Each spring and fall, the JSMF–SFI Postdocs in Complexity Conference brings early-career complexity researchers to Santa Fe for three days of collaboration, conversation, and professional development. Research jams — short meetings where fellows from a wide range of disciplines share their expertise to hash out interesting research questions — are among the highlights for many participants.
Sometimes, the research jams spark questions and collaborations that deserve further time and space. This October, in the week before the 9th JSMF–SFI Postdocs in Complexity Conference, two micro-working groups met to make progress on the conversations they began last spring.
Rebekah Oomen, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oslo, has been studying genetic information in a dataset on Atlantic cod in Norway. The research jams presented an opportunity for new questions about the data. In a population of fish, she says, “it’s not often you could know who are the parents of which offspring. I realized this data had a lot of potential to address how the structure of sexual networks affects how populations grow and evolve.” The research jams offered her the chance to collaborate with network scientists who could round out her own skill set to make meaningful progress on the question.
The research jam offered enough time to unearth interesting ideas, but not enough to make much progress. “Our time together was very short — only a few hours — and we just scratched the surface,” says Oomen. “We had the question, we had the tools. If we could just sit down for a week together, we could make a lot of progress, and we’d have a lot of fun doing it.” And so, October 11–18, the team will meet again for a micro working group titled “CodNet: How Do Individual Traits and Sexual Networks Shape Population Dynamics?”
Pedro Marquez-Zacarias, an incoming SFI Complexity Fellow, used the spring research jam to explore the space of possible genetics. His group dove into questions about possible alternatives to the DNA- and RNA-based genetics we know on Earth. He says, “The topic seems simple on the surface — what are the possible genetics that could evolve?” But to really get at the question of whether evolution requires our kind of polymer-based genome, he needed perspectives from many disciplines. “It involves metabolism, which has a lot to do with bioenergetics, which is related directly to fitness and the growth of primitive cells. But that’s not the whole story, of course. It’s also very much about symbolics, and information theory,” he says.
His micro working group, “The Space of Possible Genetics: How does Life depend on the Architecture of Encoding Systems?” meets October 12–18. “There are many avenues we could pursue at this point,” says Marquez-Zacarias. “We’ll be honing it down into something we want to continue.”
Following the micro-working groups, the postdocs will gather again at SFI for training on public speaking, insights from former complexity postdocs, advice on getting grants for transdisciplinary work, and, of course, more research jams.
At the Postdocs in Complexity Conference, “you know you’re going to be talking to people who have no idea about your field and vice versa. That sets the stage for really having to pay attention to people and understand the ideas they are bringing to the table,” says Marquez-Zacarias, who attended the conference for the first time last spring. “Building bridges was the most interesting and exciting part of the meeting. Everyone was open to it, and open to thinking that we each have a small piece of the pie to understanding this complex world. We need to be comfortable with that, and with our own ignorance.”
Oomen, who recently completed her postdoctoral fellowship, has attended this conference six times. “These conferences have been a highlight of my postdoc. They are so fun and so inspiring. A lot of collaborations have come out of this, and more will come. A year, or many years later, I’ll remember I know someone with a particular skill set. I’ve got this awesome network to continue working with.”
And, these are lessons she’ll bring to her classroom as she opens her lab at the University of New Brunswick. “As a teacher, I’m looking forward to making sure whatever class it is, it gets a really interdisciplinary lens put on it so that students don’t feel like they’re stuck in a single field. I want students to have that open-mindedness.”
The Postdocs in Complexity program has been supported by generous donors and foundations, including the James S. McDonnell Foundation Award 220020541