Physicist presides over Stanford's Faculty Senate
Kathryn A. Moler, who earned a bachelor's degree and a doctorate in physics at Stanford and joined the faculty in 1998, is the chair of this year's Faculty Senate. The senate's final meeting of the quarter will be held Dec. 3.
Most people at Stanford know Kathryn Ann Moler, a professor of applied physics and of physics, as “Kam,” a nickname her father – who liked acronyms – bestowed on her as a child.
This year, the members of the Faculty Senate also know her as “Chair Moler.”
Since becoming chair in September, Moler has presided over the discussion of a variety of topics, including the launch of OpenXChange, a yearlong, community-wide and community-driven initiative, and Stanford’s new course evaluations, which are designed to focus on student learning and increase student self-reflection.
Moler joined the senate during the 2012-13 academic year, one of several faculty members elected to represent the School of Humanities & Sciences. During her second year, she served on the Committee on Committees. During her third year, she was a member of the Steering Committee.
Moler said academic matters – such as setting principles for admission and requirements for degrees – are the core mission of the senate. In addition, the senate provides valuable feedback to university leaders. She cited the recent discussion about new course evaluations as an example of how the senate helps spread the word about new programs and initiatives.
“The implementation of a new course evaluation is an example of something that seems simple, but actually could have far-reaching implications for how both professors and students think about learning and teaching,” she said. “It’s really important to roll that out properly.”
The path to physics and academia
Moler, who was born in Michigan, said she enjoyed science classes as a child – like most of the elementary and middle school children she knew.
Her parents, a dual-career academic couple who eventually left academia to go into business, also were an influence.
“My parents are quantitative thinkers,” she said. “They’re mathematicians and computer scientists. That’s not the same as being a natural scientist by any stretch, but it does demystify and make less intimidating the whole process of thinking about the world in quantitative ways.”
Moler said the biggest influence on her future as a scientist was a middle school program for gifted children in Albuquerque, N.M. Under the program, students left their regular classrooms for two hours a day for a class of intellectual exploration.
“It was really wonderful, because it was a chance to explore things that we were interested in,” she said. “One semester I did a project on Greek mythology. In addition to writing reports, I created paintings that became a classroom mural.”
A Stanford alumna
Moler came to Stanford, she said, because she felt so much at home when she visited.
“Also, it was important to me to be at a place where I had options that were both techie and fuzzy,” she said. “I didn’t want a sacrifice on either side of the spectrum, because I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. Even if I went in one direction, I wanted to know people and have friends going in the other direction.”
At Stanford, Moler majored in physics. During her junior year, she and the other female physics major in the Class of 1988 – they were friends who shared a house off campus – won a Firestone Grant for undergraduate research.
“We set ourselves two challenges: to build a scanning tunneling microscope and to use it to look at non-conducting organic molecules,” Moler said. “We started in the spring of our junior year, worked on it during the summer and throughout our senior year. We reached the point of building a working microscope that could see atoms. But we never got convincing pictures of the organic molecules.”
Moler said she fell in love with research in a project-based lab course during her junior year. Doing real research the following summer intensified that feeling.
“There’s nothing like the feeling of asking nature a question and getting an answer back,” she said.
When she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics, the Department of Physics gave Moler the Rebecca Carrington Award for excellence in research and teaching.
Moler had many options for graduate school, including Stanford. All of the programs she considered did high-quality research. Moler said the deciding question was: Does the program foster a collaborative atmosphere among graduate students?
“As undergraduates at Stanford, we often worked on our problem sets together in the old Physics Library,” she said. “So did the graduate students. So I knew that there were large groups of friendly people studying together and working together and forming working groups. That was something I really wanted to have in graduate school. When I visited other universities, I would ask about that.”
Moler, who chose Stanford, earned a doctorate in 1995 in condensed matter physics. She spent the next three years as a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University, under a program designed for exceptional recent PhD recipients in experimental physics.
In 1998, Moler returned to Stanford as an assistant professor of applied physics – the first woman on the faculty of the Department of Applied Physics. Moler joined the faculty of the Department of Physics in 2004 and is now a full professor in both departments.
Moler said a woman could feel very self-conscious in the male-dominated world of physics, but she generally doesn’t, except on the rare occasions men have “reminded” her she was a woman.
As a graduate student, Moler was reminded of her gender the day a visitor walked into a physics lab and asked her to send a fax. She politely gave him the room number of the administrative assistant’s office. “Aren’t you the secretary?” he persisted.
Moler, who was wearing a white lab coat and safety glasses, was speechless. Her male lab partner chimed in. “Secretaries don’t dress like this,” he said, tugging on the arm of Moler’s lab coat.
Moler said physics is generally welcoming to women.
“One of the things that is really wonderful about being a woman in physics is the extent to which our shared experiences can create a bond between us,” she said.
A busy fall schedule
This quarter, she is teaching Physics 61, the first part of a three-part advanced freshman physics series. Moler said the small introductory class is designed for students with a strong physics and calculus background – AP courses – who want to challenge themselves during their freshman year.
“It’s a fantastic group of students,” she said.
She is overseeing the research of six graduate physics students in the Moler Group, a mesoscopic magnetic imaging lab that builds and operates tools for measuring magnetic fields on small-length scales.
Moler also is the principal investigator of the Stanford site of the new National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure, whose goal is to advance research in nanoscale science, engineering and technology.
In addition, she is serving on the university’s Presidential Search Committee, which is conducting a comprehensive and inclusive global search for Stanford’s 11th president. In fall 2016, Stanford plans to inaugurate a new president to succeed President John L. Hennessy, who is stepping down after more than 15 years leading the university.
The final senate meeting of the quarter will be held Dec. 3 at Stanford’s new Central Energy Facility, which is located on the west side of campus off Searsville Road. The meeting, which will begin at 3:15 p.m., will feature a presentation by Harry J. Elam Jr., vice provost for undergraduate education. The senate also will hear a 10-minute overview of Stanford Energy System Innovations, followed by a guided tour of the new facility. Discussion is limited to members of the senate, but members of the Stanford community may request to attend the meeting by contacting the Academic Secretary’s Office at 724-7863 or by sending an email to Adrienne Emory, assistant academic secretary.