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Sustainability scientist serves ASU by championing complexity, disruption


Gitta Honegger, professor in ASU's Herberger Institute’s School of Theatre and F

Manfred D. Laubichler

February 27, 2017

Editor’s Note: This story is one in a series of profiles of individuals being honored as part of the ASU Alumni Association’s 2017 Founders’ Day celebration on March 16. Visit the Alumni Association’s website to read the entire series.

Manfred D. Laubichler, a theoretical biologist and historian of science, is being honored at Founders’ Day 2017 with the Faculty Service Achievement Award for his service to Arizona State University and to his profession.

Laubichler is a distinguished sustainability scientist at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and a President's Professor in the School of Life Sciences. He is also an associate director for the Origins Project at ASU. His multi-faceted research involves tracing the role of gene regulatory networks in development and evolution, as well as studying the conceptual structure of modern and historical biology. He also studies the theory of Complex Adaptive Systems, focusing on complexity as a unifying principle in the social and life sciences, including applications in biomedicine, sustainability and the study of innovations. He is recognized as a positive “disrupter” in his work, identifying scientific and intellectual trends years before others do and working with others in a transdisciplinary manner to translate these insights into use-inspired solutions and collaborations.

“At most universities, someone like Manfred would be a forlorn voice whose advocacy for innovation and interdisciplinary research would be tolerated as an oddity,” said Dr. Randolph M. Nesse, a professor of life sciences at ASU and the founding director of the university’s Center for Evolution and Medicine. “At ASU, his contributions have been welcomed and (recognized as) central to ASU’s core missions.”

One of Laubichler’s most significant contributions was his role in the launch of the ASU-Santa Fe Institute (SFI) Center for Biosocial Complex Systems in 2015. The center aids scientists and policymakers in gaining a better theoretical understanding of the interconnections between complex biological and social systems, and in applying that knowledge to questions such as what happens to institutions, health care and human behavior as cities grow into megacities.

Another project that he was instrumental in orchestrating was the ASU-Leuphana Center for Global Sustainability and Cultural Transformation, in conjunction with Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany. The new center, created in 2015 and built on several years of joint projects, expands a shared focus at both universities on global sustainability, transdisciplinary research and education, including the creation of the first dual master’s degree in global sustainability sciences. Students attend and receive degrees from both universities.

At ASU, he has acted as a thesis advisor for many graduate students from a number of different disciplines as well as a select group of undergraduate students in Barrett, the Honors College at ASU. He also has served the university by participating in the Biology & Society Program steering committee and the School of Life Sciences Graduate Programs committee and its strategic planning committee.

Nayely Velez-Cruz, a doctoral student in biology at the ASU-SFI Center for Biosocial Complex systems, called Laubichler an “extraordinary” advisor.

“He has gone above and beyond to ensure that I have every opportunity possible to succeed and has taught me that I have the ability to learn and accomplish anything I set my mind to,” said Velez-Cruz, who is co-authoring a textbook with Laubichler on developmental evolution for Oxford University Press.

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