The Social Networker
By Sarah-Jane CollinsApril 4, 2012
Melbourne University’s Pip Pattison studies social networks — not the ones on the internet but the ones in our lives. And she’s also a deputy Vice Chancellor, mother and lover of maths.
When it spreads, disease jumps around in a manner that can appear random — almost haphazard. Sometimes it's airborne, sometimes it's transmitted through contact — breath, the exchange of bodily fluids. Sometimes a third party — a buzzing, bloodsucking mosquito, for instance — will insert itself into the process, spreading contagion from one host to another. It is fluid, often fast-moving, and when an outbreak happens, it can be hard to contain.
But the progress of an outbreak, an infection or an epidemic can be mapped using statistical modelling, which allows those reacting to a public health problem to target treatment, vaccinating those most at risk of infection first, instead of trying to reach the entire community at once.
Disease spreads through recognised social networks, and it will follow the patterns of the network in which it first takes hold. This allows researchers to produce statistical models that can tell public health officials where they need to be directing resources during an outbreak.
That modelling and the principles that underpin it have been the life work of Melbourne University professor Pip Pattison — who perhaps developed a fascination with social networks because as a child, hers were ever changing.
"I grew up in Perth… my father worked at a company that moved around quite a lot. Then we moved to Adelaide and to Melbourne and back to Perth," Pattison says.
"I don't know if you've read The Shark Net, the Robert Drewe book. [In it] they were transferred to Perth and he described growing up in Perth at that time, a father who had a similar job to mine, living in a similar area to mine — it was almost my life on paper, it was extraordinary."
Eventually her family settled on Melbourne, and Pattison finished school and went on to Melbourne University — where she has remained ever since.
The university's 1960s administration building is home to a suite of offices with an exemplary view. Look out to the south across the sweep of Melbourne's city towards that calm grey bay, or north to Brunswick and Coburg, the flat once-industrial sprawl. Just next-door is the 1850s sandstone quadrangle, a stark contrast with the imposing "slab block". It's called the Raymond Priestley Building — after the university's first salaried Vice Chancellor — and on the ninth floor Pattison, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic), is working late into the afternoon.
Her sons, she says, would tell me she works 20 hours a day. "They'll say I start work at 4 o'clock and don't stop 'til midnight, which is not true but they like to put that about because they think I work too much." Later, Pattison's colleague, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Global Engagement) Sue Elliott, tells me much the same thing.
"She rises very early, goes for a walk and she always seems to be on email until late into the evening."
Pattison, by all reports, works hard. Turning 60 this month, she has been at Melbourne University her entire career. Despite her administrative role, Pattison, a mathematician and psychologist, is still researching, combining both fields in her study of social networks.
She finds the patterns that connect people to each other and uses those to predict and model how we transfer things — disease, information, power — to one another.
"All of the work that I've done has combined mathematical approaches with social and behavioural sciences, so it's a bit unusual," Pattison says. "I quickly got interested in social networks, the patterns of connections amongst people, which are very important to how social processes actually occur and what implications that might have."
Her research has ranged from the Melbourne intravenous drug-taking community to the relationships between the various powerful families in renaissance Florence. The application of the basic principle — that relationships have patterns reflected across all levels of society, you just have to know what to look for — has been extended even to work with the CSIRO tracking the behaviour of cattle.
It was while working on that project that Pattison realised humans and cows form similar social networks, making friends and sticking with them through life. "There are some remarkable similarities actually… they've got their preferences for other cows and they hang out in groups," Pattison says.
But the serious side, the practical usefulness of the research allows health officials to track the spread of disease, and, it is hoped, anticipate it with some certainty.
"We're working at the moment on models for the spread of the Hepatitis B virus, which is primarily spread through needle-sharing," she explains. "You can use that model to understand how disease is spread in the community, but more importantly you can use that model to look at, if we intervene, how will that affect the spread of the disease? So you can understand how to most effectively offer interventions that might serve to arrest the disease."
Public health officials could use the modelling to determine who is most at risk of contracting the disease, and vaccinate accordingly.
That kind of modelling would be particularly useful in a pandemic, or when any disease with a limited stock of treatment available takes hold in the community. Instead of attempting to limit the spread of something fast-moving, such as the swine flu outbreak of 2009, through blanket vaccination programs, medicine could go where it is expected to be needed most.
"It's hard to get to everyone, but if you can choose to intervene at much more critical points you can be more successful," Pattison says.
Mathematical patterns and problems are Pattison's passion, and she has held on to her research role despite a long parallel career as an administrator within the university.
Sue Elliott thinks Pattison also has applied her research to her management style, allowing her to use her knowledge of human interactions in the very tricky task of organizing academics.
"I think it's helped her very significantly and probably more than we're even aware, in that I'm sure it informs some of her strategic planning and decision-making," she says.
Over the years Pattison has been intimately involved in some of the university's more controversial and complex changes. As president of Academic Board, she was in the thick of the transition of Melbourne from a traditional Australian university with a broad suite of undergraduate qualifications, to a new structure — dubbed the Melbourne Model — that saw six undergraduate courses take the place of hundreds of specific degrees, and a shift to specialist post-graduate degrees.
Elliott says the negotiations with staff can't have been easy.
"Challenges become opportunities when Pip deals with them," she says. "I often think that in another person's hands it could have gone terribly awry, but Pip was able to take on this massive task of changing all the university's academic policies that needed to happen for the Melbourne Model and do so in a calm, methodical, systematic way. "
The other big change at Melbourne in the past decade was the merger of the Victorian College of the Arts and the faculty of music, creating the Victorian College of Arts and Music. Elliott says Pattison was a key driver of that merger.
"Her major role… bringing them together into one, was a very challenging role for all sorts of reasons. I think her knowledge of interactions and how to put networks together to create an effective and cohesive network, I'm sure is informed by her research," she says.
But the whole time, she has continued to contribute to the university's social networks research program. Colleague Garry Robins says her input is vital to the work of the research team and she is still an active participant.
"She's always been very dedicated and she's always brought a lot of careful thought to what she does… a lot of creative mathematical thought. She comes up with some very good and novel ideas," he says.
Robins, who has worked with Pattison since she transitioned from algebraic modelling to statistical modelling, says her point of view is always refreshing.
Although the two have worked together only for the past 15 years or so, Robins says he has known Pattison for decades and that she achieved international recognition from early in her career.
Pattison completed her undergraduate studies at Melbourne in 1973. In 1977 she received a fellowship to visit Harvard University in the United States and in 1998 she spent a year at Columbia University as a visiting adjunct professor.
"[Initially] Pip concentrated more on algebraic models, not statistical models for social networks but then moved into it… She had quite a reputation [for the algebraic models] and her early work attracted people at Harvard and others," Robins says.
Sociologist Harrison White, now at Columbia University, began mapping social networks in the 1960s and led the field in research involving patterns within groupings.
"Harrison White, who was a big player at Harvard, invited her to visit just on the basis of her work that he'd seen — I don't think he'd met her. That was a terrific compliment. She developed an established reputation quite early and subsequently moved into statistical models."
Pattison has received numerous awards, including the Australian Psychological Society's early career award in 1988. In 1995 she was made a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. She also has taken on a number of advisory positions, and currently she sits on the board of the Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health.
"I think that one of the most important things that I have learnt from Pip is that, we don't always agree on things, but she tries very hard to proceed on a principled basis… looking at it from what is a good thing to do and proceeding on that basis," Robins says. "While she can be pragmatic, she's also quite principled, and scientifically that can be very important."
Robins too reports Pattison is a workaholic.
"She finds it very hard to say no, and what it means is she works very hard and achieves a lot. But it does take a toll," he says.
Pattison will celebrate her 40th wedding anniversary in 2013. She met her husband, Ian, while studying at Melbourne, and has juggled studying, research, teaching, children and a growing administrative burden ever since.
"My first son was born up in Cobar (west of Dubbo in central New South Wales) and I can remember sitting there — quite bizarrely we lived out of town at this abandoned gold mine — and staring across the Mallee scrub with my baby and a book thinking, how did I get here?" she says.
Ian was working as a metallurgist there, and the family had moved temporarily to the NSW town. Even then, she was still attached to the university, and when they returned to Melbourne she continued to teach and research.
Pattison says she knows not all women are able to wear so many hats, for a number of reasons, and she acknowledges her own good fortune.
"I had a colleague in the department of psychology who was asked to be head of department — this would have been when my kids were very small so maybe almost 30 years ago now — and she turned it down. She said, 'I would have done it if I had a wife.' And I think that sums it up rather well."
Pattison tells that story with a rueful chuckle, and a nod to the idea that research and university administration have not always been accessible for women.
"If you look at academic careers in a broad sweep — and I've actually done some analysis on this — the point at which people often drop out is in those early years where the pressure is at its greatest often. I think realistically people want to spend time with their families… That's when systems have to be ready to step in and help and give people a bit of breathing space to get through that."
But she says there are women who really thrive once they pass the stage of having a young family.
"The very thing you notice is, when you look at women's careers at large at the university, immediately after that period when the children are young… they often just get the most amazing amount done in a really short period of time," she says, stopping to make the point that perhaps that's because as mothers, they've learnt to be excellent time managers.
It's obviously something Pattison has thought a bit about, and she says that universities still have work to do to level the field. But then, probably not surprisingly given her research interests, she brings up a pattern of behaviour.
"If you ask people whether they can solve a problem and then ask them to solve it, girls actually get it about right. So their level of confidence is about right. Boys often are more confident than their performance would suggest is appropriate.
"That level of being willing to tackle the world, it's actually really a powerful positive thing to believe you can do things when you really can't. So it's a difficult thing to try and get women to believe they can — what we're really trying to do is make them overconfident in the short term."
And not just make women confident, Pattison wants to see them coming to science and maths in greater numbers too.
"I think we can do more to present science through the educational system in ways that are more appealing to girls then the way we often currently present it. There are lots of applications of maths which I find truly fascinating. And then there are the ones we did when I was at school," she says.
Still mathematics was her favourite subject at school, and what she always knew she wanted to study at university.
"Around the middle years of secondary school we were in Adelaide and I was at a school that had a lot of teachers that had PhDs and had come from Europe, and I think they actually had a remarkable effect on me.
"They had a level of challenging students and that's exactly what they did. They had a small group of students who were interested in maths, and they had these problems that they had us working on and I guess they were interested in doing things that went beyond the curriculum."
So at university she signed up for maths immediately, but came across psychology almost by accident. When I ask Pattison if she would change anything, do anything in her life differently, she immediately answers no and launches into the story of how she came to study psychology.
"One of the things we're interested in is the quality of the advice we give to students, because when you have a conversation with someone about what subjects to choose and what course to take it can have quite a powerful affect on your life.
"I often tell the story of when I came to university I wanted to study maths, and I was enrolling in science and I thought I'd do some physics and I thought I'd do some French because I enjoyed the humanities.
"But I encountered someone on my first day at university who said: 'French? You want to do French? That's a stupid choice, you should do chemistry.' So I had this back and forth with this woman… and I just looked down and said, 'Oh, I'll do psychology then.' And so that sort of random choice — you think, 'Maybe I would have done something different' — but even if I'd done French, I think I would have wound up in linguistics and then mathematical linguistics which is not very far away."
Those little interactions, the ones that, looking back, define a moment that sets your course, they happen to us all. Pattison, whose research is all about connections, joining the dots from one person to another through a field of many, obviously has thought a lot about the moments that shaped her.
"I think you can often look back on your life and see that there actually were critical moments where you made a choice. We like to think of ourselves as independent agents making decisions but I think that often there's a situation or a person who was having an influence of some sort — and certainly there's been some powerful forces for good in my life," she says.
"When I think about the way in which I build models of the world and I think about my own life, those sorts of things come together and we're very much acting in a situation that's rich in relationships and ideas and — it's not that we're bounded by them — but they have an influence."
You get the sense talking to Pattison that there is little in our own private worlds that is not influenced by those around us. And that's both comforting and strange.
Leaving the office after six on a Thursday, there don't appear to be many people left in the Raymond Priestly building, and there are few lights on around the place. But Pattison has settled back in at her desk and does not seem in any hurry to leave.
Perhaps, I think, her sons might be on to something.