Chris Kempes & Devorah West

Undergraduate Complexity Research

Chris Kempes is a professor at the Santa Fe Institute where he directs the Undergraduate Complexity Research (UCR) program. Chris' research focuses on finding theories and principles that apply to a wide range of biological scales and hierarchies. His recent work in astrobiology (alongside SFI President David Krakauer) posits multiple origins of life on Earth. Chris has held postdoctoral positions at NASA, the California Institute of Technology, and the Santa Fe Institute, where he was an Omidyar Fellow. He received his PhD in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chris began his involvement with SFI in 2005 as an Undergraduate Complexity Researcher.

Devorah West is currently the Tech for Development Policy Lead at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, where she focuses on the role that technology plays in transforming the lives of people living in developing and emerging nations. She was previously the Acting Innovation Team Lead for USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA). In this capacity, she oversaw the development and implementation of program strategies aimed at scaling existing innovations across the humanitarian system and supporting entrepreneurial ecosystems in countries affected by crisis. Devorah holds an MA in International Policy Studies from Stanford University, and a BA in Political Science from Brown University. She attended the Undergraduate Complexity Research program in 2005.

Watch Devorah and Chris discuss their experiences as Undergraduate Complexity Researchers.

Note: The name of the program changed from Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) to Undergraduate Complexity Research (UCR) in 2020.

Transcript edited for readability

Chris Kempes: So, it was a great summer for me, the REU summer. One of my favorite summers ever, I think. I worked on a project that was trying to predict the maximum possible height of trees. 

Devorah West: Oh, that’s right! 

CK: This was trying to say, can we take scaling theory plus resource limitation theory and put those together and come up with a very simple prediction for the tallest possible trees across the United States. That was a summer of research and then something that I worked on off and on throughout the rest of undergrad and finally published early in grad school. I still love that project and still work on follow-ups that came out of that project. 

And you worked with Libby Wood, right? 

DW: Libby Wood, yeah. And I also had a bit of an atypical, I think, REU experience. I was mostly looking at the role of sexual violence in ethnic conflict and genocide. I was looking at the role of sexual violence as a tool or kind of weapon of war across several different genocides and ethnic cleansings. It was a heavy topic but really fascinating. I think SFI and the REU program gave me the opportunity to do that work and provided me with exposure to other ways of thinking that I didn’t have in my undergraduate studies. And it is something... It’s not directly related to my work today, but it has provided me with, I think, a really important foundation for the work that I do. 

CK: I think a lot about that early REU exposure... Those were formative years. (Laughs.) 

DW: Yeah, exactly. 

CK: And for me, it was getting the constant discomfort of interdisciplinarity. It is introduced very early in life through the REU program, which I think is neat. It’s getting used to constantly not knowing the answer to something when you’re interacting with someone who is in a discipline that is so different than yours, or asking questions that are so different than the way you think about things. 

DW: Exactly. I want to say the willingness to be bold and take risks is something I certainly gained at SFI and through the REU program that has, I think, completely stayed with me and informed – kind of – the job that I’m doing today and my willingness to also push my colleagues and my community to say: hey, we need to think more systemically, more, again, holistically. I keep coming back to that word. (Chris laughs.) 

CK: I think the boldness is an interesting piece. I think SFI teaches you how to be bold without being crazy. I think the REU program is a lot of education in that. In terms of, there are ways to be – like you said – really risky and really bold in your ideas, but in a way that you know you can pair that to the appropriate amount of rigor. You can find out whether those ideas hold water or not. You can find unconventional solutions. So, it’s not boldness or riskiness for the sake of that. It’s actually trying to find cool solutions and knowing that you have a foundation of the right critical thinking to back that up. 

DW: Yeah, exactly. 

CK: You get treated like a peer at SFI. That's, I think, one of the unique things here: that everyone is treated like a peer, and so the distinction between visiting grad student, postdoc, faculty, REU sort of dissolves in large part. People see themselves as having different levels of experience or expertise about a particular thing. But there isn’t a sort of a chauvinism around who has good ideas. I warn the REUs that the great thing about that is you’re a full member at the table, and the downside of that is that people are going to ask you really tough questions. (Devorah laughs.) 

DW: Yes, being questioned. And having the opportunity to have those conversations with people who are treating you like an equal and who are respecting where you’re coming from and want to hear what you have to say is incredibly unique. 

CK: I still remember so many distinct debates from our summer. It tells you how intellectually meaningful those were for me, that I can remember distinct evening-long arguments amongst the REUs about some weird idea. One of them being: how do we know that bonobos aren’t smarter than humans? How do we really know? 

DW: Yes! I know! (Both laugh.) 

I think it probably was the most stimulating summer I have had in that sense. It’s intellectually challenging, rigorous, and really exciting because you are engaged in all these great questions. You know, none of us are experts in bonobos, but you get to have these conversations and these debates with people. Like our paths wouldn’t have crossed if we hadn’t done the REU program. 

CK: Right. 

DW: It’s a really unique and exciting experience and I can’t think of anywhere else in my life I would have had those opportunities

This interview was conducted in October of 2019