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Dome - Science of Disaster

February 2011

Science of Disaster

Date: February 7, 2011

A new center uses sophisticated computer simulation and modeling to predict the impact of natural and manmade catastrophes and how best to respond to them.


If there’s a disaster or terrorist scenario, it’s likely that Joshua Epstein has developed a computer-based model showing its impact and most effective response.
If there’s a disaster or terrorist scenario, it’s likely that Joshua Epstein has developed a computer-based model showing its impact and most effective response.

The situation begins this way: A toxic chemical plume spirals skyward and slowly blossoms into a lethal cloud headed for the heart of downtown Los Angeles.

Residents, workers and tourists try to flee the metro area by car, and the city’s taxed road system falls quickly into gridlock. Stuck in cars with virtually no protection from the fumes that are engulfing the city, thousands sit vulnerable to serious illness, if not death.

Of course, this all sounds like grist for the latest Hollywood calamity movie. But in fact, it’s the subject of the groundbreaking computer-simulation work of Joshua Epstein, an internationally recognized pioneer in agent-based computational modeling. In this field, scientists create entire virtual worlds and populate them with “agents” who act like real people. The purpose: so that scenarios such as this one can be mined for solutions to their potential, real-life equivalents.

These days, Epstein, a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and winner of a prestigious NIH Pioneer Award, is busy leveraging his growing renown in the science community to launch what promises to be one of the nation’s most advanced computer simulation centers: the Johns Hopkins University Center for Advanced Modeling in the Social, Behavioral and Health Sciences, or as it’s called generally by those in the field, CAM.

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By simulating the agents’ multiple actions and interactions, Epstein’s models can help predict how complex societies and health systems might respond to a given event and what the ripple effects might be as a scenario unfolds.

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Epstein, who joined the Hopkins faculty July 1 as a professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine and holds joint appointments in the departments of Economics, Biostatistics, and Environmental Health Sciences, says the launch of the center will make Hopkins a leader in groundbreaking research and work in the area. He brings with him multiple federal and other research grants in his new role as the center’s director.
With some of the nation’s top experts in emergency medicine, disaster health, social behavior, supercomputing and economics, says Epstein, the center will move agent-based modeling in new directions. Its external network includes leading universities, supercomputing groups, research institutes and scholars, including two Nobel laureates.

The center’s simulation models are “highly visual and spatially realistic,” says Epstein, with agents moving between virtual places such as work, school, home and even places far away. They respond just as people would to real or imagined threats, such as an infectious-disease outbreak or a toxic spill.

By simulating the agents’ multiple actions and interactions—which are often driven by fear, poor judgment and imperfect information—Epstein’s models can help predict how complex societies and health systems might respond to a given event and what the ripple effects might be as a scenario unfolds.

Indeed, the center’s primary goal “will be to develop practical, novel scientific solutions,” he says, to the many complex medical, social and institutional problems that society faces today.

Gabor Kelen, director of the Department of Emergency Medicine, says he recruited Epstein to the department because he is a preeminent leader in the field.

Epstein also will provide the Johns Hopkins’ community, Kelen says, with a rich new source of learning and research opportunities in this field that holds great potential for resolving some of the most challenging issues of our time. In addition, Kelen says, Epstein and the center will help Hopkins continue to expand its leadership position in the new discipline of disaster health.

The center will integrate the latest research findings in emergency medicine, disaster health, and the behavioral and social sciences to develop sophisticated models for pandemics, chronic diseases, natural and manmade disasters, civil unrest, economic turbulence and other social challenges that could potentially affect large numbers of people and crucial segments of the economy.

Epstein and Kelen say an early focus of the center will be to bring together a wide range of scholars from across the university—including the schools of public health and medicine—to work on projects that could lead to advances in the science of disaster medicine, disaster response, public health preparedness, chronic disease and more.

—Mark Guidera

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