When David Krakauer joined the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID) in November of 2011 as its first permanent director, he recognized the potential to build one of the first, large-scale transdisciplinary research models embedded in a public university in the country.
Three years later, Krakauer has not only built a collaborative hub, he’s also forged a unique culture where boundaries across fields and disciplines blur—a place where a cartoonist, a stem cell biologist and a data expert can share insight and expertise; a place where businesses and researchers work on the same problems; a place that integrates laboratories and mathematical black boards, and where science can be both elegant and funky.
“It has been a privilege to work with so much talent at UW. From the students to the faculty, there is a hunger for knowledge and experimentation,” Krakauer says. “It has changed my outlook on science and the mechanics of creative institutions.”
But the chance to lead at a different scale brought Krakauer to accept a position as the president of the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), a private, not-for-profit, independent research and education center, where leading scientists grapple with some of the most compelling and complex problems society faces. Krakauer previously held a professor appointment at SFI from 2002 to 2011, serving as the faculty chair beginning in 2009.
He brings with him an unorthodox style and legacy of seeding many eclectic and rigorous programs at WID, including bootcamps and hackathons for experts in data and the humanities to ask larger questions together, “drawing gyms” for cartooning scientists, mobile fountains, as well as interactions that brought together business leaders and researchers to reflect on up-and-coming ideas that impact society.
“David is the reason I’m at the University and the reason I’ve been able to do the experimental work I’ve been longing to do via the Image Lab,” says Lynda Barry, renowned cartoonist, author and Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity. “It’s one thing to theorize about the value of interdisciplinary creativity and quite another thing to be able to actually implement it and see it generate a completely original way of working in the classroom; it’s the most exciting work I’ve done at the University and I’m ever grateful to David for making the exploratory work we’ve been doing possible.”
“David’s time at the head of WID is marked by a rare combination of virtues: brio and rigor.”
Across disciplines at the Institute, Krakauer has directed and grown an administrative team and community of 350 research collaborators, helping to bring in more than $65 million in competitive grant dollars from public and private funding agencies to the university. He’s established distinct fellowships for faculty and students to encourage collaborations and experimentation of importance across fields. He’s also played a key role in recruiting valuable hires to WID, working with departments across campus to bring leading experts in creativity, epigenetics, optimization and tissue engineering to the organization and university at large.
Krakauer also brought the Institute on the road during his tenure to establish collaborations and relationships. He’s given more than 50 talks on complexity science, institutional building, and the future of research to thousands of people at events around the United States in coordination with universities, companies, the Wisconsin Alumni Association, NASA and the Kellogg Innovation Network.
“David has been a valued asset and a great leader for WID. His expertise and sage guidance of this fledgling institute has helped get it up and running and on the map,” says Marsha Mailick, UW–Madison interim Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education. “His leadership has helped position the Institute for future success.”
Krakauer’s transition to Santa Fe prompts moving the Center for Complexity and Collective Computation (C4) to New Mexico. While at WID, he and collaborator Jessica Flack have co-directed C4, examining the informational and computational principles that underlie society and life on Earth. Flack built C4 from the ground up and as part of that effort founded the John von Neumann Public Lecture series in Complexity and Computation, drawing audiences of as many as 450 people into the Discovery Building to hear from a variety of expert speakers, across a range of organizations, from Google to Princeton University. Flack will also join SFI as a professor and researcher.
Talking to faculty about Krakauer’s directorship, one thing is clear: he’s laid a foundation for a culture that’s both curious and tenacious.
“David’s time at the head of WID is marked by a rare combination of virtues: brio and rigor,” says Jordan Ellenberg, a fellow with the Institute and professor of math. “It’s our task now to carry on as rigorously and as con brio as we can, having learned from his example.”
David will remain Director through June 30, 2015.