The Science of Self-Defense

Yeshiva University Faculty Receive Grants from U.S. Department of Defense Agency 

Two Yeshiva University faculty members have been awarded grants by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the United States Department of Defense’s official Combat Support Agency for countering weapons of mass destruction.

Sergey Buldyrev
Dr. Sergey Buldyrev’s grant analyzes the catastrophic cascade of failures in interdependent networks.

Dr. Sergey Buldyrev, professor of physics at Yeshiva College, is a principal investigator on a multi-year $450,000 grant analyzing the catastrophic cascade of failures in interdependent networks. Picture the connections between power grids, waterworks, Internet cables and other systems—if one part of one system goes down, it initiates a domino effect on each network it’s connected to, taking others down with it. “Supposing a terrorist attacks a certain power station—they’re smart enough to find the one most likely to cause a computer shutdown, which could shut off control of gas or water,” said Buldyrev. “Everything could shut down. This catastrophic collapse of infrastructure—the ‘cascade of failures’—is what people imagine when they think about what might happen at the end of the world.”

Using simulated computer models, Buldyrev and his collaborators at Boston University and Bar-Ilan University seek to anticipate where and how these cascades might begin by understanding the interdependence of the many different networks that service the basic everyday needs of modern society. “We have to understand what would happen if certain nodes were attacked and how to design more resilient infrastructures which could sustain such an attack,” he said. “You need to find out the best optimal strategy in terms of how to protect your nodes, which nodes you want to protect first and which you can’t protect at all. So far we’ve found that the more interdependent networks you have, the more vulnerable your system is.”

While Buldyrev’s research will be primarily used for military needs, he noted that it has applications to epidemiology and finance as well; the same theory that could protect the U.S. from a terrorist strike could also inform decisions about how to stop the spread of Ebola or prevent a market collapse like that of 2008. Undergraduate students at Yeshiva College have assisted Buldyrev with his study. “They learn programming, modeling of complex networks and how to work on the high performance computational cluster in addition to gaining many other skills which will be important for their future careers no matter which path they take,” said Buldyrev.

Dr. Anatoly Frenkel, professor of physics at Stern College for Women and co-chair of the physics department, will serve as co-principal investigator on a one-year, $195,000 grant to improve materials used to protect soldiers from chemical warfare in the field.

“In war, because they could be exposed to chemical agents, soldiers breathe through masks with special filters that will treat these agents,” said Frenkel. “There are two ways to disable the warfare agent: to absorb it, making sure it doesn’t penetrate the filter and by extension the soldier’s airstream, or for the filter itself to have catalytic properties that would decompose the agent into harmless molecules. My role is to help the chemists who design the filter material understand if and how it’s working.”

Anatoly Frenkel, right, with students
Dr. Anatoly Frenkel, right, with students, is improving materials used to protect soldiers from chemical warfare.

In collaboration with scientists from Virginia Tech, Emory University and Kennesaw State University, Frenkel will study the impact of simulated warfare agents on different filter materials. He will employ a special technique called “X-ray absorption,” in which X-rays are beamed at the filter so their interaction with metallic components within the filter—thought to be responsible for the filter’s capacity to decompose agents—can be studied. To improve their understanding of these interactions, Frenkel and his team will study them “in situ,” without removing the filter from real conditions.

“The nature of my technique is that it gives us the opportunity to selectively study a very small minority of the filter that is composed of metal atoms, which is important because they are the ones that are active for the filter function,” said Frenkel. “We look at the nature of the activity—how does it absorb or decompose the molecules? Why do some materials work better than others? I can help the chemists get new results, which eventually can help them design new materials.”

Stern students will be able to assist Frenkel with his research through summer internships. If the grant is productive, it may be renewed for multiple years.

“The Natural Sciences Division is very proud of the professors for having secured support from the DTRA agency, demonstrating the level of research that is done at Yeshiva University in this important area,” said Dr. Gabriel Cwilich, chair of the division. “Since training students in research is a crucial part of their education for future careers in the sciences and medicine, we are glad that funding agencies like DTRA are helping us make those goals possible.”