Left to right: Laura Fortunato, Pamela Yeh, Van Savage (Photo: Kate Russell for the Santa Fe Institute)

Three researchers are spending several months at SFI, using their time here to tackle some big questions: “Why do we sleep less as we get older?” “What do city pigeons have in common with drug interactions?” and “Is there a trajectory underlying human history?” to name a few.

Pamela Yeh is commuting to and from UCLA where she runs the Yeh Lab in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. A field biologist by training, Yeh studied the evolution of city-dwelling birds before moving to bacteria and drugs in the lab.

“Think about a bird in an urban environment,” she points out. “Suddenly it has to deal with noise, with artificial light, with buildings, human disturbances. But how do those selection pressures interact?” These stressors can interact synergistically, antagonistically, additively—with striking similarities to the ways that drug interactions in the body can be understood.

“It turns out that question is almost universally asked in every single field,” says Yeh. Economists, for example, “might not call them stressors, but they have a different word for it: positive or negative factors.” Political scientists follow the same reasoning, asking what information sources interact to build political beliefs.

Joining Yeh is External Professor Van Savage, also from UCLA where he is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Biomathematics. He was originally introduced to SFI as a graduate student almost twenty years ago, and returned for three years as a postdoc before becoming an SFI External Professor.

He’s currently collaborating with SFI Distinguished Professor and Past President Geoffrey West to investigate the origins of sleep and its changes over an animal’s lifespan, an inquiry he originally began while a postdoc here years ago. 

“I’m very eclectic in the way that I think about science,” he confesses. He jokes that his Ph.D. in theoretical high-energy physics was in “measuring the weight of the God particle” — a far cry from food webs, another of his current research interests.

The beauty of SFI, he notes, is in its collaborative opportunities, both intentional and surprising. In addition to his work with West, he’ll be digging deeper into the interplay between complexity and stability in large networks such as food webs and vascular systems. “When I came here, I thought, Jen Dunne [SFI Professor and Vice President for Science] is the perfect person to talk to about that,” he says. “What I didn’t realize before I came here, is that Jacopo [Grilli, Omidyar Postdoctoral Fellow] is completely immersed in all that literature. So coming here is even better than I thought!”

Both Yeh and Savage arrived in January and depart at the end of March.

Also visiting is External Professor Laura Fortunato (University of Oxford), an associate professor in evolutionary anthropology and former SFI Omidyar Fellow. Like Yeh and Savage, she stresses the importance of looking at many factors simultaneously.

“Some people say you can break things apart, but anthropologists would say you can’t look at [a system] separated out,” she says. “Cultural features have to be viewed as an ensemble, where one thing affects others.” 

After a first degree in biology, Fortunato pursued a Ph.D. in anthropology. As she puts it, “I made humans my species of choice.” Her initial research focused on kinship and marriage systems, moving towards cultural evolution and redefining “social complexity” in quantitative terms. “We all have a hunch about what it means,” she says, “but to go measure it is a different thing.”

A new direction she is exploring during this visit is a project that uses of economic “games” to study behavior and network dynamics in human groups. She hopes that her work, with its computational approach, can contribute to redirecting the field towards more nuanced approaches to the study of human behavior.

Fortunato arrived in October, 2017 and departs at the end of March.

All three visitors highlight SFI’s unusual and inspiring approach: an explicit celebration of cross-disciplinary work that’s sometimes difficult to find in other institutions.

“There’s so much lip service paid to interdisciplinary work, and multi-disciplinary work, trans-disciplinary work — but it takes a real commitment to keep trying to figure out your common ground,” says Yeh. The project she and Savage are working on with Mirta Galesic, for example, has already been through several years of discussion. But its goal — to approach organism and social stressors from the perspectives of biology, network theory, and social science — would be unreachable without the time they’ve put into forming a common language.

“When you’re at this interface, maybe you’re not as bound by all these traditional ideas,” says Yeh. “You can make progress by leaps and bounds, rather than by these tiny increments.”

“There’s a difference between just ‘gluing’ things together and making them really integrated,” agrees Savage. The latter, he notes, is what SFI is trying to do — and why it’s such a pleasure to be here.