Erica Jen, former SFI Vice President for Academic Affairs, in 2007. (image: SFI)

Erica Jen, former SFI Vice President for Academic Affairs, passed away on November 12, 2023, at the age of 71. A mathematician by training, Jen was held in high esteem by all who knew her for her ability to bring together people from diverse backgrounds and disciplines.

As VP for Academic Affairs, Jen significantly broadened the scope of research collaborations in complex adaptive systems to include more social science and led founding workshops on robustness which eventually grew into an SFI research program. She was instrumental in bringing several key people to SFI, including formalizing Cormac McCarthy’s relationship with the Institute.

“When I started at the Santa Fe Institute as President and was just learning about the Institute and meeting people, I kept hearing Erica’s name,” says Ellen Goldberg, who served as SFI President from 1996 to 2003. “People would talk about her and the wonderful work she was doing. When we finally met, we just clicked and I realized she would be such an incredible asset for the Institute.” Goldberg offered Jen the Vice Presidentship, and she says, “Erica did an incredible job. It took a town to do what Erica did. We worked so well together to make SFI a success.”

Jen held various official roles at SFI beginning with External Faculty, Science Board member, VP for Academic Affairs, and Resident Faculty. Since 2017 and until the time of her passing, Jen held the title of Science Board Fellow, an honorary appointment given by SFI’s President to recognize researchers who have made significant contributions to the Institute via service on the Science Board. 

Jen was a bold, eloquent speaker. While a young undergraduate at Yale, Jen accompanied her father, theoretical physicist Chih-Kung Jen, to China and asked the then-Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, if she could stay. She became one of the first Americans allowed to study in China after the Cultural Revolution. Excerpts of her conversation with Enlai and her character as a student are featured in fellow student Jan Wong’s book Red China Blues.

Jen returned to the U.S. two years later to pursue a Ph.D. in applied mathematics and became the first postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Nonlinear Studies at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Her main area of study then was cellular automata or computational models featuring grids of cells that change states over time.

“We talked constantly about research,” says SFI External Professor Stephanie Forrest (Arizona State University), who met Jen when they were both postdocs at Los Alamos. Shortly after, they both became SFI External Faculty. “She had one of those rare interdisciplinary minds that can synthesize across disciplines. In her quiet way, she had a huge impact on SFI and the scientific direction we took, always very involved and engaged in people's ongoing projects,” says Forrest. 

After seven years as an external professor and three more as a vice president, Jen had a child and decided to step down; Forrest took over as Interim VP of Academic Affairs. “She was always so giving, worked so hard to make sure the Institute would be a success, cared deeply about the science, and she did it all from an egoless place. When she had a severely disabled child, she gave up her career and focused solely on her daughter. It’s heartbreaking to know she’s not with us anymore,” says Forrest. 

Jen stayed connected to SFI attending workshops and encouraging researchers. She was scheduled to visit SFI this fall for a workshop on emergent computation, celebrating Forrest’s career, but a month before the meeting, emailed to cancel. A few weeks later, she passed away. 

"Erica was what I like to call an extraterritorial personality, effortlessly passing across boundaries, which in her case were both national and disciplinary,” says David Krakauer, SFI President. “Erica's training in mathematics lent to her many interests an analytical perspective, which in combination with her family biography, provided a deep empathy for the itinerant imagination. Erica, in her role as VP for science at SFI, gave those who met her an opportunity to think about more or less anything, and I was a beneficiary of her largess, recollecting with gratitude the work we did together on how the complex world manages to endure and how it even achieves a surprising robustness. I feel that we have lost exactly the kind of person that the world needs more than ever."