Yuanzhao Zhang (Photo: Douglas Merriam)

On October 29, the Complex Systems Society (CSS) named Yuanzhao Zhang, a Schmidt Science Fellow at SFI, as one of three recipients of the society’s 2021 Emerging Researcher Award.

The CSS promotes research in pure and applied complex systems in Europe and around the world and established the award to recognize promising young scholars who finished their doctorates in the last three years and have made “outstanding first steps in complexity science research.” This is the first year for the Emerging Researcher Awards, which were announced at a ceremony during the society’s annual meeting, in Lyon.

“I’m honored,” says Zhang, who joined SFI as a postdoctoral fellow in 2021 after completing his Ph.D. at Northwestern University. “This is a really tight-knit and interdisciplinary community, and it’s great to have such an award for people at my stage of their career.”

In his work, Zhang takes an interdisciplinary approach to studying novel phenomena that emerge in complex systems. He combines mathematical approaches with experimental data and focuses on areas in which networks overlap with nonlinear dynamics, such as analyzing ways that decentralized interactions among entities can produce rich collective behaviors.

Many of these phenomena can only be observed by extending the existing tools of network theory to accommodate higher-order interactions. In recent work, for example, he’s analyzed dynamical “chimera” states in which part of the system is coherent and ordered, and the rest is incoherent and disordered. Combining tools from noncommutative algebra and dynamical systems, Zhang and collaborators identified conditions under which nonpairwise interactions give rise to these chimera states. Together with Steven Strogatz at Cornell University, Zhang has also recently studied basins of attraction in high-dimensional systems.

Zhang says he wants to not only observe such novel collective behaviors but also explore their theoretical underpinnings to be able to connect a network’s structure to its dynamics and function.

Zhang and the two other researchers who received Emerging Researcher Awards received a membership to the CSS and an engraved glass trophy. The use of glass to honor complexity research is particularly appropriate, says Zhang. “We know glass itself is a very well-studied complex system.”

Zhang was one of two SFI researchers to be recognized during the ceremony in Lyon; the CSS also honored SFI External Professor Orit Peleg with the 2021 Junior Scientific Award.