Participants of the 11th Postdocs in Complexity Conference at SFI. (image: Katherine Mast/SFI)

In January 2017, when SFI and the James S. McDonnell Foundation launched the first Postdocs in Complexity Conference, Elizabeth Hobson and Joshua Garland were only a few months into their postdoctoral fellowships at SFI. They were two of several dozen early-career complexity researchers gathered for what would become a biannual event — a unique opportunity for complexity postdocs to gain professional development, share insights from across their disciplines, and begin building deep and meaningful research networks.   

Like all the other conference participants, Hobson and Garland were honing their research questions, and also wondering if anyone would ever hire them again to continue their work.

“Being a postdoc is an incredibly stressful time. Making connections with others in that same career stage can be really transformative in helping postdocs build their support networks,” says Hobson, who is currently on a fast track for tenure at the University of Cincinnati where she leads a lab studying sociality in animals.

This October, during the 11th Postdocs in Complexity Conference, Hobson and Garland returned to share insights they’ve gleaned and things they wish they had known as postdocs.

“The people who come to this conference are the leaders in the next generation of complex systems,” says Garland, who is currently directing the Global Security Initiative, Center on Narrative, Disinformation and Strategic Influence at Arizona State University. “This conference helps build connective tissue.”

The most recent meeting brought together SFI’s 15 postdoctoral fellows and 21 James S. McDonnell Foundation fellows who hail from academic institutions around the globe, and expanded this time to include three Neukom complexity postdoctoral fellows from Dartmouth College and one from the University of Cincinnati.

Professional development talk at this fall’s conference ranged from how to apply for federal grants to writing for general audiences and, as always, prioritized time for participants to network. Research Jams provide space for brainstorming collaborative research questions that draw on the wide range of expertise in the group.

“Many of the postdocs who come to this conference are isolated at universities where it’s hard to do interdisciplinary work,” says Garland. “Interdisciplinary research can’t happen without multiple disciplines in the room. This conference allows that to happen in a way that no other conference I know of allows.” And the relationships that develop create colleagues for life — a network of people to call on for advice or insights into specific questions.

Recently, the James S. McDonnell Foundation has been shifting its focus toward issues closer to its home in St. Louis, Missouri. As a result, the collaboration with SFI on this conference will be ending.

“As JSMF funding for this meeting winds down, it will be very important to continue this program and we hope to find support for this growing network of complexity researchers,” says Hilary Skolnik, Program Manager for SFI’s Postdoctoral Fellows Program. “From the feedback that we receive following each conference, it is really clear that the meetings are extremely valuable for early career complexity scientists.”

Skolnik hopes that, as the conferences continue, they will create an opportunity for complexity participants from other institutions to participate. “We’d like to make this conference open to all early-career complexity researchers,” she says.


Funding provided by James S. McDonnell Foundation 21st Century Science Initiative - Special Initiative Award in Understanding Dynamic and Multi-scale Systems (