One of the most prestigious scientific publications in the country, the New York Academy of Sciences magazine highlights the achievements of scientists and research institutions in the New York area.

I'm not in the least scientifically-inclined, but writing for the magazine has given me the opportunity to learn about wireless electricity transfer, the neurology of fruit flies, and the electrical impulses that drive the human brain. Finally, my high school chemistry teacher can stop being ashamed.

When Adam Cohen was in high school, his mother was not surprised to see him come home with a paper bag full of cockroaches. A budding scientist with an interest in the brain, Cohen wanted to study the sensitivity of the insects' antennae, and had secured the sack of roaches from a contact at the American Museum of Natural History.

"I took them home and I said 'Hey, look, Mom! Look what I got!'" he says. "She told me I could keep them, but if the cockroaches got out then I was going too."

Cohen, now 35, erected a security system around the cockroach cage and built himself a tiny operating theater to begin his experiments. As anesthesia he used carbon dioxide harvested from a bottle of seltzer, but the operation took longer than expected, and the seltzer soon went flat. "I had gotten halfway through the surgery on this poor cockroach and I had no more anesthetic," he says. "So the thing woke up on the operating table. Of course it was worse for the cockroach, but that was also very traumatic for me."


For their 2013 gala, the New York Academy of Sciences published a landmark survey of the state of academic research in the tri-state area. They commissioned me to write profiles of nine research institutions, focusing on topics like the University of Buffalo's development of nimble nanomaterials and Memorial-Sloan Kettering's newest approaches to cancer treatment.

It was a huge project, whose challenges included understanding scientific breakthroughs across a range of disciplines, and getting scientists and researchers to give good quotes. It also forced me to learn way more than I ever expected about big data, which ought to come in handy when the robots take over.

These profiles aren't available individually online, so here's one of them:

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
A High-Tech Home For Data Exploration

In the fall of 2012, as the storm that would become Hurricane Sandy was gaining strength in the Caribbean, one question was on the minds of residents up and down the eastern seaboard: where would the storm hit? On both sides of the Atlantic, weather analysts combed through massive amounts of data on the so-called superstorm, trying to predict its path. While American analysts expected the storm to graze the coast before turning harmlessly out towards see, the "European model" predicted that Sandy would head straight for New York and New Jersey. 

Thankfully, officials in those two states heeded this warning, and prepared accordingly. That the devastation wreaked by the storm was not far worse is a testament to data analysis. In an era when the amount of data at our fingertips is growing exponentially, it has never been more vital to know how to understand it. As the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy shows, reading data can sometimes be a matter of life and death.

"The U.S. and European models eventually converged," said Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute president Shirley Ann Jackson in a recent speech. "But, the Europeans got it right first, giving more time for those in Sandy’s path to prepare... no doubt saving lives. The difference in the early predictions lay with the strength of the analytical models and the computational power."

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in upstate New York, understands the importance of "big data" as well as any center of higher learning in the country. Since its founding in 1824, the nation's oldest technological research university has been at the forefront of innovation for nearly two centuries. In the University's first decades, its researchers worked to come to grips with the changes being wrought by the industrial revolution. This new frontier of data analysis is no less daunting—and just as important.

To meet this challenge, Rensselaer announced last month the formation of the Institute for Data Exploration and Applications (IDEA), a university-wide initiative to find new ways to understand and benefit from the ever-rising tide of information. It is an opportunity, Jackson said, for the university's researchers to take the reins of a "data-driven, supercomputer-powered, web-enabled, globally interconnected world." 

"Working across disciplines and sectors," she said, "they will apply powerful new tools and technologies to access, aggregate, and analyze data from multiple sources and in multiple formats, in order to address challenges and opportunities across the spectrum, including in basic research, environment and energy, water resources, health care and biomedicine, business and finance, public policy, and national security."

To meet these grand goals, IDEA will be anchored in six of the university's strongest areas: high-performance computing, web science, data science, network science, cognitive computing, and immersive technologies. At an institute already well known for its advances in supercomputers—including the CCNI supercomputing center, and the IBM Watson computer which became famous for dominating human opponents on Jeopardy!—IDEA is a natural fit. Vice president for research Jonathan Dordick called Rensselaer, "a leader in the fundamentals and applications of computation science."

"With the formation of the Rensselaer IDEA," he continued, "we will innovate new data-driven solutions to important and complex challenges facing every family, every community, and every nation."

First projects for IDEA include collaborating with Mount Sinai to develop better healthcare analytics, in order to help realize the dream of personalized medicine—when every level of treatment, from diagnosis to lifestyle advisement, is personally tailored to the patient through DNA analysis. Working with the Center for Architecture Science & Ecology, IDEA will be analyzing data necessary to design urban footprints with zero net energy, and a self-regulating "building biome." And because any mention of big data raises concerns about online privacy, IDEA will tackle the question of cybersecurity, looking for ways that information can be used without being abused. 

“From improving health care, to environmental stewardship, to creating new educational technologies, researchers at Rensselaer are known internationally for using data science to attack some of the world’s most pressing problems,” said James Hendler, head of the Rensselaer Department of Computer Science. “The Rensselaer IDEA will create a collaborative space where our faculty and students can explore the intersections of different leading-edge data research, and then use what they find to jump-start new programs, products, and companies. A key focus of the IDEA is data-driven innovation, which builds on the Rensselaer legacy of pushing forward the frontiers of basic science and changing the world with outstanding inventions and applications.” 

Although located upstate, Rensselaer has close relationships with a number of organizations based in the city, including CASE and Mt. Sinai. Mayor Bloomberg's support for the sciences, said Jackson, has made possible the sort of innovation that IDEA hopes to build on. 

“Attention goes to that which we value," she said. "Mayor Bloomberg clearly understands the extraordinary value and transformational capacity of scientific discovery and technological innovation. His focused attention has helped spark, enable, and expedite a more robust innovation ecosystem; one that fosters collaborations among the business, academic, and government sectors, and is an attractor of talent and bold ideas.”