From left to right: Sindi, Dale, Ardell

NSF’s prestigious INSPIRE program calls for radically interdisciplinary, transformative projects. CIS faculty member Rick Dale has joined mathematician Suzanne Sindi and biologist David Ardell in winning an $800,000 INSPIRE award, as recently covered by this university press item. In collaboration with researchers at UW-Madison (Gary Lupyan) and U. Auckland (Russell Gray in New Zealand), researchers will seek common principles that guide the evolution of structures both at the molecular and linguistic levels, by using computational and mathematical modeling, along with human data as a test bed for exploring how selection guides the emergence and change of structures across scales. It is entitled: “Selection as an organizing process: from molecules to languages.” As described by University Communications:

“For this project, the faculty members have been reading each other’s papers to gain a better understanding of their different fields. This means cognitive scientists are learning about prions and genetic coding systems, while biological researchers are learning more about how human languages are organized. The researchers are investigating how these systems adapt to their environments in similar ways. To coordinate their activities, the researchers have setup a website.

Sindi, the project’s mathematician at UC Merced, plans to conduct modeling that will describe how versions of a protein compete with each other in a cell. With collaborators, she will then see if the mathematical model extends to versions of language and how they compete with each other in a human population.

The key to their research is the concept of selection. Features of the environment select particular versions of proteins, genetic codes or languages because those versions work better in those environments. The models would suggest common principles that guide how systems — at very different levels — change and evolve.”

The proposal was supported by both the Mathematical Biology, and Perception, Action, and Cognition programs at NSF. It will involve lots of crosstalk between the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, and the School of Natural Sciences. The project also includes consultants and collaborators in the CIS group (Ph.D. student Bodo Winter, faculty Teenie Matlock). Details about collaborators can be found on the project’s public website, here.