Penn Engineering’s Danielle Bassett Wins Top Prize in Complexity Science

Danielle S. Bassett

Danielle S. Bassett, Eduardo D. Glandt Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, is the recipient of the 2017 Lagrange-CRT Foundation Prize. The prize, given by the Institute for Scientific Interchange Foundation in Turin, Italy, was created to encourage and honor researchers working in the field of complex systems.

Complex systems feature many interconnected parts whose individual behavior influences the outcomes of the whole. Examples include social media networks, ecological webs, stock markets, and in Bassett’s case, the brain. Her research maps and analyzes the networks of neurons that enable all manners of cognitive abilities, as well as how those networks evolve during development or malfunction in disease.

The prize comes with an award of €50,000, or roughly $60,000. It will be formally presented to Bassett at a ceremony in Turin next week. Bassett is the first woman to be the sole recipient of the prize since its inception in 2008. Lada Adamic won it alongside Xavier Gabaix in 2012.

“Dani Bassett epitomizes what it means to be an engineer in the 21st century,” said Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering. “Her innovative work combines knowledge from disparate fields and transforms it, giving us a new window into longstanding problems in neuroscience as well as potential solutions to them. This prize puts Bassett in elite company among pioneers of new fields of research, and I’m proud that she calls Penn Engineering home.”

Bassett, who has appointments in Penn Engineering’s departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, is a leading figure in the nascent field of network neuroscience. The highly interdisciplinary field draws from network science — itself a combination of physics, mathematics, computer science, and engineering — and the biological and psychological principles involved in understanding the brain.

Using a technique known as quantitative anisotropy, diffusion MRI scans of the brain can produce these “wiring diagrams,” which depict the strength of structural fibers connecting pairs of brain regions.

As a network neuroscientist, Bassett searches for activation patterns in the brain’s hundreds of thousands of neurons, correlating pairs and sequences of neural firings to various traits and abilities. Her research provides a deeper understanding of how the brain’s physical organization, the networks of connections between regions and individual neurons, can influence cognitive functions like learning, multitasking and even creativity.

Observing the reorganization of those networks as children become adults can help explain how we develop “executive function,” and potentially aid people with deficits in self-control. Changes in activation patterns that precede an epileptic seizure can likewise predict which parts of the brain will be affected; future implants may even be able to quell such seizures at the first sign of that abnormal activity. More broadly, a network-science lens into the brain may allow other engineering principles, such as control theory, to be applied, paving the way for neurological or psychiatric treatments with fewer side effects.

Bassett has also received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, a Sloan Fellowship, an NSF CAREEER Award, and was named one of the Popular Science “Brilliant 10” in 2016 for her work in this field.