Christa Brelsford is a Research Scientist in the Geospatial Science and Human Security Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Previously, she was the Liane Russell Fellow at ORNL and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute. She obtained her Ph.D. from the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University in 2014 for research on the determinants of residential water demand. Brelsford’s core research goal is to develop empirical methods to understand interactions between human and physical systems, especially in an urban context.
Briefly describe your primary research/academic work or other professional work.
I want to help us move towards a more just, more equitable, and more sustainable society. I think that the biggest unsolved problems we face in the world today all revolve around coordinating how large groups of people interact with each other and the natural or built environment. It is especially difficult to implement solutions to these kind of coordination problems when the scale of interactions is mismatched with the scale of existing institutions that typically guide those interactions, and so my biggest research goal is to provide better frameworks for understanding and solving these kinds of problems.
Many “Big Data” approaches give us a previously unavailable window to observe systematic patterns in human interactions, thus providing better insight into how large groups of people interact. Cities and urban infrastructure provide a natural lens for viewing patterns in interactions among large groups of people through long time periods, and demonstrate many of the challenges of coordination across and within groups of people, the physical infrastructure we build and rely on, and the social institutions that influence those interactions.
In what ways does the study of complexity science influence your thinking about your current work?
One basic idea of complexity science is that some features of any of our complex systems are fundamental outcomes of the processes that drive the system, and some features are transient responses to current conditions. I think that this concept is deeply relevant for trying to build a more coherent theoretical and empirical framework for understanding collective social processes.
Among the many terrible things that COVID-19 wrought on the world, one small silver lining is a profound change in how social science research can be done. There is vastly more information available to researchers and the public about patterns in the behavior of ordinary people. This has been critical for informing our pandemic response policy, and it also enables a deeper understanding of collective social processes: what is fundamental about our collective response to this catastrophic disruption, and what responses hinged on the details of how disruptions played out in each specific context?
The combination of complexity science ideas about specificity versus generality of responses, the huge volume of behavioral data suddenly available, and the massive shock that COVID wrought on almost all aspects of daily life in 2020 enable systematic study of what is general in many of our patterns of behavior, and what is specific to context.
How did your experience as a postdoctoral fellow at the Santa Fe Institute impact your professional and personal perspectives?
At SFI, I got the opportunity to absorb more general theoretical questions, seeking scientific knowledge for it’s own sake rather than the more utilitarian perspectives I’d previously been trained in. This theoretical perspective is useful – even for addressing pressing questions around present day safety and security. If a solution we propose doesn’t address the fundamental drivers of the problem, it’s not going to be very effective.
What interests do you have that might surprise your colleagues?
I am a competitive rock climber. I’ve been a climbing enthusiast since childhood and after losing my right leg in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for me it wasn’t a question of if I would climb, it was just what I would climb and how I would do it.
I’ve always sought out both research and life experiences that I consider morally important. I was in Haiti helping my brother with a literacy project during my winter break from graduate school, working about three kilometers from the epicenter of the earthquake. A roof collapsed and crushed my leg. Two Haitian friends dug me out of the rubble and transported me to an emergency triage camp at a UN peacekeeping mission. I was incredibly lucky – I think I was one of the first ten Americans evacuated from Haiti back to the US. Thirty hours later I was in Miami for emergency surgery and five days after my hospital discharge, I was back in the climbing gym.
I won first place in the women’s leg amputee division of the USA Paraclimbing National Championships in July 2014, earning a chance to represent the USA at the Paraclimbing World Championships in Gijon, Spain, in September 2014. I won first place in that competition too.
This interview was conducted in May of 2021