Creating connections: Western’s complexity science research hub

James Shelley remembers it all starting where a lot of good ideas are born – over pints at the Grad Club.

The grassroots endeavour that is now Western’s Complex Adaptive Systems lab came out of early, informal discussions between interested faculty members.

Intriguing connections began to emerge as Shelley chatted with Sayra Cristancho from Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Jonathan De Sousa from the Faculty of Music, and Paul Tremblay from the department of psychology.

Cristancho was using complexity theory to look at adaptive team performance in the context of primary and surgical care; DeSousa was using a complexity lens to think about how orchestral performance occurs through complex interactions between performers; and Tremblay was studying the psychology of teams.

“It was just fascinating,” Shelley said. “None of them knew the other was working on teams in this way. It left me wondering what would happen if they could compare notes? I think we all knew that if we got ourselves organized some really meaningful and innovative research questions could emerge.”

James Shelley

James Shelley, director of the CAS Lab

Shelley, a knowledge mobilization coordinator in the Faculty of Health Sciences, synthesized those early Grad Club ideas into a vision for a cross-faculty network for complexity science in July, 2019. He has been directing the CAS lab off the side of his desk ever since.

Complex adaptive systems are all around us – our circle of friends, the cells in our bodies, in nearby creeks and forests. Each is made up of interacting pieces that affect one another, and together create something different than the sum of their parts.

The goal of complex adaptive systems theory is to observe, understand and model how such systems form, interact and evolve.

“The CAS lab provides a natural connection point and opens the door for compelling, trans-faculty research collaborations,” said Shelley. “It helps us build on our existing strengths.”

Today, more than 90 faculty members have joined the CAS lab. Shelley credits the support and collaboration of Western Research and the hands-on help of undergraduates for its success.

“None of this could have happened without the support of students,” he said. “The work of identifying scholars across all disciplines at Western who are interested In complex adaptive systems or using It In their research took over a year.”

Since the 2019-2020 academic year, students in Health Studies practicum placements have been mapping faculty interest and expertise in complex adaptive systems across Western. Students in Community Engaged Learning conducted research and literary reviews while participants in the Scholar’s Electives Program developed an actor map of the CAS lab ecosystem to Identify areas of shared Interest among faculty members.

Interactive map showing the research connections between Western faculty members in the CAS lab.

Emma Fabri

Health Studies student Emma Fabri

This past term, Emma Fabri and her peers in the School of Health Studies, Siobhan Bruce and Ameera Kanjee, developed an introductory series of modules in OWL for students interested in learning more about CAS.

“Learning about complex adaptive systems has been the puzzle piece I needed to connect the ideas from each course I’ve taken during my undergrad,” Fabri said. “It allowed me to take a step back and see the big picture.”

Fabri’s experience has given her concrete examples to use in interviews for jobs and graduate school, and a strong opinion on the value of teaching CAS at all levels throughout all courses.

“CAS seems to be taught at graduate level for research purposes, but I believe we should introduce it sooner to help students at any level frame problems – whether it be in their own lives or for their studies,” she said. “It would provide them with an important toolkit to think critically from an interdisciplinary standpoint, and because of this every student should be exposed to CAS in their academic career and apply it to their field of study.”

Fabri will be making her pitch this coming Monday alongside other students and faculty researchers sharing virtual updates on their work in the lab In five- to 10-minute presentations called Lightning Talks.

Although the first round of mapping faculty interest was significant, Shelley is hoping to identify additional faculty and students interested in joining the group.

“Systems are everywhere, and often what we learn about one system can shape the questions and research we undertake on another system,” Shelley said. “We want to foster many new connections between otherwise disparate disciplines.”

Learn More

Anyone interested in learning more about complexity research at Western is invited to CAS Lab Lightning Talks (Winter Term 2021), a live virtual event on Monday, March 22, 4 to 5 p.m. Faculty and students from the lab will share updates on various CAS research projects and initiatives.

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