Evolutionary biologist Jessica Flack rejoined the Santa Fe Institute's resident faculty this week as a professor.
Flack, who specializes in collective behavior and natural computation, spent five years at SFI on the resident faculty and three years before that as a postdoctoral fellow prior to leaving for the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011. Since then, she ran, as co-director, UW-Madison's Center for Complexity and Collective Computation (C4 ).
“Jessica brings a unique, highly integrative, and rigorous perspective to social evolution that combines traditional evolutionary theory with ideas from computation and pattern formation,” says Vice President for Science Jennifer Dunne. “We are very excited for her to rejoin the faculty.”
Flack’s research focuses on coarse-graining and collective computation in nature and their role in the evolution and development of new levels of biological and social organization.
Her approach is highly empirical, beginning with rich, fine-grained behavioral data, including network time series data gained from model systems in neuroscience, animal behavior, and human social systems. The goal is to find common algorithmic principles underlying the emergence of novel, functionally significant organization at a variety of spatial and temporal scales.
"A significant challenge in biology,” she says, “is to determine whether living systems — comprised of noisy, adaptive, heterogeneous components often with multiple goal states and only partially aligned interests — are governed by laws derived from strategic interactions at the microscopic level, or reflect contingent events leading to irreducible complexity. This question motivates most of my work.”
The research draws from many fields — evolutionary theory, information theory, behavior and cognitive science, theoretical computer science, and statistical mechanics — and so is perfectly suited to SFI, Flack says.
"SFI is one of the few places where philosophy is transmuted into rigorous, quantitative science in real time,” she says. “Intellectualism, irreverence, creativity, and a willingness to engage the hard, awesome topics go hand in hand at the Institute. This is the kind of environment I love, and it’s where I believe I can do my best work.”
While at the University of Wisconsin, Flack built C4 from the ground up. The Center’s focus is on the information processing, regulatory, and computational principles underlying the emergence of societies of cells and organisms in the history of life on earth.
Flack's transition to Santa Fe prompts moving C4 to New Mexico, where it will become the Collective Computation Group.
In addition to peer-reviewed publications, Flack enjoys writing popular science articles and book reviews. Her work has been covered by other scientists and science journalists in many publications and media outlets, including the BBC, NPR, Nature, Science, The Economist, New Scientist, and Current Biology.