Meet Our Faculty
Scholarship is at its best when it draws upon a diverse community. When individuals are exposed to novel perspectives from a broader group, their thoughts become more creative, and they generate innovative solutions they might not have otherwise considered. Here, Stanford faculty members share their breadth of life experiences and interests that fuel the dynamic learning environment on campus.
Associate Professor of Theater and Performance Studies
“In India, performance is part of the everyday life of the city. You can’t escape it – whether it’s cinema, visual performances or your cab driver bursting into song. I started acting at a young age and have always been in love with reading, particularly Shakespeare and Chekhov. As I grew up, I wanted to understand drama, not just as words on a page, but also as stories carried by actors’ bodies. Even when a theater is dark and empty, it is still a very affective space.
“At Stanford, many students use performance to draw attention to issues of social inequality. Our students’ commitment to social justice moves me – they’re what I love the most about Stanford. Many students are drawn to my classes because they’re interested in questions of racial, gender or queer justice. Their creativity pushes the boundaries, and although one might assume that studying theater and performance studies means you emerge as an actor, the field is a good training ground for a variety of careers, including law, consulting and education. The humanities-based curriculum develops students’ abilities in critical thinking and writing, leadership, stage presence and collaboration, all essential skills for a range of careers.”
Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics
“It’s an exciting time to be an aerospace engineer. There have been amazing breakthroughs in the field, such as the realization of rockets that can launch, land and launch again. My research group is developing micro- and nanoscale sensors that can survive and function within extreme conditions found on the surface of Mars, Venus or within rocket engines. It’s thrilling to think that our work could eventually impact space exploration.
“Deciding which engineering problems to solve and how to pursue the best solutions can be challenging. After completing my doctorate, I didn’t know which career path to choose. I ended up taking a job in industry, which opened my eyes to the challenges of commercialization and taught me how to transition a design concept to an actual product. However, I realized that I missed being in an academic research environment, so I took a nontraditional path and became a postdoctoral researcher after working in industry. It was a risky career choice, and people close to me questioned my decision, but the move was a helpful deviation in my career path. As a postdoctoral researcher, I learned how to run a lab, mentor students, teach classes, write proposals, and eventually, I decided to pursue a career in academia. Now, as an assistant professor, my work is multifaceted – I’m never doing the same thing every day – and I get to work with amazing students.”
Associate Professor of Computer Science
“Humans are the only animals that can tell stories from seeing pictures. One of my projects involves teaching a computer how to do this kind of work, how to look at an image and determine what’s important and tune out the ‘noise.’ Combining language and vision isn’t easy, and every day it’s challenging to think of the most fundamental questions of what intelligence is. I like the feeling of being challenged and not completely at ease – we should reinvent ourselves and our research.
“Artificial intelligence is a deeply humanistic discipline. We tend to focus on the ‘cool’ factor, but what excites me and my students is the mission of changing transportation, health care, human communication and more for the better. Even still, deciding to dive into computer science and AI in graduate school was difficult. As an immigrant, I felt an intense personal responsibility to take care of my family, including my parents, who were then immigrants in survival mode. Pursuing graduate studies meant delaying the start of my working career, with unclear prospects after finishing graduate school. Ultimately, no one can give you this kind of pressure – it’s something you choose to take on, just as you choose to stay true to your responsibilities. When you know you’re staying true to yourself, you stay happy, even if things aren’t always easy.”
Assistant Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature
“Nothing separates us from scholars working in Arabic and Persian 1,000 years ago. When those scholars did work in science fields like physics and optics, they didn’t have all the tools we have now, but when it comes to how metaphors work or how poetry is beautiful, we’re at the same level of expertise. We have access to the same raw material – our brains, our words, literature, the things we like reading. Now, the task in my research is capturing the quality of their work and translating it into something that people interested in language can benefit from today. It’s tremendous fun. If you have a familiarity with how a language works, you can better understand the things people say and do using that and other languages.
“And the things we don’t know are worth finding out. Society needs universities that produce knowledge, including knowledge that doesn’t seem to have any immediate impact and doesn’t seem to be immediately monetizable. The process of translating something tells us about ourselves and where we are today. That’s the payoff – you get to think about how we humans find out knowledge.”
Kathryn Gin Lum
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
“Studying religion lets me ask what people care deeply about and what they do about it. Being a historian allows me to spend time in dusty archives hearing what they have to say. I enjoy telling stories rooted in archival finds and love sharing the richness of American religious history with students at Stanford.
“One thing that people don’t often realize about studying religion is that religious concepts can offer a unique window onto seemingly non-religious people and environments. ‘Religion’ doesn’t just have to mean traditions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Buddhism. The features of many religions – such as myths, rituals and end-times scenarios – can be found in environments that seem secular, too. Stanford, for instance, has myths about its founders and rituals like fountain hopping. The culture at Stanford, and Silicon Valley in general, instills a drive to save the world and preserve our minds through technology. Stanford creates community and a shared sense of identity as much as many churches or temples. Understanding how humans are religious is key to understanding what it means to be human in the world, both historically and in the present.”
Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering
“My first set of students recently graduated. Seeing them arrive at conclusions they weren’t capable of a year or two ago, and knowing that I was part of their maturation process, has provided some of my greatest moments of joy. One thing that’s invigorating about working at Stanford is the opportunity to influence the top students in the world, and to do so in an atmosphere that enables the pursuit of ideas and taking risks, regardless if they are proven successful.
“Teaching students is a natural extension of what drives my work, which is my deep desire to help people. But waiting for your work to finally reach the people you’re trying to help can be frustrating. Many of our efforts are motivated by translational research: putting the products we work on in the lab into the hands of people who need them. When you’re dealing with this kind of interdisciplinary medical research, the road can be hard and long. You need to be patient, willing to learn a language you’re not comfortable speaking, or to translate your work to people who don’t understand jargon. And you need to be able to endure the time it takes to pass through regulation. But the prospect of using biomedical optics to help people lead better lives is part of what motivates me every day.”
Professor of English
“Stories – narratives – are very powerful. I love literature for what it can teach us, what it makes us feel and how we use it to communicate with each other. The first book I remember really affecting me was the children’s book Striped Ice Cream by Joan Lexau. It moved me deeply. Raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I grew up around Mexican Americans and Native Americans. I did not know any African Americans at the time and would not meet any for several years. And so the book powerfully framed my understanding of what kind of people African Americans might be. The experience provided an early lesson in the power of narrative to create understanding and foster empathy.
“As much as I loved reading as a child, I did not always know that I would – or even could – be a professor. And my path to Stanford was by no means a smooth or straight one! Few people know that for the first 10 years of my young adulthood, I was involved in electoral politics in Houston, Texas – I was, in fact, a political wife. At that point, I would never have believed it if you told me that I would ever be a professor at Stanford.
“But my love of reading and my desire to seek out answers to some of humanity’s most fundamental questions took me on the path to graduate school and academia. Now, in my ongoing conversations with scholars across the disciplines, I research how narrative shapes the schemas through which people understand race and other significant issues in the world today.”
Associate Professor of Philosophy
“This past year, I took physics, math and chemistry courses with freshmen. It’s much easier the second time around – I’ve figured out how to learn! When you spend your time as a teacher carefully trying to explain things to others, it makes you better at understanding others’ explanations. Indeed, one of my professors last year taught me physics when I was a Stanford undergraduate. These classes may seem like they don’t have much to do with philosophy, but to make real progress on some central philosophical questions we need to look carefully at the interconnections between philosophy, science and mathematics.
“I think philosophy has often not been taught effectively. We often throw students in the deep end of the swimming pool by giving them difficult classics or hard contemporary research articles. More students would be interested in the humanities if they were given courses that met them where they are. I’ve also been studying non-Western intellectual traditions in the hopes of redesigning my classes so that they do a better job of assessing why we’ve ended up doing the kind of philosophy we do. We need to give our students the tools of rational, critical thinking so that they can engage in difficult conversations even when their disagreements are generated by deep differences in background worldviews.”
Assistant Professor of Music
“Anything worth designing is worth designing beautifully. There’s an art to shaping our world in a way that’s both useful and human. Only recently have I realized that my work with music and technology is unified by design, specifically a notion of ‘artful design.’ We can’t simply ‘smush’ disciplines together and hope things work out – and design is how we fit all the elements together in the right place and order to create something new. Stanford is a place where creative things happen naturally at the intersection of many different disciplines, and such an intersection is where I work and play. And the weather here is pretty good, too.
“It’s not enough to follow your interests – you have to fight for them. Back when I was an undergrad, there was no academic program that combined computers, music and design. Even as I pursued it out of interest, it was with constant doubt in my mind: ‘By doing this, am I shooting myself in the foot, or ultimately making myself unemployable?’ The one reassurance was knowing that if I were to ‘fail,’ it would be without regret because it was done out of solid interest. Looking back, life feels like a feedback loop, and I seem to be living what I am working on. And much like the book I’m currently writing, and the design process itself, I have no idea how it will turn out – and along the way, it’s enjoyable, sometimes agonizing, but always filled with curiosity.”
Associate Professor of History
“My research on racial passing really began when my aunt told me a story about a family member who passed as white in the 1940s. Our family member resisted assuming the life of a white woman, but her mother insisted that this was the best – if not the only – way to succeed in Jim Crow America, so her daughter agreed. Years passed, and the daughter married a white man and had children. Then, her mother called and begged her to come home because her father was dying. Her daughter had no choice but to say, ‘I can’t. It’s not possible.’ At that point, she was a white woman and there was simply no turning back. My aunt’s magnificent storytelling and this personal connection to racial passing inspired me to delve into the history of how racial passing affects families, and to explore the pain, loss and separation that resulted.
“It is critically important to study race now. We must study race, gender, class, sexual orientation and the intersections of these identity categories. We are dealing with many unresolved issues that stem from the long and enduring history of white supremacy. We have to understand the history of white supremacy so that we can challenge and dismantle it. It’s inspiring to teach students who are so courageous in wanting to confront issues of racial injustice, economic inequality, sexual violence, sexism and multiple forms of discrimination. My students have taught me to constantly be aware of what’s happening in the current moment. To be effective teachers and historians, we must connect historical knowledge to our own times. We must help students to see their place in our history and to give them the tools to create a more just world.”
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Diseases) and of Microbiology and Immunology
“We’re really like walking planets to the microbes that inhabit us. For me, looking in the microscope is like being in a submarine, exploring landscapes that most people will never get to see. Shrinking through the porthole of a microscope and exclaiming ‘Mira!’ (Look!) with my students brings me back every day to the sense of wonder that gave me the courage to pursue higher learning.
“In a similar way, a place like Stanford is really made special by the communities of people working and studying here. The freedom to brainstorm with all of these brilliant people is the campus’s biggest asset. I grew up in Mexico, and it was very challenging leaving my home to attend college in the United States, but I was lucky to be able to explore what I wanted to do. That’s one of the reasons that I stayed in the United States. This country lets you pursue things that are luxuries in other places. Along the way, I’ve learned that the personal and cultural history you bring to the medical profession is just as valuable as your medical training – so don’t forget who you are. Even studying biology, you can see that diversity creates resiliency, and increases the number of solutions to problems.”
Associate Professor of Classics
“Studying the ancient Romans is like doing a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with only 53 pieces. When studying contemporary society, there’s no shortage of source material. With the Romans there’s much less, so we need to be creative to fill in the picture and bring it to life. I want to show students the rich variety within ancient cultures and their afterlives. They’re much more than just the columns outside the Supreme Court building. Let’s try to understand the hopes and fears of different communities around the ancient Mediterranean, even if they’re not the ones whose texts have survived.
“I focus on what happens when different groups of people come into contact: What persons, ideas and objects can we discern? What kinds of impact are involved? Generally speaking, it’s the victors that tell the stories, so we need to look for ways of going beyond that. It’s an intellectual challenge, but also an ethical one. In such ways we need a critical and self-aware dimension in our research. Stanford makes it easy to collaborate with scholars from different fields, and this has helped me develop a broader approach. In studying any society, ancient or not, language deserves to be a key element whenever possible. Regardless of your field, you can never know enough languages. Studying languages – even just a little bit, and even if a language is no longer anyone’s mother tongue – is fundamental if we’re going to be humble, respect different perspectives and see the breadth of human experience.”