A Community Within a Community: the NICO Reading Group Encourages Interdepartmental Collaboration and Learning

by Erin Kim

Between discussion about entropic forces and displacement, a YouTube clip of elephants tugging on a rope pops up on the screen. This fun yet informative clip captures the essence of the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO) reading group - an intellectual yet casual gathering of academics and researchers.

Every two weeks a group of graduate students and postdocs from different academic departments meet at the NICO reading group to discuss a wide range of topics in complex systems research, including pattern formation, ecological systems, collective behavior, population dynamics and social networks. They are chosen to illustrate key concepts in complex systems such as self-organization, network organization and emergence, said Michael Schnabel, who runs the reading group.

At each meeting, one member chooses a paper and presents it to the rest of the group, which then forms the basis of an informal discussion among the participants.

Jeremy Needle, a graduate student in the Department of Linguistics, has participated in the reading group for the past year and a half. After his arrival at Northwestern University, he checked out many different groups and felt that the NICO reading group was the most engaging and relevant to his work.

"Apart from the content, the reading group has been a great way to interact with the complex systems community here at Northwestern University," Needle said. "I got valuable help on a project of mine, due to the out-of-field expertise and experience of the NICO reading group participants."

The group members come from various backgrounds, such as computer science, engineering, mathematics, biology, physics, linguistics and sociology. Anyone is welcome, and undergraduate students and professors stop by from time to time as well.

"One of the challenges in choosing the topics is ensuring the discussion is interesting for everyone in the room," said Schnabel, who is a research assistant professor at Kellogg and NICO. "It is the beauty of complex systems science that it touches virtually every aspect of our life and connects us across many disciplines."

Jerry Rhee, a postdoc at Lurie Children’s Research Center in the Developmental Biology program in the Feinberg School of Medicine who ran the reading group from 2010 to 2012, said he also learned how to better present information, especially for those unfamiliar with his field.

"We are faced with an uncertain future loaded with complex problems and we need to prepare ourselves," Rhee said. "The reading group is designed to address problems that don't care to accommodate us by restricting to disciplinary boundaries."

NICO reading group alumni are now conducting research at institutions across the country and the world. Physicist Eduardo Altmann now leads a group on "Dynamical Systems and Social Dynamics" at the Max Planck Institute in Dresden, Germany, while Ivan Christov just received the prestigious Feynman Fellowship at Los Alamos National Laboratory. William Rand is an assistant professor at the Robert Smith Business School at the University of Maryland and Spiro Maroulis is an assistant professor at the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University.

The reading group meets every other Friday from noon to 1 p.m. at Chambers Hall, 600 Foster St. More details can be found here.

NICO reading group

Michael Schnabel leads the NICO reading group in a recent discussion of "Causal Entropic Forces," by Wissner-Gross and Freer, Physical Review Letters 2013.