Jeremy Van Cleve

Undergraduate Complexity Research & Postdoctoral Fellow

Jeremy Van Cleve is an Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky, where he teaches biology and leads the Van Cleve Research Group, a lab that uses computational tools to study evolutionary biology and ecology. Van Cleve’s relationship with SFI began when he participated in SFI’s former high school program. He was an Undergraduate Complexity Researcher (UCR) in 2001 and an Omidyar Postdoctoral Fellow beginning in 2009. Follow Van Cleve on Twitter and explore his work on Google Scholar.


Briefly describe your primary research/academic work or other professional work. 

My work focuses on mathematical models in evolutionary biology and ecology. Most of my work has been on the evolution of social behavior. I ask questions like: how do animals and other organisms evolve to contribute collectively to solving the problems posed by the kinds of environments in which they find themselves? It’s primarily an evolutionary biology problem, but it also intersects with anthropology, economics, political science, the list goes on. It’s an interdisciplinary field and one that ends up leading me into lots of different and interesting areas. 

More generally, my driving interest is in solving complex problems in biology with mathematical and computational tools. 


In what ways does the study of complexity science influence your thinking about your current work? 

One thing that was impressed upon me during my time at SFI was the commonalities among hard problems in lots of different fields. I think that it’s often those commonalities that make the problems hard, and then the kinds of tools that work in one field can be applied to the same sorts of problems in another. The trick is being able to identify what those commonalities are. 

SFI has been really great about having physicists come in with a lot of mathematical and computational tools, and then trying to find analogous versions of the problems that those tools work well on in physics, in other areas. That synergy helps those areas whether they are biology or social science or something else, because now they’ve got new tools that are powerful to study those hard problems. 

This also creates feedback between how fields like biology or social science have thought about problems in their discipline and what physicists can learn from the application of their tools—how maybe some of their approximations aren’t quite the right ones. I think complexity, in some sense, speaks to the commonality of the difficult questions that remain across scientific disciplines. That’s one way I think about what complex systems means.


How did your experience as a UCR and a postdoctoral fellow at SFI impact your professional (or personal) perspective? 

I remember being a UCR at the institute and feeling really intimidated by the other UCRs in the program. I hadn’t read Gödel, Escher, Bach or had much background in physics, so my time at SFI was a really great crash course in some of those topics. Even though it was intimidating at first, in the end, there was a common language and it just took time to learn. That’s true of really any field, and I think in some ways it’s even more true of interdisciplinary work. You’re not just trying to master one language, you’re trying to master multiple, and understand what people who know them well find interesting about their intersections. Now when I think about hard problems and what kinds of tools might be useful, I have a much bigger tool box and I can see that those hard problems are common. 

If I’m in a biology talk or discussing something with a colleague, there’s always so many possible connections between what they’re working on and what people are working on in other fields. Being able to make connections across disciplines has been a big part of being at SFI and my experience as a postdoc in particular.


What advice do you have for young scientists with at the beginning of their careers? 

It’s important for interdisciplinary scientists to have a disciplinary home. That doesn’t mean that interdisciplinary science isn’t also your home, but people will need to be able to identify you in a more concrete way and you will need to be able to describe your community. You’ll need to have multiple homes. Interdisciplinary science can be one home. But you’ll have to have another. 

In some ways, this is a practical consideration. It helps ground you professionally and helps you set goals. This was not something I was necessarily all that strategic about. I had a natural home in the biology department, but I remember having to choose when applying to grad school: a math program or a biology program? If you get a Ph.D. in math, you can get a job in a math department and you’re going to teach math courses. That’s the practical element: what you’ll be teaching and who your colleagues will be. A biology department might hire a person with a math Ph.D., but they would also want to make sure they look enough like a biologist. But your research could be the same in both departments. So, you have to ask yourself: what am I going to be doing that’s not interdisciplinary science that also is paying the bills.


This interview was conducted in July of 2021