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Professor Chris Gerdes on stage at the event

Chris Gerdes, associate professor of mechanical engineering, speaks at the Feb. 1 "Stanford+Connects Los Angeles" event. His topic: "Who Will Be Driving on the Highway of the Future?" (Photo: Van Ditthavong / Stanford Alumni Association

Global tour forges new connections between Stanford and alumni

More than 1,600 people participated in "Stanford+Connects Los Angeles" on Feb. 1. The event was billed as "a global, come-as-you-are party for your brain that brings the best of Stanford together."

Stanford alumni had some tough decisions to make last weekend when their alma mater touched down at the Pasadena Convention Center, bringing them top faculty who gave seminars and engaged in conversations about the key issues of the day.

Should they pop into a talk about forging a new immigration system in the United States, or one on controlling and mapping the brain with light?

Should they attend a talk about how the arts are transforming Stanford, or a conversation about the prospects for democracy in Iran?

Would they go to hear a Nobel laureate explain the new economics of matching and market design, or learn how Stanford is using the racetrack to develop safer cars?

It was like being back on the Farm and having to choose between too many great courses or events.

But there was no question about hearing President John Hennessy, who opened the fifth Stanford+Connects program with an address on the state of the university that touched on the explosion of the arts; the transformative facilities built for the arts and sciences; the international recognition of faculty; and the benefits of Stanford's interdisciplinary approach to tackling the world's most challenging problems.

Jesus Beltran / Stanford Alumni AssociationAlumni enjoying the program at the Stanford+Connects event in Southern California.

Alumni enjoying the program at the Stanford+Connects event.

"What has really shaped Stanford is the willingness to be bold," Hennessy said, speaking last Saturday from the stage of the historic Pasadena Civic Auditorium.

"Stanford+Connects Los Angeles" was the fifth stop in a 16-city tour produced by the Stanford Alumni Association in conjunction with campus partners and with support from the Office of the President. Last year, Stanford brought the program to Arizona, Minnesota, Paris and Atlanta. Future venues will include Chicago, Boston,  Shanghai and Seoul, South Korea. The next one will be held March 15 in Monterey, home of Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station.

The Alumni Association describes the tour, which began last year, as a "global come-as-you-are party for your brain that brings the best of Stanford together, right in your backyard or on your computer."

Beyond the live events, the Stanford+Connects website is designed to engage alumni with lectures from previous events, wrap-up videos, photographs and live tweets.

More than 1,600 people – alumni, guests, faculty and students – participated in the program in Pasadena. It was the best-attended Stanford+Connects event with more than four times the audience of the largest event in 2013.

Brain party

After a Q&A with President Hennessy, the "brain party" began with six micro-lectures, including a mesmerizing violin solo composed and played by Kai Kight, a senior majoring in engineering and product design.

Then it was time to choose which of the 12 breakout seminars to attend. Each seminar, which lasted about an hour, was held twice.

"Tina Seelig's seminar, definitely," said Jodi Moore, '97, referring to "Workshop: A Crash Course in Creativity," as she flipped through the Stanford+Connects program booklet describing the speakers and seminars.

"But I'm having a hard time deciding between 'Improviser's Mindset: Effortless Creativity, Agility and Resourcefulness' and 'Recapturing Youth: Aging, Stem Cells and the Hope of Regenerative Medicine,'" added Moore, who attended the event with her husband, J.T.S. Moore, '92. The couple met at an alumni event.

It was a day for reuniting with former classmates, connecting with friends made at other Stanford events and making new ones.

Jesus Beltran / Stanford Alumni AssociationStanford’s autonomous vehicle parked in front of the Stanford+Connects event in Southern California attracted attention from alumni attending the program.

Stanford’s autonomous vehicle parked in front of the Stanford+Connects event drew attention from alumni attending the program.

Alumni celebrated their Stanford days by pinning small metal buttons to their lanyards. Among them: "Studied Abroad," "Survived w/o the Internet," "I Hiked the Dish," "Fuzzy/Techie," "Escondido Village," "Student Athlete," "Research Assistant," and "Full Moon on the Quad."

It was a day for wearing Cardinal red. The university's signature color stood out – in solids, stripes, checks, florals and plaids – as the crowd flowed on the sidewalk between the convention center's buildings, walking to and from seminars.

In between, many participants stopped to look at the Stanford research cars parked on the sidewalk – Shelley, a sleek, self-driving racecar, and a prototype "steer-by-wire" car built by students that resembled a dune buggy. Holly Russell, a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering, stood next to the cars, eager to extol their virtues as research subjects and to answer questions from passersby.

Red and white reminiscences

Doris Martin, '59, wasn't wearing red, but reminisced about the time female students were required to bring a red skirt to Stanford – to be worn to football games with white blouses. Martin, an actor, recalled playing a starring role in a tradition that Stanford has since abandoned.

"I sang a song in front of 2,000 people at the Big Game Bonfire," she said.

Senta Georgia Newell, '01, said Stanford+Connects brought back memories of her undergraduate days as a biological sciences major.

"I remember the vibrancy and creativity and the inspiration that was just all around you at Stanford," said Newell, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital Los Angeles at the University of Southern California and a researcher at the Saban Research Institute.

"I understand how different things are now, but it's obvious that Stanford still fosters that creative energy. That might be its defining mark: the creative energy that is part of being there," Newell said.

Drew Cheng, '02, said he was "blown away" hearing about the new buildings on campus, and even more impressed by the university's attitude toward collaboration – especially the research under way at Bio-X, which facilitates interdisciplinary research connected to biology and medicine.

"Allowing students in different disciplines to take classes in other schools – that's a very exciting way of thinking about solving problems in the future," said Cheng, a family doctor in Ventura, Calif., who earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering (with a minor in biological sciences) at Stanford.

After attending "An Insider's View of Stanford Football," presented by David Shaw, Stanford's head football coach, Nathaniel Kirtman, '69, leaned against the wall outside the room, relaxing with his wife, Deborah Hammond Kirtman, '70.

Nathaniel Kirtman, who played football for Stanford, said Shaw's coaching mentality reflected a radical change from the mid-1960s, when training was more like boot camp and conducted with a militaristic air.

"I never heard a coach say you have to relate to these students for who they are, that they are very intelligent, they are very insightful and they speak the truth," said Kirtman, marveling at the change in attitude since his playing days.

Deborah Kirtman said she was impressed by the two students who gave micro lectures at the start of the day, including violinist Kight and senior Lilly Shi, who talked about the philosophy – and design decisions – behind the home students built for the Stanford Solar Decathlon.

"The students were just fabulous," she said, adding that one thing that has remained constant since the couple attended Stanford is that the university still attracts a lot of "dynamic young people who can do all kinds of things."

The Kirtmans, who retired in Pasadena, have a special connection to Stanford: They were married in Memorial Church, one spring break during their undergraduate years, by the dean of chapel.

David Ludwig, '63, MS '64, attended "Global Warming: Fact Versus Fiction" during the first round of seminars and decided to attend the crash course on creativity after he saw how the room was set up, with tall tables supplied with piles of Post-it notes and black markers.

"I was ready for a brain release and I looked in the room and saw a bunch of tables, instead of a bunch of chairs, and I thought, 'This could be different,'" he said. "I mostly had fun. I enjoyed watching the way other people worked."