Why Internet Traffic Directors Should Sit Down with Biologists: George Poste Talks Complex Systems


George Poste, Chief Scientist, Complex Adaptive Systems; Regents’ Professor and Del E. Webb Chair in Health Innovation, ASU
Bio and Contact Info

Listen (5:51) A paradigm shift to systems thinking

Listen (4:28) Note to those setting curriculums

Listen (4:37) How do we bring the clinical and research worlds closer together?

Listen (8:53) Simulating complex adaptive systems

Listen (2:46) Science only one of the challenges

Listen (5:13) Why the disparity in reimbursement rates for Rx and Dx?

Listen (7:51) Something special happening at ASU

If you’ve ever heard a talk by today’s guest, George Poste, you’ve no doubt come away scratching your head, overwhelmed by the complexity of human biology. As if the science challenges don’t give one enough of a headache, George continues his carpet bombing approach with all that is wrong with our healthcare ecosystem as well.

Back in the '90s at SmithKline Beecham, George realized that the field was way overly reductionist and that we must do more to look at human biology as a system. He made his way to ASU where he then launched the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative to bring together biologists, engineers, data scientists, and others.

What is a complex adaptive system and how can simulating it help us decipher human biology?

"A complex adaptive system,” George answers, “is one in which the collective behavior of the component parts cannot be predicted by an analysis of one or more of the these component parts.”

Whether you’re looking at global climate or intracellular wiring, George says it’s all about information transfer in a "network architecture."

The architecture of George’s way of speaking is also complex. With frequent use of the “dash”, George mimics in his own sentence structure the systems he’s describing. His syntax tends to bloom like a natural organism.

An example:

“The question now, then, is how can--by understanding the molecular pathways and coupling of those pathways—because we all tend to think in linear terms (you see the diagrams of a molecular pathway tend to be a series of straight arrows, but in fact what it is is a series of pathways that are interlinked)—because the one other feature of complex adaptive systems is that they have enormous redundancy built into them, so that if one bit goes down --you know it’s the classical model of the internet—if you take out a series of nodes, there are whole ways of distributing traffic around that . . . if you extrapolate that to cancer therapy, yes, you may knock out a particular node with your targeted therapy, but what you need to know now is what are the most likely network couplings of that particular pathway for the compensatory redundancy pathways which will kick in that will confer resistance on a cancer cell.”

Did you get all that? The internet is an interesting comparison. So if we bring together some of those engineers who work on routing internet traffic with some biologists they should be able to have a good time, right?

"Absolutely," George says.

As we conclude the interview, he acknowledges that there is something special going on at ASU, a new paradigm and openness to inter-disciplinary work that is unique. How is it fostered and funded? And what can we expect from this approach?

Fasten your seat belts and hold on for the ride. Suspend your need for short, easy sentences, and rewards await. Presenting systems thinker, George Poste.

Podcast brought to you by: National Biomarker Development Alliance - Collaboratively creating standards for end-to-end systems-based biomarker development—to advance precision medicine