The Consummate Social Sciences Collaborator
Whether leading his own research or partnering with others, Shyam Ranganathan, assistant professor of statistics in the Virginia Tech College of Science, is the ultimate collaborator.
“I believe that the most fun aspect of working in Statistics today, is that there is an intellectual vibrancy that allows us to collaborate on interesting problems going beyond narrow ‘silo-based’ definitions of what a scientific field should be. At Virginia Tech, it is especially encouraging that institutes like ISCE support exactly this kind of broad collaboration to solving complex problems,” Ranganathan said.
With degrees in mathematics and engineering as well as one in journalism, Ranganathan has the perfect skill set to provide expertise in mathematical and statistical modeling on a wide range of topics.
During his three years at Virginia Tech, Ranganathan has worked with faculty from multiple disciplines, including engineering, economics, public health and sociology, to name just a few, making innovative and important methodological contributions to their projects. Several of these initial projects have been supported by ISCE funding, either through the Scholars Program or other mechanisms.
Upon arrival at Virginia Tech, and growing out of work from his dissertation on sustainable development paradigms, Ranganathan collaborated with colleagues in Sweden, examining sustainable development goals in various countries.
“We found that as countries became richer, based on the statistics of historical development, they often became less environmentally friendly. In fact, many times the environmental and economic goals they set for themselves were mutually contradictory. We are analyzing how the sustainable development goals are interlinked, so as to ensure global programs have maximum impact,” Ranganathan explained.
This strand of research led to partnering with Ralph Hall, associate professor of urban affairs and planning in the School of Public and International Affairs, who is also interested in sustainability, participatory economics and inclusive capitalism. Ranganathan and Hall are collaborating on a project that studies multi-use water systems in Nepal with doctoral student, Raj Kumar, who collected data onsite for the study for over six months; they are currently analyzing that data.
Earlier in 2019, Ranganathan and Hall were key participants at the first Conference on Endogenous Growth, Participatory Economics, and Capitalism organized at Oxford University. They are now putting together a team to submit a research proposal to the National Science Foundation and other funding agencies for later this year.
Methodologically, Ranganathan is interested in modeling complex, highly-structured data, such as time series data, spatio-temporal data and network data; thus, he gets excited by a broad range of topics and societal problems that these techniques can be applied to.
He has partnered with Julia Gohlke, associate professor of population health sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine on two projects, both focused on birth outcomes. Their first project, funded by the Global Change Center and ISCE, examined heat exposure and its relationship to pre-term birth and low birth weight using spatio-temporal modeling.
“If you look at the state of Virginia as a whole, you can see a small, overall effect due to confounding with various socio-economic and county-level factors; but if you zero in on certain areas, these effects become clearer. We use hierarchical models to disentangle these factors and obtain an efficient model,” Ranganathan said.
This research is related to the second project with Gohlke, a current National Institutes of Health study that is exploring adverse birth outcomes in Central Appalachia and their possible relationship to surface mining. Colleagues Leigh-Anne Krometis from Biological Systems Engineering, Korine Kolivras from Geography and Linsey Marr from Civil and Environmental Engineering are also co-investigators.
In addition to these projects, Ranganathan has collaborated with James Hawdon, a professor of sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, who studies the proliferation of online extremism, both in the U.S. and internationally. Their partnership has led to a 2018 National Science Foundation grant with Ranganathan serving as the principal investigator and Hawdon, Scotland Leman from Statistics and Peter Hauck from Computer Science as co-investigators.
In this project, Ranganathan is using spatio-temporal topic flows to forecast threats due to “information warfare” that lead to polarization of American citizens. According to Ranganathan, information warfare refers to the “manipulation of information consumed by Americans with the goal of influencing their opinions.”
As Ranganathan explained, “these attacks are aimed at increasing the threat of social destabilization, civil unrest and physical violence. Information diffused on social media is an important means by which this polarization increases and spreads through society.”
Ranganathan plans to build algorithms to develop threat forecasting models by looking at information diffusion patterns from Twitter data. The goal, Ranganathan said, “is to learn more about how to measure, predict and mitigate the threats resulting from extreme polarization.”
These projects are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many others that Ranganathan has been a part of including one focused on self-injurious behavior among autistic children, food equity and access in college campuses, and modeling the interlinkages between global trade and finance networks. These projects further illustrate how Ranganathan’s collaborative temperament, broad interests, statistical expertise, and intellectual curiosity make him the consummate collaborator.