Undergraduate Complexity Research
Jenny Huang is currently a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford pursuing a graduate degree in political theory. Prior to beginning her graduate studies, she worked as a policy associate for Pete Buttigieg and served as the civic engagement program coordinator at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. Huang worked with SFI external professor Simon DeDeo as an Undergraduate Complexity Researcher (UCR) in 2016.
Briefly describe your primary research/academic work or other professional work.
I’m currently a graduate student studying political theory at the University of Oxford, where I’m supported by a Rhodes Scholarship. My academic work is focused on political philosophy and democratic theory. In the early stages of my thesis, I am thinking about the implications of different concepts of ethical truth on inclusive democratic rule. This research somewhat departs from my academic work as an undergraduate—I studied mathematics at Indiana University and carried out computational social science research as an Undergraduate Complexity Researcher at the Santa Fe Institute. In the two years prior to starting my graduate degree, I worked on civic engagement in Chicago and social policy in South Bend. I’ve returned to the policy space for this summer and am temporarily working for the City of Boston Environment Department on urban planning challenges at the nexus of climate resilience and affordable housing.
In what ways does the study of complexity science influence your thinking about your current work?
Two takeaways come to mind. First: interdisciplinarity is important in academia and public service. When collaborators bring together our varied areas of expertise, methodological approaches, and levels of analysis, we are encouraged to think through problems in novel ways and with new conceptual language. Second: to paraphrase Elinor Ostrom, understanding social phenomena at multiple levels requires a willingness to consider complexity rather than abstract away from it. We need to fit our theoretical concepts and our models to reality and not the other way around.
How did your experience as a UCR impact your professional (or personal) perspective?
I loved that I was able to dive deep into an engaging research question and methodological approach during my time as a UCR, with a level of autonomy and trial-and-error not always possible during term-time undergraduate studies. It was at SFI that I grew in my ability to sit with a question, break it into manageable parts, and understand not only what my approach was doing but what it was failing to do. And of course, anyone who has spent time at the Santa Fe Institute knows that it’s a singular place to work—a place where intellectual life is intentionally built around collaboration and exchange, even for the most junior members of the community.
What interests do you have that might surprise your colleagues?
What might be a surprise to colleagues in Oxford (where we’re often running low on sun) is that I’ll take any chance that I can get to be outdoors. Some of my favorite memories from my UCR involved hiking and climbing in northern New Mexico. COVID-19 has somewhat bounded that movement, so lately I’ve been watching more films, and I’ve particularly enjoyed the work of writer and director Edward Yang.
This interview was conducted in August 2020.