Jeremy Van Cleve

Complexity Postdoctoral Fellow


We are always interested to hear about your activities, research and career and the special memories from your time at SFI. Read our interview with Jeremy Van Cleve, a former Omidyar Fellow who is presently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) in Durham, N.C.

Jeremy Van Cleve started his relationship with SFI in 1999 when he was awarded the High School Prize for Scientific Excellence. He became an intern under SFI graduate fellow T. Sean Elicker in 2000 and in 2001 he returned as a REU intern under SFI postdoc Ludo Pagie. He went on to hold the position of Omidyar Fellow from 2009 until 2012, and Postdoctoral Fellow at NESCent from 2012 to present. We’d like to congratulate him on his new position as Assistant Professor, Department of Biology at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, K.Y. starting in January 2015.

We asked Jeremy the following questions about his experience at SFI and his research interests.

1. What do you know now that you wished you knew as a postdoc when you were at SFI?

The thing the strikes me most when I come back to SFI is how unique the atmosphere is with respect to how open people are to thinking about new questions, and how open they are to new approaches. Even interdisciplinary centers at universities tend to be focused around a specific set of topics or research questions in ways not conducive to the kind of unrestrained curiosity that abounds at SFI. This kind of curiosity is actually traditional for scientists, in the sense that natural philosophers (what scientists were called before modern science) were also very broadly curious and interested in applying scientific tools to a huge array of questions. As science has become more specialized, that broad curiosity has been curtailed, but SFI has somehow been able to rekindle it.

2. What are your primary research interests and where do you see your research taking you?

My primary interests are in mathematical evolutionary and ecological theory. Specifically, I am interested in how we can use quantitative tools from a broad array of fields (applied stochastic processes, statistical mechanics, dynamical systems, chemical kinetics, etc.) to study how populations of organisms change over both short- and long-term timescales. These quantitative tools are particularly useful in analyzing populations where individuals can interact with one another in complex ways, for example, in social interactions involving a public good. These tools are also quite good at helping us understand how complex environmental and demographic conditions alter the ability of populations to grow and change. These issues increase in importance alongside our need to understand how species might evolve in response to global climate change.

Since my time at SFI helped me to develop broad interests that connect to other fields such as anthropology and economics, I hope my future research is able to dive more deeply into a specific set of key problems that enhances these connections. For example, my interest in the evolution of social behavior and social complexity is one that I hope will continue to produce results of importance to biologists, economists, and anthropologists. I also want to develop these connections to help solidify the quantitative foundations of these topics in biology and the social sciences. For many outside these fields, and even for some within them, biology and social science are seen as lacking rigorous or consistent quantitative tools; this perspective both obscures our current understanding of the biological world and hinders further development of quantitative theory.

Research interests: see

3. What mark do you want to leave on the world?

My education at SFI and beyond has left me indelibly marked by the deep and profound connections between phenomena in the nature world. Beginning to understand these connections has been a very enriching experience. I hope that I can share these connections with the people around me both for the purpose of teaching them about the practical utility of the scientific endeavor, and to show them how scientific investigations and the acquisition of knowledge can be philosophically gratifying. In a certain sense, knowledge acquisition at the scales humans perform it is our most unique feature, and it is something I hope we continue to value far into the future.

4. What interests do you have that might surprise your colleagues?

SFI is a surprising place, so it’s hard to impress folks there with one's eclectic interests regarding science and the humanities. That said, I do often find myself to be one of the most, if not the most, knowledgeable people in the room when it comes to pop culture. While not useful in most venues, this knowledge can generate some great (a matter of opinion, I suppose) puns that combine science, mathematics, and famous (or infamous) pieces pop culture. Admittedly, the audience for such puns is rather limited, but the pleasure I derive from them comes more from their creation and less from their reception.