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Daniel Abrams Named NICO Codirector

Effective February 1, Abrams will succeed Luís A.N. Amaral

Northwestern Engineering’s Daniel Abrams has been named codirector of the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO), effective February 1.

Abrams, professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics at the McCormick School of Engineering, succeeds Luís A.N. Amaral, Erastus Otis Haven Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, who has served as codirector since 2013. Brian Uzzi, Richard L. Thomas Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at the Kellogg School of Management and (by courtesy) professor of industrial engineering and management sciences at Northwestern Engineering, will continue to serve as NICO’s other codirector.

“Luís Amaral has been an outstanding codirector of NICO, furthering collaboration across campus, mentoring and educating students and faculty in data science, and raising the bar for scholarship in complexity,” said Julio M. Ottino, dean of the McCormick School of Engineering and cofounder of NICO. “I have every confidence that Danny will continue to build NICO as a leading interdisciplinary center in the study of complexity and network science.”

Daniel Abrams, named the new NICO codirector, has broad scientific interests ranging from coupled oscillators to mathematical geoscience to the physics of social systems.

Amaral’s nine years at the helm of NICO have yielded a dramatic increase in scope and reach. This transformation was possible due to $3.8 million in university funds made available for the Northwestern Data Science Initiative, $5.5 million in philanthropic giving toward projects in synthetic biology, sustainability, and studies of innovation and team science, and $13 million from federal funding agencies. The combined funding supported pilot projects from 57 teams of faculty from across five schools, the hiring of five high-prestige postdoctoral scholars, and the recruitment of 61 top graduate students to 21 graduate programs.

Early in his tenure, Amaral developed NICO bootcamp courses in data science that have been attended by hundreds of students, postdocs, faculty, and staff. NICO has also started to publish scientific and pedagogic software in the Apple’s App Store. FlyEye Silhouette, a Northwestern application for Mac computers and iPads, has been downloaded more than 10,000 times, with 3,700 downloads just in the past 12 months.

Amaral also leads the extraordinarily successful faculty research networking luncheon series, now in its sixth year, which has engaged more than 200 faculty from across nine Northwestern schools and has resulted in numerous new faculty collaborations, publications, and applications for external funding. Through the creation of an active executive committee and advisory board, Amaral also engaged with the leadership of other major centers and institutes at Northwestern, broadening communication channels, and increasing opportunities for collaboration. Notably, Amaral is also the principal investigator for the SCALES – OKN (Systematic Content Analysis of Litigation EventS Open Knowledge Network) project at Northwestern, which connects faculty across disciplines working to bring transparency to the systems and process of US courts.

“I have been part of NICO since the very beginning. NICO’s vision and mission have always been a sort of calling to me. Leading NICO has been a tremendous honor and privilege,” Amaral said. “I will continue to contribute to NICO anyway I can. I look forward to seeing where Danny will take NICO.”

Luis Amaral

“Luís has been an exceptional part of extending NICO’s impact across campus and internationally,” Uzzi said. “Among his many contributions, he created the popular complexity science bootcamp and data science nights, which made the latest training in complexity science accessible to all Northwestern students, published rock star research, and has led Northwestern-wide grants including the current multimillion dollar SCALES grant that is transforming legal practice. I am grateful for his dedication and look forward to working with Danny to leverage new opportunities that further our lead in this area.” 

Brian Uzzi

A Northwestern faculty member since 2009, Abrams has broad scientific interests ranging from coupled oscillators to mathematical geoscience to the physics of social systems. He approaches these wide-ranging problems by creating greatly simplified mathematical models where rigorous analysis is possible, capturing essential properties of the system. The work in different fields is generally connected by similar mathematical techniques drawn from the study of nonlinear dynamics.

Abrams’s methods have been productive. His recent work includes research into the utility of scientific conferences, the discrepancy between egg and sperm cells due to natural selection, and the possibility to understand a patient’s pain level by examining data from vital signs.

"NICO has been a wonderful community throughout my time at Northwestern and it is a true honor to step in as codirector,” Abrams said. “I want to thank Luís Amaral for his fantastic leadership that’s helped take NICO to its current position of strength.”

Daniel Abrams

NICO was founded in 2004 with the goals of uncovering fundamental principles that govern complex systems in science, technology, and human behavior and applying these principles to solve societally relevant problems through the analysis, design, and control of complex systems. The institute’s mission is to serve as a hub and a facilitator for path-breaking research in complexity and data science that transcends the boundaries of established disciplines. NICO has also been the initial home for initiatives that have formed other centers, such as the Center for Synthetic Biology, the Center for Engineering Sustainability and Resilience, and more.

NICO’s focus is the theory of complex systems, network science, and data science and their application in a wide variety of domains, including business, education, engineering, law, medicine, natural science, and social science. The goal is to solve important practical problems using complexity science and to actively disseminate the results through scientific publications, education, and corporate development.

A multi-disciplinary collaboration, NICO’s 56 core and affiliated faculty are researchers from schools across Northwestern, including Northwestern Engineering, Kellogg, the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Communication, the School of Education and Social Policy, and the Feinberg School of Medicine.