You're exactly the kind of person we're looking for so welcome to the team!
Firstly can you PM me on this forum with an email address we can use to invite you to the slack group and the forums? Feel free to create a new one if you want it seperate from your other email or use your current email, anything is fine. When the admins are around we can get you access to the various forums and the slack group so you can start contributing.
The first thing to know is things are pretty relaxed, contribute what you would like to when you can. There is no obligation to do more than you want to. Also you can leave the project for a bit and come back later if you like, just let us know, that's fine.
Anyway I'm not exactly sure what the best way to get up to speed is, it slightly depends what you want to work on. We're hoping to produce a (relativley) up to date Game Design Document soon so that will be quite helpful.
Here is the current discussion we are having, it's about the ai,
The top post of this thread is my attempt to get the metabolic pathway for the microbe stage into some reasonable shape, I'd be interested to know what you think,http://thrivegame.canadaboard.net/t1491-cpa-master-list
If you want to get set up to program (all the code is in lua and c++) you'll need to talk to moopli or jonjj and they can guide you through the process of getting the compiler set up. You don't need to. If you want to program and think that would be good for you then cool, otherwise it's fine to contribute as a theorist only and just work on the science and not the implementation.
Moreover something I do is just make prototypes, which can be in any language, to get the concepts into code without going all the way and incorporating them into the main codebase.
I guess that's the last thing I want to say is things move slowly round here, we are a long way from finishing the microbe stage, so I find the best way to enjoy this process is to take it as a chance to learn some cool stuff as we go along. Then it's pretty satisfying. If you want to play the finished game tomorrow then things are going to get frustrating.
Anyway hope this is helpful. If you have questions post here or message me on this forum, once you're in the slack group that's probably the best place for questions.
Hope you enjoy working with us!