SFI’s hand-picked, tightly knit cohort of quantitatively trained postdoctoral fellows representing many disciplines might be a singular phenomenon in science. Equally as elite, multidisciplinary, and mathematically inclined, but currently less connected, are the James S. McDonnell Foundation (JSMF) Fellows, who are dispersed at academic institutions over the globe.
For five days in January, the two groups gathered at SFI to seed collaborations on questions relating to complex systems. The first Postdocs in Complexity Conference is designed to grow participants’ academic and professional networks, consolidate professional development, and introduce them to career opportunities, says Hilary Skolnik, program manager for SFI’s postdoctoral fellows program.
As part of the mashup, participants discuss overcoming obstacles in academia, collaborating across disciplines, and serving as science policy advisors. They hear from top researchers in a number of fields, and rub elbows with members of SFI’s Applied Complexity Network (ACtioN) to get a taste of how some companies and government agencies draw from complexity science to solve problems.
Getting the two elite groups together as a meta-community has long been a wish of SFI President David Krakauer and JSMF President Susan Fitzpatrick. This week’s meeting is the first activity under a new two-year JSMF grant provisioned to do just that. A follow-up conference will be held in July; by then, some of the budding collaborations may be ready to grow into more formal research projects.
The meeting featured lively “research jam sessions” in which small groups of postdocs convene for 90 minutes to informally discuss single but broad topics, such as the scaling of local governments in metropolitan areas and how human attitudes affect the spread of infectious diseases.
Participants also had an opportunity to hear author and SFI Miller Scholar Neal Stephenson explore the intersection of science fiction and science fact and the limits of the imagination.
“Susan and I are optimistic about this meeting, where we get to jointly generate a critical mass of incredible talent in the field of complexity science, something that no university is currently equipped to accomplish, and which might in the long run have a significant impact on the research landscape,” says Krakauer.