Venkat Venkatasubramanian | Understanding Self-Organization, Emergence, and Complexity

Venkat Venkatasubramanian
Samuel Ruben-Peter G. Viele Professor of Engineering
in the Department of Chemical Engineering

When Venkat Venkatasubramanian investigates a complex system—anywhere from understanding the inner workings of chemical plants and power grids to researching the systemic failure of failed institutions—the computational theorist likes to take a holistic approach. It is equally important to understand how a complex system operates as a whole, explains Venkatasubramanian, as it is to dissect its many parts.

As opposed to following a so-called reductionist model when conducting his research, Venkatasubramanian is more interested in taking on an integrative approach in understanding and managing these complex systems.

“Many of the challenges we face in health care, climate change and sustainability, and so on, are problems that require an integrative approach utilizing system-wide thinking,” says Venkatasubramanian. “How do we go from understanding the behavior of the parts to predicting the behavior of the whole? This is the central question in understanding how complex systems self-organize, adapt, and behave. For example, this is central to addressing the neuron-to-mind-to-behavior question. An integrative theory based on systems engineering principles is going to be an essential component in solving this important and challenging puzzle.”

This line of research, and the opportunity to collaborate with world-class faculty in related disciplines at Columbia, is what drew Venkatasbubramanian to Columbia Engineering in 2012 from Purdue University, where he taught for 22 years. As the Samuel Ruben-Peter G. Viele Professor of Engineering in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Venkatasubramanian’s expertise is in modeling and managing risk in complex systems, particularly systemic risk. While his research his deeply theoretical, he works closely with practitioners in industry and business.

Venkatasubramanian has recently launched a new transdisciplinary center at the School—Center for the Management of Systemic Risk (CMSR)—to further pursue this research at Columbia. The new Center, which he is co-directing with Professor David D. Yao, the Piyasombatkul Family Professor of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research, has about two dozen faculty and researchers from the Engineering School, sociology department, statistics department, the Journalism School, Columbia Business School, and the Mailman School of Public Health.

Venkatasubramanian is primarily interested in understanding the basic laws that govern self-organization and a property known as emergence in complex systems. Citing the human gestation period as an example of this, he notes, “Think about it. It is one of the most complex systems that exists out there and the whole thing is self-assembled. There is no one directing traffic inside the womb. There are a million things that can go wrong, but often they don’t. So how does self-organization work in this system and in others? I believe understanding self-organization and emergent behavior, at all levels,” he says, “is perhaps the most important problem for 21st century science.”

A native of Chennai, India, Venkatasubramanian is returning to Morningside Heights for his second stint at Columbia. From 1985 to 1988, shortly after completing post-doctoral work in artificial intelligence at Carnegie Mellon, he was an assistant professor at the Engineering School. At Columbia, he developed the first course in a relatively new area in chemical engineering at the time that focused on artificial intelligence and process engineering.

The interdisciplinary nature of Venkatasubramanian’s research reflects his diverse background. He describes himself as “part physicist, part chemical engineer, and part computer scientist.” After earning his BS in chemical engineering from University of Madras, he completed his master’s in theoretical physics from Vanderbilt and earned his PhD in chemical engineering at Cornell.

At the Engineering School, Venkatasubramanian’s research will also have a focus on big data, studying how machine learning methodologies can be exploited for the discovery and design of novel materials for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

BS, University of Madras (India), 1977; MS, Vanderbilt University, 1979; PhD, Cornell University, 1984

-By Melanie A. Farmer

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