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Linda van der Gaag

When there is a risk, this means that there must be something that is unknown and, because of that, has an unknown outcome. Since the 1970s, due to its moral significance, the field of Philosophy has seen an increased attention to risk-related issues: how to address such instances where one possesses only limited information about the situation under investigation? Suppose, namely, that a doctor needs to determine what is going to be the most effective treatment for one of their patients. Equally suppose that there are many of such treatments and that some are better than others - although it being unknown which ones. Clearly, some of the treatments will improve the patient’s well-being whereas others not so much. Now, at some point, the doctor needs to make a decision. But which one? Evidently, the presence of risk and the grave consequences that their decision might entail are troublesome - to say the least.

Dutch computer scientist Linda van der Gaag has equally sought to confront the issue of risk. Although risk reduction has become a standard term in Computer Science, Linda takes an innovative approach. Since 2000, she has led the way in creating software for ‘Decision Support Systems’. Formulated crudely, such systems are computer programs that calculate mathematical models to map the factors of uncertainty that are problematizing decision-making within a given situation. Subsequently, those mathematical models are to support the relevant stakeholder in doing so nonetheless.

Linda believes her support systems can be used throughout all of society, from the detection of swine fever in pig herds to the construction of bridges. However, her personal interest lies in applying them to processes of nature: “How can one apply Mathematics to calculate the effects of certain interventions with nature?” she wonders. In line with this interest, she has already worked together with the Netherlands Cancer Institute to develop a decision support system that predicts the normally uncertain growth of certain tumours. Just as the anecdote introduced earlier, this system aims to support medics in connecting cancer patients to their respective treatments at a level of speed and accuracy going beyond that of which a human doctor is capable.

With her ingenious combination of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, Linda continues to develop her concept of decision support systems at the University of Utrecht. A remarkable fact: unlike other groups in her area, the majority of researchers working together with Linda are actually women. According to Linda, this is simply because women appreciate applying Computer Science to other areas as well, such as Biology and Medicine. Interestingly, when Linda decided to study Mathematics herself upon finishing high school, her dean advised her otherwise: Mathematics was a ‘boys’ program’. Evidently, she proved him wrong.

Linda van der Gaag

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