Undergraduate Complexity Research
Bradi Heaberlin is a Ph.D. student at the University of Indiana in geography and complex systems. She was an Undergraduate Complexity Researcher (UCR) in 2015 and UCR alumni fellow in 2016. Heaberlin published her research from her time as a UCR with her mentor, SFI external professor Simon DeDeo, on the social norms governing the knowledge commons Wikipedia.
Briefly describe your primary research/academic work or other professional work.
Since the 1980’s, farms in the United States have been affected by an ongoing crisis that is only worsening amidst COVID-19 and climate change. Meanwhile, rural communities are being hollowed out as schools consolidate and rural hospitals shut down. My research looks at the effects that farmland consolidation and the financial sector have on the crises facing farmers, and how large-scale economic trends associated with financialization affect farmers’ mental health and the resources available to them. To do this research, I use a mix of quantitative and qualitative tools ranging from information theoretic and network analysis to ethnography and participant observation. The theoretical bases for my work are part complex systems theory, part political economy.
In what ways does the study of complexity science influence your thinking about your current work?
We always say that complex systems are “more than the sum of their parts,” and that could not be truer for issues affecting farmers and their land. While most analyses of rural mental health take individual people as their starting point, I want to look at this issue at a systemic level that considers the flows of capital and other resources through rural farmland and communities. Complex systems research has a wealth of interesting and appropriate tools to study systems such as these, and we can leverage tools in modeling, network analysis, and information theory to study the crises facing farming communities.
How did your experience as a UCR impact your professional (or personal) perspective?
I was fortunate to spend two summers as an undergraduate doing research at SFI as part of the Undergraduate Complexity Research program, and those summers stand out in my memory as important turning points in my academic career and way of thinking about the world. I learned how to apply concepts and measurements of dynamical systems to real-world social systems by peering into large data sets. In the interdisciplinary setting that SFI offers, I was able to do this kind of quantitative work while also reading and discussing topics in political and economic theory with my peers and colleagues. This allowed me to merge worlds and blend disciplines in a way that remains a defining characteristic of my research today.
What interests do you have that might surprise your colleagues?
Over time I’ve found it immensely important to communicate ideas to the public, and I’ve taken on roles at the local community radio station, WFHB Bloomington, producing a podcast and radio show called Interchange. I also write for the Opinion desk of my university’s newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student.
This interview was conducted in August of 2020