Faculty Research: Isenberg Professor Coleads $2.4 Million Cross-Disciplinary NSF Risk Project
April 10, 2020
“Today, we’re witnessing the effects of the coronavirus on the stock market, the costs of production and distribution, and oil, gas, and food prices,” says Mila Getmansky Sherman, a professor in Isenberg’s Department of Finance, explaining why catastrophic events are best examined from multiple academic perspectives.
Sherman is coleader of a new $2.4 million National Science Foundation–funded project that aims to improve the systems allowing for cross-discipline collaboration. Her project, called the Predictive Risk Investigation System for Multilayer Dynamic Interconnection Analysis (PRISM), emerged from an NSF initiative calling for research on “Harnessing the Data Revolution.” PRISM pools the expertise of ten senior researchers across disciplines including data science, statistics, computer science, energy, hydrology, ecology, agriculture, finance, climate, and space weather with the goal of identifying and measuring risk factors that can lead to catastrophic events. Each of the researchers hails from a different institution, including, among others, Cornell, Columbia, Penn State, Cal San Diego, Tufts, and the Lincoln Park Zoo (in Chicago).*
“You gain surprising insights when experts from different domains pool their perspectives,” says Sherman, pointing out the web of interconnected factors that led to a 1989 electricity blackout of much of the Northeast U.S. and Canada. While the immediate cause was a tripped circuit in the Hydro-Quebec power grid, an unusually harsh snowstorm had taxed the region a week earlier. The day before that, a solar flare and accompanying release of plasma and a magnetic field jump-started the ensuing events by hurtling a mountain of energy toward Earth at a million miles an hour. “To understand these events,” notes Sherman, “you need to understand the complex interactions among the interconnected systems—environmental science, space weather, and solar activity.
“As a finance professor, I get the business implications of a failing electrical grid,” she continues. “But I would never have fathomed that solar flares or, in another scenario, squirrels chewing on wires might set such mishaps in motion. For those insights, I turn to colleagues from other disciplines.” What Sherman does bring to the table is savvy about how risks can play out in interconnected economies and financial systems. To that end, she has written extensively on systemic financial risk, including the causes and effects of the 2008 financial crisis.
Data Across Disciplines
To connect the cross-disciplinary dots, the team must mine, clean, and ultimately synthesize a wealth of data from different domains. One of the team’s aims is to create a large, interactive data library. Assembling large data sets will call for considerable data mining and machine learning, Sherman explains. “Among other things, it can help us to understand nonlinear relationships across disciplines.”
At the start of the project, the PRISM group reached out to experts in ecology, energy, and agricultural domains in order to make sure that their goals were aligned with solving the most relevant and applied problems in those fields. Sherman and her teammates continue to meet online weekly to brainstorm and explore research strategies.
Sherman got involved when the NSF invited scholars and specialists for a week of brainstorming and group gestation. “It was like the Dating Game, with strangers gravitating to eight groups, each of which came up with project ideas, which they presented to the others.” In the end, Sherman’s group proved the largest (ten group members) and the most diverse (five men and five women). The group’s size and gender make-up, she wagers, should broaden its perspectives and resources. Sherman learned about the NSF initiative from Scott Auerbach, a UMass Amherst chemistry professor, who encouraged her to apply. “It is fitting,” she remarks, “that a professor far from my field would recommend this uniquely multidisciplinary opportunity.”
*PRISM project participants represent Cornell, Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society; the University of Kentucky; Pennsylvania State University; the Lincoln Park Zoo; the University of Massachusetts Amherst; Tufts University; the University of California, San Diego; the University of Minnesota; and Atmospheric Space and Space Technology Research Associates, in Boulder, Colorado.