CU Boulder’s Orit Peleg will use the support to launch a novel, interdisciplinary probe of the physics of firefly communications
Orit Peleg, a University of Colorado Boulder computer scientist and physicist, has won a 2022 Cottrell Scholar Award, which honors and supports early career scientists who have the potential to become leaders in their fields.
Peleg, an assistant professor of computer science and at the CU Boulder BioFrontiers Institute, is one of 24 scholars to win this year’s award, which comes with $100,000 in research support. The award is bestowed annually by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), which announced the recipients this month.
Peleg, who is also affiliated with the Departments of Physics, Applied Math and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, focuses on understanding how biological communication signals are generated and interpreted.
“These exceptional teacher-scholars are chosen not just for their research and educational programs but for their potential to become academic leaders at their institutions and beyond,” said RCSA President and CEO Daniel Linzer.
Recipients are chosen through a rigorous peer-review process of applications from a wide variety of public and private research universities and primarily undergraduate institutions in the United States and Canada. Their award proposals incorporate both research and science education.
In describing the Cottrell-supported work she will do on the physics of firefly communications, Peleg notes that our world is full of living creatures that must communicate information to survive and reproduce.
“A better understanding of how these communication signals are generated and interpreted—an important challenge in ecology—could benefit from physics and mathematics, via application of concepts like energetic cost, compression and detectability,” she writes.
She proposes to work with firefly swarms, which offer a “rare avenue into this interdisciplinary endeavor, as their signals are purely visual, approximately digital, and traceable, even in vast congested groups of individuals.”
Recent advances in field and virtual-reality technologies allow scientists to probe further than ever and investigate deep questions about signal-design strategies and their broadcasting and processing, she said, adding:
“My extensive background in quantitative studies of insect swarms and fluency in both theoretical and experimental approaches places me in a unique position to develop a deeper understanding of animal communication through testable phenomenological theories.”
As a Cottrell Scholar, Peleg will also develop a class titled “Physics, Artificial-Intelligence and Generative-Art of Agent-Based Models,” which will encourage a “Feynman-like joy” in learning, she writes, referring to the physicist Richard Feynman.
Building on the materials from the multi-agent systems class she piloted at CU Boulder, Peleg will increase the class’s accessibility via interdisciplinary visual experiences, she said.
“The visual component will be aligned with my current research on firefly behavior, with content inspired by and connected to the research proposal. As multi-agent systems have long been used to seed generative artwork, the course will build on these aesthetic expressions while teaching the students about the physics and artificial intelligence of multi-agent systems.”
Peleg said she was honored to have her work recognized by the RCSA: “It means so much to me that the research and education I am passionate about also resonates with others. I am incredibly grateful for the many nurturing mentors and mentees I had over the years. I wouldn't be able to do this without them.”
My extensive background in quantitative studies of insect swarms and fluency in both theoretical and experimental approaches places me in a unique position to develop a deeper understanding of animal communication through testable phenomenological theories.”
Peleg joined the CU Boulder faculty in 2018. She holds a PhD in materials science from ETH Zürich, Switzerland. She also holds masters’ and bachelors’ degrees in physics and computer science from Bar–Ilan University, Israel.
She is the fourth member of the CU Boulder faculty to be named a Cottrell Scholar. The others are, physicist Dennis Perepelitsa in 2020, physicist Cindy Regal in 2014 and chemist Gordana Dukovic in 2013.
“The class of 2022 joins an innovative and impactful community,” said RCSA Senior Program Director Silvia Ronco. “We look forward to seeing these latest awardees leave their mark on the face of science and academia throughout their careers.”
The awards are named for educator, inventor and science visionary Frederick Gardner Cottrell, who founded the Research Corporation for Science Advancement in 1912.
RCSA is a private foundation that funds basic research in the physical sciences at colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. It creates and supports inclusive communities of early career researchers through two core programs: the Cottrell Scholar Program and Scialog.