Penn's new Evolution Cluster transforms hiring, research, learning across the disciplines

A quantitative understanding of evolutionary processes still stubbornly evades researchers across the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and computational mathematics. Answering President Amy Gutmann’s call “to address the most challenging problems through an interdisciplinary approach,” Penn’s new Evolution Cluster—officially titled the Evolution of Dynamical Processes Far from Equilibrium Cluster—presents an innovative model for organizing research, teaching, and learning in ways that will have broad implications across the University.

Conceived by Richard Schultz, associate dean for the natural sciences in the School of Arts & Sciences (SAS) and the Charles & William L. Day Distinguished Professor of Biology, and led by Randall Kamien, the Vicki & William Abrams Professor in the Natural Sciences, the Evolution Cluster is a joint effort by SAS faculty to create an academic hub that formalizes the interdisciplinary collaboration required to solve the complex theoretical challenge.

The search committee for the Cluster—which includes faculty members from the biology, chemistry, Earth and environmental science, linguistics, mathematics, physics and astronomy, and psychology departments—was charged with recruiting a faculty member without any predetermination as to the department in which she or he would sit.

“It doesn’t matter what department they sit in,” Schultz says, “just as long as they’re here, adding to Penn’s culture of collaboration.”

Committee member Joshua Plotkin, a computational mathematician with joint appointments in SAS and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, who studies evolutionary biology and ecology, agrees that “few other universities have such an integrative outlook, or even a physically contiguous campus.”

Plotkin adds, “As a result, Penn is especially well-suited to reap the benefits of creative insights that arise from interdisciplinary interactions.”

The committee selected two researchers from the large and robust applicant pool.

The first is Eleni Katifori, who will sit in the Physics & Astronomy Department when she arrives next year. In describing her research on the vasculature of leaves, she says, “bringing topology, geometry, and physics to plant biology” lies at the heart of her work.

“I love learning from mathematicians and using their well-established tools to understand problems in biology on the organismic level,” says Katifori.

The second new hire is Erol Akçay, whose work on the evolution of social behaviors incorporates ecology, psychology, and linguistics. Akçay, who sits in the Department of Biology, says that Penn’s “long tradition of supporting research and intellectual ventures with multidisciplinary approaches” was a strong draw for him.

Before Akçay and Katifori were hired, evolutionary biologist Alison Sweeney joined the Physics & Astronomy Department as a prototype hire for the Cluster. Her research is focused on the interplay between the physics of the biological structures formed with a reflective protein, and the role they play in animals’ evolutionary history. In February, Sweeney was a recipient of a prestigious Sloan Fellowship, which is awarded to early-career scientists. Sweeney sees the Sloan as a vote of confidence for interdisciplinary research and Penn’s approach, where experts from different fields work together on theoretical challenges.

“Good for those who had the vision to hire an evolutionary biologist like me into their physics department, because it’s definitely unorthodox,” she says.

Schultz says the Evolution Cluster addresses problems of a more practical nature, as well. Specifically, hiring professors whose research and teaching will impact students and colleagues well beyond their own departments will enable SAS to leverage Penn resources.

In the future, researchers hope to develop graduate and undergraduate courses offered in conjunction with the applied mathematics and computational science department or the materials research lab—which itself has a 50-year history of multidisciplinary collaboration.

Kamien notes that the cluster model also “allows us to hire people who might be passed over in a straight-up search” because their work generally lies outside pre-existing departmental subfields.

“It also self-selects people who are interested in working with other departments,” Kamien adds. “We’re doing something that only Penn can do because we have this innovative cluster structure and a committee that sits above the departments.”

Schultz’s ultimate vision for the Cluster is far-reaching: “I believe that as an institution, Penn has a chance to become highly visible in evolution, as very broadly defined. In fact, Penn has historically been strong in evolution.”

He sees the topic as one that could resonate across the University, with life scientists, physicists, economists, linguists, and web designers bringing new perspectives to the table. Kamien says faculty from the Law, Wharton, and Perelman schools could also benefit from and contribute to the Cluster.

Schultz says he wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cluster grow into a comprehensive center for evolution. “I don’t know exactly how it will evolve,” he says, “but where it’s going will certainly be the most  interesting part of this story.”

Evolution Clutser