Photos from a day at SFI. (images: Douglas Merriam)

UCRs explore real-world problems

In 1993, SFI launched its first summer research program for undergraduate students. This summer, after two years as a remote, virtual experience, the Undergraduate Complexity Research (UCR) program returns to campus — just in time to celebrate its 30th anniversary. 

Over the past three decades, the UCR program — previously known as Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) — has brought nearly 250 students from more than 120 colleges and universities to SFI to conduct independent research. Over the course of 10 weeks, UCR students define and, with the guidance of SFI faculty, carry out a project that reflects their individual interests and priorities. 

“Students arrive with a wide range of interests, and won’t decide on a research topic until the second week,” says SFI Director for Education Carrie Cowan.  “The UCR students bring expansive creativity and enthusiasm — and they want their research to have impact in the world.” 

2006 REU alumna Oana Carja’s summer research both provided real-world impact and changed the course of her career. A mathematics student with no prior interest in biology, she joined physicist Tanmoy Battacharya* and biologist Bette Korber* to study HIV. “I still remember walking into Bette’s office that first day and being so awed when she told me: “our goal here is to find a vaccine for HIV. Let’s see how you can help,’” says Carja. She went on to publish research about human genetics and disease, including HIV, and is now an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. 

Bryan Wilder, a 2013 alum, adds, “I remember SFI for its sheer intellectual vibrance, comparable to nowhere else, generated by scientists who engage honestly and deeply across fields.” Wilder is currently a Schmidt Science Fellow at Harvard School of Public Health and Carnegie Mellon University, where he will soon join the computer science faculty. “My research still explores the interface between computation and the social world, following seeds planted that summer.” 

For many participants, some of the most important things to come from the UCR program are the relationships, which often persist far beyond the program’s end. “I return to SFI often, for summer schools, workshops and talks,” says Carja. “It still feels like coming home, every single time.” 

The UCR program has been supported by generous donors, foundations, and federal grants, including NSF Award 1757923

*Tanmoy Bhattacharya (Los Alamos National Laboratory): SFI Resident Professor 2007–2017;  SFI External Professor 2017–present. Bette Korber (Los Alamos National Laboratory): SFI researcher 1992–2004; External Professor 2004–2013. 


GWCCSS tackles impossible homework

For the past 27 years, SFI’s Graduate Workshop in Complexity and Computational Social Science has invited 10 participants from around the world for a two-week intensive. Just a few hours before the workshop begins the participants are grouped into pairs who don’t know one another and who study in different fields — sociologists may be paired with economists, anthropologists with physicists, and communications majors with political scientists — and they are given a homework assignment, due the following morning. It’s an assignment intentionally designed without an answer.

All five pairs puzzle over the same question, though the homework assignment varies from year to year and is often built from a real-world conundrum facing someone in the broader SFI community: How might you model a standing ovation? How do jokes travel through a community? What’s the best method for passengers to board an airliner? The homework problems are completely open-ended and not something that the students have ever been exposed to in the course of their studies.

In just 21 hours, the teams work to find solutions to the assignment before presenting their research in the morning. 

“The students display a remarkable degree of creativity as well as solid scientific insight during these presentations,” says SFI External Professor John Miller (Carnegie Mellon University), who coordinates the Graduate Workshop with External Professor Scott Page (University of Michigan). Not surprisingly, no two teams take the same approach to the problem. “The large differences in foci, core assumptions, and analytic techniques, are a critical part of the exercise,” says Miller.

During the rest of the workshop, the students draw on the various differences and similarities across each team’s approach to the homework to hone their intuitions about what makes a useful model and the value of different approaches to solving the interesting problems in the world. “A side benefit,” says Miller, “is that the students also realize that with only 21 hours, including some sleep, they can generate the core of a paper that, with some additional work, could be turned into publishable research.”

At times, the question is more important than the answer.