World-​​renowned sta­tis­tical physi­cist Alessandro Vespig­nani is the weath­erman of net­work science.

In 2009, the newly appointed Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of Physics — with appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence, Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences — devel­oped a com­pu­ta­tional model that accu­rately pre­dicted the spread of the H1N1 virus.

Taking a proac­tive approach to tracking the spread of a bio­log­ical virus, Vespig­nani says, could have the power to trans­form drug deploy­ment. As he puts it, “My dream is to fore­cast pandemic-​​spreading like a weather fore­caster pre­dicts a hur­ri­cane days before it hits. We have to antic­i­pate the spread of a dis­ease so doc­tors and pol­i­cy­makers can plan how to use their resources in the most intel­li­gent ways.”

Prior to joining the North­eastern fac­ulty, Vespig­nani served as the James H. Rudy Pro­fessor and Director of the Center for Com­plex Net­works and Sys­tems at Indiana Uni­ver­sity. He earned his PhD in the­o­ret­ical physics from the Uni­ver­sity of Rome La Sapienza in 1994.

His land­mark research on the spread of viruses, in which he proved that even weak strains can pro­lif­erate in a real-​​world, non­random, scale-​​free net­work, has trans­formed the analysis of spreading processes and shaped poli­cies aimed at erad­i­cating infec­tions ranging from HIV to com­puter viruses.

Backed by a $1.2 mil­lion grant from the National Insti­tutes of Health, Vespig­nani and his research part­ners are cur­rently devel­oping com­pu­ta­tional tools to mea­sure the spread of pan­demic dis­eases and social con­ta­gions, such as smoking. He plans to share the results with pol­i­cy­makers and health-​​care stakeholders.

He and his col­leagues – including prin­cipal inves­ti­gator David Lazer, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence and com­puter sci­ence at North­eastern and a pio­neer in the field of com­pu­ta­tional social sci­ence – have also received a $1.1 mil­lion grant from the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion to study how Internet memes, rumors and even polit­ical rev­o­lu­tions spread on social net­working sites, such as Face­book and Twitter.

The recent wave of polit­ical protests and demon­stra­tions that have swept through the Arab world picked up momentum through Face­book, Vespig­nani says.

Social net­working sites can be very pow­erful mech­a­nisms with very deep polit­ical impli­ca­tions,” he explains. “This study will help us under­stand how cer­tain tip­ping points for social changes may occur.”

The self-​​described geek is fas­ci­nated by the prac­tical impli­ca­tions of net­work sci­ence research. “For a long time, I was trying to answer abstract math ques­tions, and I lost con­tact with reality,” he says. “What I do now has an impact on society and can help us under­stand dis­eases or develop new infor­ma­tion technology.

When you show that your model is an accu­rate pre­dictor of a social phe­nom­enon, that is really exciting.”

Vespig­nani also hopes to col­lab­o­rate on ground­breaking research projects with world-​​renowned net­work sci­en­tist Albert-​​László Barabási, the founding director of Northeastern’s world-​​leading Center for Com­plex Net­work Research.

North­eastern is a very exciting place to be right now,” Vespig­nani says. “It is a great oppor­tu­nity for me to join this group of sci­en­tists and try to move our lead­er­ship in net­work sci­ence to another level.”