A new laboratory, which is part of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI), is up and running on the Virginia Tech campus. The Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory, which is led by Christopher L. Barrett, designs and analyzes simulations of extremely large systems and implements them on high-performance computer systems.

The laboratory was first established on Virginia Tech’s campus towards the end of last year. Today, it has a growing team of personnel, numerous collaborators inside and outside Virginia Tech, and is pursuing a rigorous agenda for multidisciplinary research and development in basic and applied simulation science.

Bruno Sobral, executive and scientific director of VBI, said: “Chris and his group have already established a formidable presence in the field of network dynamics and simulation sciences. Whether it is urban and regional transportation systems, the Internet, or gene regulatory networks, simulation tools are a must to study, understand and predict many key processes. The Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory has been put in place to meet pressing simulation needs across multiple disciplines.”

He added: “The arrival of Chris Barrett and his group at VBI is a significant milestone in our efforts to build on our first-class line-up of internationally competitive scientists. Synergies between the group’s research and our ongoing projects at VBI mean that we have an unprecedented opportunity to jump-start exciting projects in other emerging disciplines like systems biology research.”

The recently established laboratory conducts broadly applicable research on biological, information, social and technological systems. Key application areas span epidemiology and the spread of infectious diseases, social networks, settlement infrastructures and related social and population dynamics, integrated next-generation telecommunication systems as well as economic analysis and financial and commodity markets. Theoretical work focuses on integrating topics in dynamical systems, combinatorial algebra, graph and network theory, algorithm theory and statistical science into a cohesive basis for the design, verification and analysis of simulations of very large complex systems.

Scientists, policy makers, planners, and businesses need simulations to answer critical questions that impact their research, areas of responsibility, and economic interests. Increasingly, it is feasible to apply quantitative approaches to the study of biological, social, and technological interactions through network theory and simulation. The findings of such research may have a profound effect on individuals, groups and society at large.

One example where this type of work can have a major impact is in contagious disease modeling. Modeling disease outbreaks in realistic urban social networks has important implications in determining the best strategy for dealing with large-scale outbreaks of infectious diseases in human populations. For example, recent modeling and simulation have confirmed that smallpox outbreaks can be contained by a strategy of early isolation and targeted vaccination, which depend on early model-guided detection strategies, without necessarily resorting to mass vaccination of a population(1). Such approaches may be extrapolated to other diseases that represent pressing public health needs and which may lead to epidemics or even pandemics. Simulations can thus play an important role in shaping public health policies and mitigating the potential impact of a disease outbreak.

VBI has provided a 200 processor Linux cluster and an Apple G5 Local Area Network (LAN) as well as access to various national high-performance computing resources to support the group’s research program. The Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory hopes to establish further collaborations with departments across campus at Virginia Tech as well as set up international collaborations with universities, public health organizations, private sector partners and other parties interested in applying network dynamics and simulation approaches to complex, large-scale systems. The group will also pursue opportunities to commercialize technologies arising from VBI research.

(1) Modelling disease outbreaks in realistic urban social networks, Stephen Eubank et al., Nature, 2004, vol.429, pp.180-184.

Supplementary biographical information for Christopher L. Barrett

Chris Barrett received his Ph.D. in bioinformation systems from the California Institute of Technology in 1985. Prior to joining VBI, he worked for 17 years at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. In this time, he became Leader of the Basic and Applied Simulation Science Group and built up a research group active in theoretical and applied research in intelligent systems, distributed systems and advanced computer simulation. He has scientific experience in simulation, scientific computation, algorithm theory and development, system science and control, engineering science, biosystems analysis, decision science, cognitive human factors, testing and training.

His achievements include development of large-scale, high performance simulation systems and development of a distributed computing approach for detailed simulation-based study of mobile, packet-switched digital communications systems. Barrett has received Distinguished Service Awards from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Alliance for Transportation Research, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and Artificial Life and Robotics, Oita University, Japan.

Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) at Virginia Tech has a research platform centered on understanding the “disease triangle” of host-pathogen-environment interactions. With almost $49 million in extramural research funding awarded to date, VBI researchers are working on many human, crop, and animal diseases.

Founded in 1872 as a land-grant college, Virginia Tech has grown to become the largest university in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today, Virginia Tech’s eight colleges are dedicated to putting knowledge to work through teaching, research, and outreach activities and to fulfilling its vision to be among the top research universities in the nation. At its 2,600-acre main campus located in Blacksburg and other campus centers in Northern Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Roanoke, Virginia Tech enrolls more than 28,000 full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries in 180 academic degree programs.

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