2018 REU students and staff

Summer is peak season at SFI. Our researcher population doubles, workshops and working groups overlap, and the common areas fill with students enrolled in summer education programs.

SFI Director of Education Paul Hooper, a former Omidyar Fellow and Summer School alum, had a very busy summer indeed — from leading SFI’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program and Complex Systems Summer School to organizing the first-ever Alumni Fiesta.

We asked Hooper to share some highlights, and to talk about how these programs fulfill SFI’s mission to equip the next generation of complexity scholars.

Tell us about the summer REU program.

The REU program is a 10-week mentorship for undergrads with an interest in complexity science and hands-on research. We pair a student directly with an SFI mentor to co-develop a novel research project that’s guided by their own interests.

At the end of the summer, participants give presentations and complete papers — but for most of these 18- to 21-year-olds, it doesn’t end there. They continue to work on their projects on their own or, more often, with their mentors. Basically, we throw them into the deep end, give them lots of support, and hope they stay in the pool — and most of them do!

Any stand-out projects you can share?

One student did a semantic analysis of data from news websites and social media. They were able to infer biased speech on sites ranging from The Atlantic and Mother Jones to Breitbart, showing quantitative differences in levels of prejudice and hate speech.

Another student who works with Engineers Without Borders looked at the extent to which diversity of engineering teams affects success in hundreds of projects being done around the world.

Another student did a linguistic analysis of economics textbooks, showing the evolution of economic thought over the past two centuries to identify major trends, outliers, and ideas that changed the field.

What’s the mission of the Complex Systems Summer School, and how was this session unique?

This is an intensive four-week introduction to complex behavior in mathematical, physical, living, and social systems, with lectures, group activities, discussion sessions, and projects.

This was the first time we held Summer School at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). With a dance circle looking out on the New Mexican sunset and beautiful contemporary native art, the space provided a new context that allowed our 80 participants from around the world to not only experience the science of SFI, but also the richness of contemporary native culture.

Complex Movements — a social activism and artist collective — joined us as the summer school’s artists in residence, leading collaborative events that explored the intersection between science and social activism. Students were so engaged, they scheduled their own follow-up workshops. That was a major win.

What kind of work did the students produce?

Students pushed themselves into topic areas we hadn’t seen before — important, real issues. One group, for example, inferred the prevalence and spread of malaria in Venezuela as the public health infrastructure fails. They were literally predicting malaria rates that week, when actual data may not be released for a year or two — if at all.

That’s what makes my skin tingle — you put people together, give them space to mix their passions and skills, and you get amazing results.

How did the first SFI Alumni Fiesta come about?

Thirty years ago, the first Complex Systems Summer School kick-started SFI’s educational programs. Since then, some 4,000 aspiring scientists have come through SFI’s face-to-face educational programs. The SFI Alumni Fiesta was a chance for more than 60 of those complexity thinkers to reconnect in Santa Fe, meet people from other programs, and share some big and creative ideas — a combination reunion, conference, networking event, and collaboration space.

Can you share any Fiesta highlights?

We heard talks from David Krakauer and three superstar alums: Rosemary Braun on spectral analysis; Ryan Taylor on scaling relationships within universities; and Carlos Viniegra Beltran, who connected complexity science to major challenges in public policy.

We asked the group what they wanted to chat about with fellow alumni, then filled three whiteboards with topics, which we winnowed down to five major themes: Sustainability, Design Optimization, Research Methodologies, Community & Responsibility, and Emerging Technologies. It was a crowd-sourced intellectual discussion, overflowing with ideas, enthusiasm, and creativity. We’d never done something like this before, so it was risky — but it turned out better than I could have hoped.