Building Bridges Across Disciplines
Thinking and working across disciplinary boundaries is second nature for Diane Souvaine, the new vice provost for research at Tufts. Fresh from a double major in English and mathematics at Harvard, she began her career teaching math and English at a private high school in New Hampshire.
Sometimes she’d encounter students who were struggling with English, but thriving in 10th-grade geometry. To help them become better writers, she’d urge them to draw on their ability to do logical proofs of geometric principles to craft better-organized papers. Likewise, for students who did well in English but were confounded by mathematics, she would draw on their strength in language to help them find new ways to reframe math problems.
Since then, she has continued to work across traditional academic boundaries, applying her theoretical expertise to applied problems, encouraging collaborative research and pursuing innovative methods of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) outreach.
Souvaine, a professor of computer science in the School of Engineering, brings those collaborative skills to her new position. She was appointed to the job on Nov. 28, taking over the position formerly held by Peggy Newell.
“My new job is to foster, support and coordinate the research activities of the entire university, to build connections among researchers within the university, and beyond the university with our affiliates and with funding sources,” she says. “I have to make sure that we meet the legal and moral protocols for our research, and that we spend our research dollars wisely and efficiently. But the fun part of my job is that I get to go all over the place, meeting incredibly talented, dedicated and creative researchers across the extended Tufts community, and help them do what they love. And I get to do this with the partnership of a fabulous staff.” Her responsibilities also include encouraging and coordinating collaborative work among researchers on Tufts’ three campuses in Medford/Somerville, Boston and Grafton.
It is not an unfamiliar kind of task. While on the faculty at Rutgers University, she was one of the founders of the National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science (DIMACS), a collaborative of 135 scientists working out of Rutgers, Princeton University, Bell Labs and Bellcore.
“The strength of that center depended on our ability to collaborate across those sites and to lure visitors from across the world to partner in the creation of innovative and exciting research,” says Souvaine, who was acting associate director and acting director of DIMACS from 1992 to 1994.
Souvaine’s own research in computational geometry is primarily theoretical in nature. Yet she has worked with many collaborators to customize her work so that it can be used to solve problems in any number of domains. Among the list of projects and problems she has been addressing in her career are nanomanufacturing, materials engineering, computer chip fabrication, musical analysis and art gallery security. In 2002, she partnered with Karen Duca, then an assistant professor at Tufts, to use robust statistical methods to analyze results from a patient study at McLean Hospital. She currently has a joint grant with Associate Professor Hyunmin Yi of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering in geometric self-assembly of nanoparticles.
“If you think about it, the world we live in is geometric,” she says. “Many of our problems can be approached geometrically. And many other problems involving data can be expressed and then solved geometrically. Computational geometry contributes to new, robust statistical techniques that can be used broadly across disciplines,” she says.
Souvaine grew up in Reading, Mass., and looked beyond boundaries by entering fields—first mathematics and then the nascent field of computer science—where women were a distinct minority. When officials at Harvard would not allow her to major in English and mathematics simultaneously, she simply found other officials and worked out a solution. She received her doctorate in computer science from Princeton and was a professor at Rutgers for 12 years before coming to Tufts in 1998. She chaired the Tufts Department of Computer Science from 2002 to 2009, holds an adjunct appointment in the Department of Mathematics in the School of Arts and Sciences, and served as an adjunct professor of Tisch College from 2008 to 2012.
In 2008, Souvaine was appointed by President George W. Bush to a six-year term on the National Science Board (NSB), an independent advisory panel that counsels the president and Congress and serves as the oversight and policymaking agency for the National Science Foundation. At present, she serves on the NSB Executive Committee, and chairs the NSB Committee on Programs and Plans.
At Tufts, she co-founded the Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics Scholars program in 2002; the First-Year Scholars program, also in 2002; and in 2006, the Institute on Problem Solving and Discrete Mathematics, which trains middle and high school teachers to use logical thinking and real-world problems to make math more accessible to their students.
Souvaine is also a recipient of Tufts University’s Lillian and Joseph Leibner Award for Outstanding Teaching and Advising. Over her nearly 15 years at Tufts, she has collaborated with more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students.
As vice provost, she will be dividing her time between offices on the Boston and Medford/Somerville campuses, with biweekly trips to Grafton. “I think it’s an exciting time to be at Tufts,” she says. “Between the overall growth in research that’s happened at Tufts over the last 10 years, and President Tony Monaco and Provost David Harris launching the university’s strategic plan, it’s a wonderful opportunity not only to celebrate the successes we’ve had, but to look at how Tufts can perform path-breaking research that will have an impact on the community and the world.”