The 2019 complexity research undergraduates at the Santa Fe Opera

For students who participate in SFI’s Undergraduate Complexity Research program, the 10-week residential opportunity* not only develops their research skills, it opens their minds to new concepts and builds lasting relationships.

We recently caught up with two students who attended the 2019 session: Jake Jackson, a Brown University senior, and Elisa Heinrich Mora, a Minerva School at KGI senior from Asunción, Paraguay. Both were drawn to SFI’s work on urban scaling, and each has big plans for their future.

Q: What got you interested in this program and in complexity science?

Elisa: Since high school, I was interested in the idea of multi-disciplinary approaches to solve problems, but I never had a name to put to it. Then I started reading about SFI, and I knew this is exactly what I wanted to do! I wanted to work with physics and math, but also to do meaningful work with social impact. I read papers about cities and slums by Luís Bettencourt — highlighting issues we see every day in Paraguay. This made me realize there is very little knowledge about those type of systems, so I really wanted to work on that. 

Q: Can you tell us about a highlight of your time at SFI

Jake: It’s cliché but it’s true: what makes the program is the relationships with the cohort. It was the second-to-last weekend, and a lot of us were watching the sunset on a big rock by St. John’s College, playing music and talking. It was a beautiful experience. From a research perspective, there were so many meetings where we were just blasting through ideas, and we’d leave the room in an hour and a half completely drained but excited at the next thing to pursue. 

Q: What did you take away from the experience, and how will it help guide you going forward?

Elisa: I want to keep doing complexity science. I think I’m going to take some years to do a pre-doctoral to have some experience, but then I want to do my PhD. I see myself as not constrained anymore — I’m very excited to do research, but I’m also excited to see how I can apply all these ideas into helping specific programs or policies. 

Q: What would you tell another undergrad researcher about this

Jake: I would say absolutely do it, it’s the best experience you can have in undergrad. It’s a very diverse set of people, backgrounds, and interests, yet there’s a common way of thinking. This makes for incredible conversations and opportunities to grow with each other in a really meaningful way.  

*Due to social distancing guidelines in place for the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 program will take place virtually. SFI faculty and postdocs will mentor undergraduates remotely for 10 weeks, ending with virtual presentations of their summer research to the SFI community.