speed Dating event, and in particular the new app, are critical tools on this path.” Buehler is encouraging these new connections by offering one-year graduate student fellowships to students of faculty who propose new cross-disciplinary research collaborations, which are expected to turn some of the newly discovered synergies into tangible research progress.
Data gathered by the Speed Dating Network App indicates there will likely be a number of compelling proposals.
Building the network
Twenty-three presenters each submitted 10 keywords associated with their research domains and 10 with their methodologies. Attendees used their computers or mobile devices to indicate during the talks if they shared domains or methodologies with the speakers or wished to make a research connection.
The network map indicated 189 research domain overlaps, 171 methodology overlaps, and 267 possible future collaborations among the 100 attendees who participated in the experiment. Of the collaboration interest links submitted by faculty and graduate students, 50 percent point to people working in other disciplines. The interests of postdocs and research scientists were somewhat more traditional, with only 25 percent of their collaboration interest links pointing outside their discipline, reflecting the fact that they are often hired to work in specific areas. In total, about 40 percent of the department’s collaboration interest links were cross-disciplinary.
Toole and González say the tool needs some fine-tuning before it’s ready to share. But once it’s ready, they hope to offer it to other conference groups at MIT in a soft launch. Their goal, they say, is to make this an open-source tool that can help conference organizers and corporations quantify the possibilities for connections among attendees and employees.
“A big topic in collaboration networks in network science is to go through patents or papers and connect people based on coauthors, connecting two people if they collaborated on a set of knowledge,” Toole says.
“With the Speed Dating Network App, we are able to collect information about potential collaborations before they even happen,” Nicolaides says. “And we can quantify how those connections happened in real time and at a finer granularity.”