Directors' Message

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The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of data, intelligent systems, and computation. They have enabled rapid advances in scientists’ understanding of the disease and have shaped the public’s perception of it. At the same time, the pandemic has shined a spotlight on the gaps in our data, the inequities in medical outcomes, and the ubiquity of misinformation. The challenges faced in the pandemic highlight the importance of interdisciplinary discovery, problem solving, and application. I-DISC scholars represent just such an interdisciplinary approach.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of data, intelligent systems, and computation. Data dashboards have become a mainstay of pandemic-related communications, from the Johns Hopkins global COVID-19 map to the New York Times US case count to Lehigh’s own coronavirus dashboard.  and scientific data collected in laboratories, hospitals, and biotech firms have been disseminated with astonishing speed and openness. These data have been critical in the identification of COVID-19 hotspots and the rapid development of vaccines.

At the same time, the gaps in our data have been put into sharp relief. COVID-19 cases and deaths are likely underreported, especially in vulnerable communities, propagating further inequities in treatment. A lack of visibility into the supply chain for vaccines (and toilet paper!) has led to shortages and confusion. COVID-19 data have been misused and misrepresented, through carelessness or malicious intent, complicating the transformation of data into information. Every type of data is susceptible to misuse, but the mishandling of COVID-19 data has particularly severe consequences.

Rapid innovations in intelligent systems have assisted decision makers in the time of COVID-19. Mobile apps have facilitated contact tracing and health monitoring. Machine learning and artificial intelligence have been used to improve screening and treatment. Thanks to intelligent systems, we can schedule contactless appointments with our doctors using telehealth systems; we can order contactless delivery of food using grocery-delivery apps; we can make contactless purchases using mobile payment apps.

But “intelligent” systems, or their misuse, have also been responsible for significant failures. Stanford Medicine blamed an algorithm for the fact that many front-line workers were passed over in the first wave of vaccine distribution. The UK’s National Health System spent £22 billion on a test-and-trace system, only to scrap it due to low utilization rates and a failure to draw on international expertise.

Computational resources have been marshalled in the effort to fight the coronavirus. The 6.8 million cores in the COVID-19 High Performance Consortium have supported projects related to aerosol dispersion, population vulnerability, and drug discovery. Computational immunology is credited for the record speed at which successful vaccines have been produced. Researchers are using supercomputers to build high-resolution models of the 200 million atoms on the exterior of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

But computational power doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It relies on data, and science, and human expertise. The potential societal benefits of this research will be tempered by our willingness to listen to the recommendations of the experts who build and analyze the computational models, and by policy makers’ ability to communicate through a fog of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and bias. Like all great human endeavors, the fight against COVID-19 is an interdisciplinary one.

Researchers at Lehigh’s Institute for Data, Intelligent Systems, and Computation (I-DISC) are tackling a wide range of interdisciplinary challenges. These scholars are engineers and computer scientists, chemists and biologists, economists and sociologists, journalists and psychologists, mathematicians and epidemiologists. They come from 22 departments, representing all five of Lehigh’s colleges.

I-DISC faculty members are forecasting COVID-19 outbreaks and tracking tumor cells. They are making algorithms more humane and making robots more dexterous and perceptive. They are using quantum computers for complex optimization problems. They are optimizing power grids and mining medical data. They are ensuring the resilience of critical infrastructure. They are developing computational methods for identifying the building blocks of porous materials. They are rebuilding trust in visual media and combatting human trafficking. And they are building supercomputers to power it all.

The challenges faced in the COVID-19 pandemic highlight the importance of interdisciplinary discovery, problem solving, and application. I-DISC brings together scholars from diverse disciplines and supports the process of addressing a range of real-world challenges. 

Larry Snyder
Industrial and Systems Engineering, I-DISC Director

Kate Arrington
Psychology, I-DISC Associate Director

Brian D. Davison
Computer Science & Engineering, I-DISC Associate Director