Artwork by Joerael Numia on SFI's Cowan campus

After a two-and-a-half-year pause, the eighth bi-annual JSMF–SFI Postdocs in Complexity conference reconvened at SFI April 6-8. The meeting included 34 James S McDonnell Foundation Fellows from around the world and 13 Postdoctoral Fellows from the Santa Fe Institute. 

“This meeting brings together early career complexity scientists who are at the top of their field and provides them with an opportunity to build a network for their future careers,” says Hilary Skolnik, SFI’s longtime Postdoctoral Fellows Program Manager. “The collaborative, interactive nature of the conference wasn’t something we could easily replicate over Zoom.” The short monthly virtual meetings over the past two years meant many of the participants had met online, but Skolnik says, “the whole focus for this conference was interactivity and networking.”

In a two-part session called “You never know when to expect the Spanish Inquisition,” journalists and media experts Sandy Blakeslee, Alex Witze, Mary-Charlotte Domandi, and Ned Judge provided guidance on how to handle any kind of interview. Then, following a COMPASS science communication training session, participants used improvisation to conduct mock interviews.  

“This offered a way for them to practice their newly acquired interview skills with real journalists,” says Skolnik. “It’s about communicating their science effectively and more strategically.” 

The postdocs participated in another form of science communication through discussions with SFI Fractal Faculty member Stuart Firestein (Columbia University), who is writing his third book. Through back-and-forth conversations, the postdocs got a window into the process of writing a popular science book — this one on optimism — and Firestein received input from scholars from a range of disciplines. 

Cross-discipline dialogues are part and parcel of meetings at SFI, but many of the Complexity Postdocs have worked primarily at universities with traditionally bounded departments. Any complexity scientist must know how to work across disciplines and to handle conflicts and differences of opinions when they invariably arrive. During the three-day gathering, the fellows worked with SFI’s Director for Education Carrie Cowan and Research Development Director Susan Carter to practice negotiation and conflict-resolution skills. 

At the heart of the Postdocs in Complexity conferences is a quest to build best practices in complex systems research and an active networked community, says Skolnik. “We’re exploring ‘What does it mean to be a complex systems scientist?”

At SFI, that often means creative research collaborations. To conclude the meeting, the postdocs had the opportunity to propose a working group that, if accepted, would be fully funded and held at SFI. 


The meeting was funded by the James S. McDonnell Foundation 21st Century Science Initiative - Special Initiative Award in Understanding Dynamic and Multi-scale Systems. JSMF Grant Number 220020541