Fireflies flashing, birds flocking, fish schooling. Collective behaviours stop us in our tracks when we encounter them in nature, and we marvel at how such intricate displays come about. The groups appear to be solving tasks that the individuals constituting that group could not. How do dumb agents come together to act cleverly? 

This need not be limited to the animal domain either. Just imagine that instead of seeing that flock of starlings on your morning stroll, you see a swarm of robots collectively solving their tasks. It may sound like sci-fi, but even in robotics, simple local interactions can give rise to new global behaviours. What can artificial agents teach us about the natural order, and how does inspiration from nature and brains improve the robotic performance?

And then there are neurons — yet another collection of otherwise "dumb agents" capable of more than the sum of its parts.

Natural agents. Artificial agents. Neural “agents”.  

Against this wonderful scientific backdrop, we will also be joined by two creative groups to broaden our perspectives and interpret our theme through dance and through art.

Please join us for this year’s SWC and GCNU student symposium as we explore these ideas together. It will all take place online on October 8th from 10:30 BST. 

The symposium will be hosted on Crowdcast.   SIGN UP HERE!


For SWC students and staff

We are also planning some fabulous audience engagement. Think of your current work, let yourself be inspired how it might play out in collective actions, and stay tuned for details! There will be prizes.



Intro by the SWC/Gatsby Student Symposium Team


Iain Couzin, Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior & University of Konstanz


Ivar Hagendoorn, a choreographer, photographer, and researcher


Sabine Hauert, University of Bristol


Lunch break


Viola Priesemann, Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-organization


Studio DRIFT, a pair of artists working on experimental sculptures, installations, and performances


Justin Werfel, Harvard University


Coffee break


Orit Peleg, University of Colorado Boulder & Santa Fe Institute


Adrienne Fairhall, University of Washington


In-person student presentations, pizzas, and drinks for the internal audience

*all timings in BST (UTC+1)


Talk titles and abstracts will be published below in due course. For now — acquaint yourself with our brilliant speakers by reading the following short profiles we have prepared.

Iain Couzin (website, @icouzin)
Iain Couzin is one of the directors of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz and the chair of Biodiversity and Collective Behaviour at the University of Konstanz. His work is focussed on the fundamentals of collective behaviour: what influences swarm behaviour? How does the individual decide what to do within a swarm? To investigate this, he not only combines experiments and theory, but is also at the forefront of developing new technology: tracking several hundred fish simultaneously with a python-based system, or immersing fish in a virtual reality swarm are among the techniques developed in his lab. 

Due to his interest in fundamentals, he has worked with many species from locusts to primates as well as the collective behaviour of single cells, and his team includes researchers from diverse backgrounds such as behavioural ecology, applied mathematics and physics. 

Ivar Hagendoorn (website, @IvarHagendoorn)
Ivar Hagendoorn is a choreographer, photographer and researcher. When not in the studio working on a new dance production, he can be found sitting behind his computer editing photos or writing a research paper. 

His research applies insights from philosophy, cognitive neuroscience, experimental psychology, mathematics and sociology to the study of dance and choreography. In recent years, his research has shifted to the intersection of artificial intelligence, cognitive (neuro)science and philosophy. The focus is still on dance and creativity: "Ultimately I dream of developing a system capable of learning high level concepts, which can be used to generate dance phrases". On 8th October, he will go into detail about his project ‘Emergent Choreography’ that explores applications of complexity theory to dance. In particular, the tenets of complexity theory is that a central governing agent is not necessary for the emergence of intricate patterns or cooperative behaviour.

Sabine Hauert (website, @sabinehauert)
Sabine Hauert is Associate Professor (Reader) of Swarm Engineering at the University of Bristol in the UK. Her research focuses on making swarms for people, and across scales, from nanorobots for cancer treatment, to larger robots for environmental monitoring, or logistics. Before joining the University of Bristol, Sabine engineered swarms of nanoparticles for cancer treatment at MIT, and deployed swarms of flying robots at EPFL.

Sabine is also President and Co-founder of, and executive trustee of, two non-profits dedicated to connecting the robotics and AI communities to the public.

Viola Priesemann (website, @violapriesemann)
Prof. Priesemann is a group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Göttingen, Germany. She studies self-organizing systems, spreading processes, and how artificial and living networks can process information. Her work demonstrates how emergent dynamics of complex networks, such as reverberation, critical (or sub-critical) dynamics, and phase transitions can act as a substrate for information processing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she has focused on creating much-needed and influential models of disease spread which quantified the effects of lockdowns and other interventions. Her remarkable scientific contributions and clarity in communicating with the public have been recognized by the Max Planck Society with the Communitas award.

Studio DRIFT (website, @studiodrift)
Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta founded studio DRIFT in 2006/7. Their work fuses hidden properties of nature with technology and mankind by combining for example nature and science fiction, knowledge and intuition. By doing so, they want to spark everyone’s curiosity and open people’s eyes to everything we take for granted, to wonder how everyday objects work and to reconnect us with our planet. To make us realize that with our current technology we can try to approach, but never fully cover how nature works because of its complexity. Their work is very unique because of their interdisciplinary collaborations with scientists, universities, engineers and many more people. According to Ralph, persistence is key to making everything happen and Lonneke the world is one big exhibition if you only care to look. 

Justin Werfel (website)
Justin Werfel leads the Designing Emergence Laboratory at Harvard University. His research interests are in the understanding and design of collective behavior in complex and emergent systems, with work in areas including swarm robotics, social insect behavior, evolutionary theory, engineered molecular nanosystems, and educational technology. His work has been featured by numerous national and international media, highlighted among Science's "top 10 scientific achievements of 2014", and denounced by a former assistant secretary of the US Treasury as "an enemy of the human race."

Orit Peleg (website, @oritpeleg)
Setting up GoPros in a forest or working with 10k subjects at once is nothing unusual for Orit Peleg. As an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and External Faculty at the Santa Fe Institute, she seeks to understand how individual organisms dynamically harness the emergent capabilities of the collective to guard themselves against environmental fluctuations. Combining field work with controlled experiments and mathematical modelling, her lab studies a range of fascinating behaviours in disordered living systems, such as collective ventilation in honeybee hives and synchronous flashing of fireflies. Their work demonstrates how short-range interactions between locally perceptive individuals can result in spontaneous reorganisation of their macro-environment in a way that enhances their collective survival and, at least in the case of fireflies, mesmerises their beholder.

Adrienne Fairhall (website, @alfairhall)
A theoretical physicist by training, Adrienne Fairhall has carved out her niche in computational neuroscience by applying dynamical systems ideas to study the true nature of the neural code. Through collaborations with experimentalists like Rafael Yuste and Vanessa Ruta, her lab investigates the principles of neural computation in organisms as diverse as hydra, songbirds, insects, and mammals. Coincidentally,  Adrienne's proudest piece of work, revealed in a recent Brain Inspired episode, is also one that transcends multiple systems, identifying fractional order differentiation as a good model for spike-rate adaptation in fruit fly and rat neurons alike (Fairhall et al. 2001b, Lundstrom et al. 2008). However, even though adaptive coding has been a major theme in her career, Adrienne's work is by no means limited to individual "dumb agents" but also considers their role at the level of networks and, indeed, animal behaviour. And if you find yourself wondering how Adrienne can be such a kick-ass scientist, mentor, and mum all at once, treat yourself to a series of stories by inspiring women scientists that Adrienne has compiled as proof that you can, in fact, have it all.

SWC/GCNU Student Symposium Team

The Student Symposium is organised jointly by PhD students of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour and the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit of University College London. This is the fourth instalment of an annual discussion-based event that aims to bring together neuroscience researchers from the UK and abroad to engage with current and future problems in neuroscience.