In the summer of 1993, seven undergraduate students from colleges across the U.S. came to Santa Fe for a 10-week immersive research experience. They began a tradition of bold and rigorous summer undergraduate research that has evolved and grown over the past 30 years. Since that first summer, more than 250 undergraduates have explored complex systems during their summers at SFI, gaining essential skills and a unique perspective to inform their scientific and professional futures.
“My summer at SFI was amazing: the environment was small, welcoming, and vibrant. I was exposed to ideas across many fields, ranging from economics and anthropology to biology and mathematics, each with their own technical languages albeit with common concepts and ideas,” says Mahesh Mahanthappa (‘95), professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Minnesota. “This forced me to learn how to communicate across disciplines and by using analogies (sometimes anthropomorphic) — a skill that I value to this day.”
While undergraduates had conducted research at SFI prior to the establishment of a formal program, Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) — later renamed the Undergraduate Complexity Research (UCR) Program — was a step toward a structured training path for early-career researchers at SFI. The UCR program provides an entry point to SFI research. Many students remember their summer at SFI as the first time they found a scientific “home,” an intellectual environment where they were not forced into one or the other disciplinary silo. Others credit their SFI mentors and colleagues as having transformative effects on their careers.
“I would not be a research mathematician now if I had not met Professor Nancy Kopell from Boston University, a mathematical biologist, at the Santa Fe Institute during the summer that I was there as an undergraduate,” says Megumi Harada (‘95), professor of mathematics at McMaster University (Canada). “She was the first female mathematician I had ever met, and for the rest of the summer and for the full academic year that followed (which was my last year as an undergraduate), she kindly served both as a superb female role model as well as a generous and compassionate (informal) advisor.”
What students valued then as now is the independence afforded by SFI’s program, the lack of hierarchy at SFI in general, and the chance to discuss ideas with everyone. “Back in 1992, I first read about complexity science and the Santa Fe Institute in a science magazine and was immediately intrigued. I wanted to do science like that!” says Jean Czerlinski Whitmore Ortega (‘93), senior engineer at Google. “I got a desk and a Mac in an office that was inhabited by a professor who was simulating economies. We had many informal discussions about how simulations could expand the boundaries of knowledge beyond what mathematical proofs could show.”
The students’ research projects in the early years tended toward mathematics and computer science, with significant interest in the then-emerging field of machine learning. Today, project themes still reflect those foundations but also include a generous representation of evolution and ecology as well as social systems and institutions. The backgrounds of participants have likewise diversified over time, with a broader range of fields of study and colleges represented.
What is next for undergraduate research at SFI? “We want to reach students who might not use the terms ‘complexity science’ or ‘transdisciplinary’ but who are drawn to SFI’s approach to understanding adaptive, hard-to-predict systems,” says SFI Director for Education Carrie Cowan, “even if they don’t know it yet.” Under the guidance of UCR program directors and SFI Professors Chris Kempes and Melanie Mitchell and the dedicated mentorship of SFI researchers, undergraduate researchers will continue to bring new ideas and talent to SFI.
SFI’s REU/UCR program has been supported over the past 30 years through a combination of funding from the NSF REU program, faculty grants, institutional funds, and several significant donors.
NSF Grant Award No. 1757923 “REU Site: Computational and Mathematical Modeling of Complex Systems”