As a kid growing up in Abiquiu, New Mexico, Chris Kempes was captivated by stars and by ancient bones. The clear night sky and desert landscape lent themselves well to nurturing his interests in astronomy and paleontology. As a college student studying physics and math, and later in his Ph.D. program in physical biology at MIT, those childhood interests deepened and eventually merged.
“A lot of what I do now is astrobiology — combining evolutionary and physical ideas, which in a way, is like combining astronomical and paleontological ideas,” says Kempes. Two and a half years ago, Kempes arrived at SFI as an Omidyar Fellow following a postdoctoral fellowship with the NASA Ames Research Center and Caltech. But it wasn’t his first stint at SFI; Kempes first spent a month-long undergraduate independent study at the Institute collaborating with Michelle Girvan and Geoffrey West, and soon returned as a summer REU.
Now, Kempes is joining SFI as resident faculty.
Throughout his career, Kempes has been interested in the ultimate limits of systems and in where scaling laws break down. This has led him to pursue questions about the physiological limits constraining life on Earth, from how small any bacteria can become, to how large any mammal could grow, to how high trees in a particular environment can reach.
“Many of the ideas I’ve worked on at SFI are ideas I’ve been interested in for a long time — questions about the origins of life on earth, points of life’s transitions, and ultimate limits in life. What’s changed is how these get linked to other ideas in the SFI community,” says Kempes. SFI encourages cross-pollination of research ideas, intellectual freedom, and serious critique at just the right times, says Kempes, and that has allowed him to expand his research questions to other systems like human societies.
“I’m excited to continue to pursue my research at SFI,” he says. “It’s a place that constantly asks people to think more deeply and find deeper layers to their own work.” He’ll continue to pursue detailed questions about the origins-of-life and scaling, but what Kempes looks forward to most is more cross-discipline collaboration that explores the fundamental ideas of science.
“This is the best place to do the type of work I want to do,” he says.