|Lou Schuyler, 2011 (image: InSight Foto)|
In December 2022, SFI opened applications for its Postdoctoral Fellows to apply for funding through the Lou Schuyler Internal Postdoctoral Research Grant Fund. Now in its second round, the fund offers SFI Postdoctoral Fellows up to $15,000 per grant to explore new areas of research or expand the scope of their current projects.
Finding money to fund their work is a perennial challenge for academic researchers. Much of the scientific funding in the U.S. comes from federal agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, but both competition for available funds and the cost of conducting research have grown in recent years.
“Money has remained relatively flat, but the number of applicants has really grown,” says Susan Carter, SFI’s Director for Research Development and Sponsored Research. Many institutions have launched internal funding programs to help early-career academics further their research and learn the grant-getting process.
SFI postdocs, whose research questions often span disciplinary boundaries, face an additional challenge: funding agencies are cautious about sponsoring projects outside a researcher’s proven area of interest. “If a topic isn’t on your CV, people think it’s just a hobby,” says SFI Complexity Fellow Mingzhen Lu, an environmental ecologist who received an internal grant in the fall of 2022 to explore a question related to industrial ecology and waste.
But it was exactly those boundary-pushing questions that drew Lou and Hank Schuyler to SFI. As longtime friends of the Institute, Lou and Hank enjoyed attending community lectures and interacting with SFI researchers — and particularly with Postdoctoral Fellows. “One of the things that Lou loved most was hearing the postdocs talk about their projects,” says Hank.
SFI’s Postdoctoral Fellows play an important role in engaging the broader community beyond academia. In the past year, five current SFI postdocs presented flash talks at SFI’s fall symposium, and four current and former postdocs shared longer presentations at SFI’s 2022 end-of-year donor appreciation event.
After Lou died in 2021, sponsoring the internal grant and propelling the work of early-career researchers felt like a natural way to honor her legacy, says Hank.
Lou and Hank met during high school while attending a National Science Foundation Summer Program in Mathematics and Science at Brown University. Lou went on to receive a degree in applied mathematics from Brown and a Master’s degree in operations research from Columbia University. After retiring, she became a volunteer at the University of New Mexico’s Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, cataloging a collection of Tijeras jewelry. She also wrote five volumes that were published through the Maxwell Museum’s Technical Series. “What she did was the first step in the process of moving from data toward knowledge,” says Hank. She also dove into textiles, creating her own garments through weaving, knitting, and sewing. And, she engaged her lifelong love of math and science by participating in SFI events.
“It’s comforting to me if I can help out in a small way that helps the postdocs do what they need to,” says Hank. “They are doing incredibly sophisticated science, and the questions they are asking are astounding. This is the kind of thinking that the world desperately needs.” Helping SFI postdocs to fund creative projects felt like “a perfect match,” he says. “Lou was very creative — always pushing the boundaries of what could be done.”
SFI VP for Science Jennifer Dunne describes the fund as a kickstarter. “Each grant provides a relatively small amount of funds, but they are important for developing interesting new lines of research.”
SFI postdocs who wanted to apply could meet with Carter and the Sponsored Research office for guidance on the application process. “I was pleasantly surprised by the number of applications we received in the first round,” says Carter.
In addition to Mingzhen Lu’s industrial ecology project, the first round of funding is also supporting projects on historical exchange networks, led by Complexity Fellow Helena Miton, and on visualizing basins of attraction in high-dimensional landscapes, led by Complexity Fellow Yuanzhao Zhang.
“I’m pivoting from studying cultural evolution at rather micro scales (e.g., collections of individual paintings) to getting into larger historical dynamics, which is a bit different and also means that usual funders do not see me as an expert on the topic,” says Miton. “This grant allows me to produce a first high-impact, proof-of-concept paper to start demonstrating my competence in this new line of research.”
Zhang’s project builds on work he started with former SFI Postdoctoral Fellow Tyler Millhouse and summer UCR student Katherine Li. The grant will allow him to purchase more powerful computers and help the researchers reconvene. “Having this money will make this project much easier,” he says.
Carter expects this second round of funding to attract a variety of novel proposals. “There’s a tremendous need and these are high-quality applications,” she says.
Helena Miton IGF1001-1899501362 “EvolTrade: Uncovering the dynamics and causes of expanding exchange networks through global history” Lou Schuyler Internal Postdoctoral Research Grant Fund
Mingzhen Lu IGF1001-3489185418 “Towards a general science of waste: The emergence of circular economy across complex systems” Lou Schuyler Internal Postdoctoral Research Grant Fund
Yuanzhao Zhang IGF1001-5784893276 “Characterizing basins in high-dimensional landscapes” Lou Schuyler Internal Postdoctoral Research Grant Fund