Catastrophic events occur in various fields and at various levels. Examples include earthquakes, stock market crashes and, for individuals, the onset of diseases such as cancer. If we could understand the critical transitions (CTs) that induce catastrophes, we would be better equipped to prevent them arising or at least to mitigate their effects. Yet, despite much multidisciplinary endeavour, current tools often lack rigorous theoretical foundation and sometimes exhibit poor predictive power.

The research within the Doctoral Training Unit (DTU) CriTiCS confronts this problem within a range of disciplines in the areas of clinical science, immunology, biology, and finance. Diverse approaches are employed, including data collection (from new experiments and literature), statistical analysis, mathematical modelling and theory development.

Through synthesizing the work undertaken within each discipline, the project as a whole is designed to enable the development of a more robust, generalized, interdisciplinary theory of CTs. Such theory may be used, first, to classify CTs according to their dynamics and then to provide the foundations for: 

  • Identifying early warning signals to enable timely and reliable predictions of catastrophes 
  • Developing tools to model, analyze, and detect CTs in diverse areas of application

Ultimately, the goal of the project overall is two-fold: to support more advanced research of CTs within scientific disciplines and, in multiple fields, to improve society’s ability to anticipate CTs to undesirable states. This project entails eleven doctoral students, ten supervisors, one post-doctoral and three external researchers.

The CriTiCS consortium is led by the LCSB, which hosts its two coordinators and is comprised of eleven doctoral students, ten supervisors, one postdoc, and three international external researchers. The interdisciplinarity of the project is increased by the presence of supervisors from other departments of the University of Luxembourg from the Department of Physics and Materials Science, the Luxembourg School of Finance and the Department of Life Science and Medicine, as well as from another national partner, the Luxembourg Institute of Health. The collaboration and interaction among these partners is of great importance for the development of the project. This comes for instance from the mutual benefit from the interaction between computational/analytical partners with experimental partners having complementary approaches, but also from the interaction of partners with similar backgrounds to which the project provides interlocutors on the same ground. Regular meetings and workshops are held to enhance the interactions between the students and to allow them to present their research and to identify potential collaborations across projects.

For the students, the ambition of this project is not only to enable them to achieve more than discipline-specific expertise, but also to experience first-hand the development of integrated research that:

  • Produces cross-fertilization between disciplines,
  • Synthesizes empirical investigation and theoretical development, and
  • Combines basic and applied scientific approaches.

This project is funded by the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR).

Copyright: Trefois, C., Antony, P.M.A., Goncalves, J., Skupin, A., Balling, R. (2015). Critical transitions in chronic disease: transferring concepts from ecology to systems medicine. Curr. Opin. Biotechnol. 34, 48–55. doi:10.1016/j.copbio.2014.11.020