Stanford celebrates sustainability

April 22nd, 2014

On Tuesday, April 22, hundreds of faculty, staff and students gathered in the Science and Engineering Quad to celebrate sustainability at Stanford. The interactive Earth Day festival was designed to educate members of the campus community about Stanford’s sustainability efforts and achievements through fun, engaging activities and displays. In addition to healthy food, the festival offered information on green practices and products, such as water conservation and energy-saving light bulbs. University Photographer LINDA A. CICERO captured the highlights in a slideshow.

Precourt Institute for energy names new leaders

April 21st, 2014


Sally Benson

Sally Benson

SALLY M. BENSON has been appointed director of the Precourt Institute for Energy, a hub of energy research and education at Stanford University. Her colleague, ROLAND N. HORNE, has been named deputy director. Both are professors of energy resources engineering and senior fellows at the institute.

ANN M. ARVIN, vice provost and dean of research at Stanford, announced the appointment. “Sally Benson has a remarkable record of research contributions and international leadership in the field of energy sciences, which will be of great value to the Precourt Institute,” Arvin said.  “We are delighted that Sally has agreed to serve in this important role at Stanford, and that Roland Horne will provide his expertise in Earth sciences and as a faculty leader to support the Precourt mission.”

Benson succeeds FRANKLIN M. “LYNN” ORR JR., a professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford, who has served as director of the Precourt Institute since its founding in 2009.  Benson was named acting director of the institute last fall when President Obama nominated Orr to be under secretary for science at the Department of Energy. He is awaiting Senate confirmation.

“The Precourt Institute supports education and game-changing research, promoting energy literacy and accelerating solutions that will transform the global energy system,” Benson said. “I am grateful for Lynn Orr’s leadership and delighted to work with Roland Horne to help lead this important effort.”

Roland Horne

Roland Horne

A groundwater hydrologist and reservoir engineer, Benson is a leading authority on emerging energy technologies, and geologic carbon capture and storage. She leads a research laboratory that studies fundamental aspects of carbon dioxide sequestration in saline aquifers.    

Horne’s research focuses on the quantification and efficient recovery of subsurface energy resources, including oil, gas and geothermal energy. He is the director of the Stanford Geothermal Program and past president of the International Geothermal Association. 

In addition to her new leadership role at the Precourt Institute, Benson will continue to serve as director of Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP), a position she has held since 2007.

“During her tenure at GCEP, Sally Benson has played a key part in developing a diverse research portfolio that funds innovative, low-carbon energy technologies,” said GEORGE SHULTZ, director of the Hoover Institution’s Shultz-Stephenson Task Force on Energy Policy and chair of the Precourt Institute advisory council. “She will continue to provide strong leadership at the Precourt Institute in the years ahead.”

Read the full announcement on the Precourt Institute’s website.


— BY MARK SHWARTZ, Precourt Institute for the Environment

More than 2,000 middle and high school students take a dive into learning at Stanford Splash

April 21st, 2014

Andrew Guo ’16 makes liquid nitrogen ice cream treats during the walk-in seminar “Sweet Liquid Nitrogen Demo.” (Photo credit: Rohit Talreja)

Twice a year, a group of Stanford undergraduate and graduate students hosts Stanford Splash, a two-day learning extravaganza for middle and high school students. On April 12-13, Splash attracted 2,141 participants who took part in hundreds of classes and walk-in activities from “Quidditch for Muggles” to “Microbes and Mud” to “Chocolate: Food of the Gods.”

First-time Splash attendee ADITYA KRISHNAN took a math class on the binomial theorem. “I learned a lot of stuff I didn’t know about and I couldn’t learn outside,” said Krishnan, who also took classes in performance comedy and improv.

Eighth-grade students SHELBY BROOKS and KAYLA TURNAGE, both of whom were attending Splash for the third time, were eager participants as well. Brooks’ favorite class was “Psychology and Neuroscience of Religion” because “it was very educational and really makes you think.” Turnage, who “likes to take science classes,” was able to explore 3-D printing and genetics.

For teachers, Splash is equally fulfilling: JEFFREY DAVIS, a local volunteer, taught a class on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He noted that this year he “had a lot of kids both days, it was great.” As for his students? They all clapped for him at the end, and some even sent him notes about how much they enjoyed his class. Without pause, Davis said, “I would love to teach again.”

The Splash outreach program is growing in popularity every year and continues its effort to attract students from underserved schools. The event is open to students from all schools and to those who are home-schooled. As the program grows in popularity, so does the need for volunteers and teachers. During the recent Stanford Splash, 367 teachers and about 200 volunteers help to make the event a success.

The next Splash event is scheduled for November 8-9.

—VIVIAN W. WANG, Stanford Splash

Norwegian freshmen meet with former prime minister

April 18th, 2014

From left, Joachim Reiersen, Olav Brundtland, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Rob Urstein, Miriam Strom Natvig and Marie Fosli (Photo: courtesy Rob Urstein)

This quarter, GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND, former prime minister of Norway, has been leading seminars and giving lectures on many weighty topics, including sustainable development, global collaboration and her tenure as president of the World Health Organization

Last week, Brundtland added lunch with three Stanford freshmen – Norwegians all – to her busy schedule as the Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor at Stanford.

The students who joined Brundtland for lunch at the Faculty Club were: INGERID MARIE FOSLI, of Sola, a coastal town known for its windsurfing; MIRIAM STROM NATVIG, of Oslo, the nation’s capital and most populous city; and JOACHIM REIERSEN, of Haugesund, a historic town dating back to Viking times that is also known for its film festival.

Brundtland’s husband, OLAV BRUNDTLAND, accompanied her to the lunch.

The luncheon conversation was mostly in English, but Natvig took the opportunity to converse in Norwegian while she and Brundtland were waiting in the buffet line.

“Sharing our observations in our mother tongue emphasized to me the importance of making one’s background a resource in whatever work one wishes to do for the world, as Gro has definitely done,” Natvig said.

During the lunch, Brundtland asked the students how they had ended up at Stanford and what they were getting out of the experience.

“I was both humbled and amazed to find that she took such a great interest in us at a time when we are just starting our journeys, which we can only hope will be half as impactful as hers,” Natvig said. “It is also very inspiring to know and to experience how she is so very committed to global issues and at the same time so obviously in touch with our home country.”

Stanford’s Dean of Freshmen ROB URSTEIN, who arranged and attended the lunch, has a special connection to Norway. During the 2000-2001 academic year, he served as a Fulbright Senior Scholar with the Norwegian Ministry of Education. At the time, he was on a sabbatical from San Francisco University High School, where he served as chair and instructor in the English Department.

Urstein, now associate vice provost for undergraduate education at Stanford, was a “roving scholar” in Norway, visiting different towns and cities to lecture on topics in American culture, language and history to groups of faculty members and students.

Brundtland, a physician, scientist and former United Nations special envoy on climate change, currently serves as the deputy chair of The Elders, a group of world leaders convened in 2007 by the late Nelson Mandela and others to tackle some of the world’s toughest issues.

Under the Distinguished Visitor program, Stanford’s Haas Center for Public Service brings individuals to campus who have had significant public impact in their home country or abroad, and who have distinguished themselves in public service.

On March 12, Brundtland delivered the Distinguished Visitor Lecture: “From Public Health to Sustainable Development in an Interconnected World: A Life in Public Service.”


Three Stanford faculty members named Guggenheim Fellows

April 16th, 2014
Robert Dawson

Robert Dawson

The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation has named three Stanford faculty members Guggenheim Fellows: ROBERT DAWSON for photography, JONATHAN LEVIN for economics and MONIKA PIAZZESI for economics.

“It’s exciting to name 178 new Guggenheim Fellows,” Edward Hirsch, foundation president, said in a press release. “These artists and writers, scholars and scientists, represent the best of the best. Since 1925, the Guggenheim Foundation has always bet everything on the individual, and we’re thrilled to continue the tradition with this wonderfully talented and diverse group. It’s an honor to be able to support these individuals to do the work they were meant to do.”

In their own words, the three Stanford fellows described their projects.

Robert Dawson, photography instructor: I was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship based on my 18-year photographic survey of public libraries throughout the United States. It resulted in the book The Public Library: A Photographic Essay published this month by Princeton Architectural Press. It contains 160 of my photos along with 15 essays, including a forward by Bill Moyers and an afterword by Ann Patchett. My proposed project is to spend the next year in the city of Stockton, Calif. Stockton is the second largest city in the United States to declare bankruptcy and is one of the least literate places in the country. I will be working with the Library and Literacy Foundation of San Joaquin County in their efforts to bring literacy and hope to a troubled place.

Jonathan Levin

Jonathan Levin

Jonathan Levin, ’94, economics professor: I’m working on competition in health care. I’m hoping to write some papers looking at questions such as: How effective is competition in health insurance, given that in most local markets there are a few large insurers with dominant market positions? Why do private insurance costs in different areas of the country vary so much but in ways that are very different from public Medicare costs? And how might the consolidation of health care providers into large organizations and ACOs affect healthcare costs? I will also be at Oxford next year during the Guggenheim so hopefully I’ll learn something about the NHS and health care systems in Europe.

Monika Piazzesi

Monika Piazzesi

Monika Piazzesi, PhD ’00, economics professor: My project is on banks’ risk exposures. In particular, I have been working on developing a new method that uses regulatory data on bank positions and comes up with a measure of their exposure to risk. An advantage of the method is that it allows researchers or regulators to understand the exposure contained in derivative positions. The regulatory data on these positions is quite opaque. For example, banks are not required to disclose the direction of their exposures – the derivative positions may be bets on interest-rate hikes or on interest-rate falls. The exposures in these derivative positions are large, and so it is really important to be able to extract the risks that are contained in these positions. Moreover, the measure is additive so that we can aggregate our estimates to a group of large banks or the entire banking sector. The aggregated measures will help us assess the risk exposures of the financial sector.

Read the Guggenheim press release.

James McClelland wins Heineken Prize

April 15th, 2014

James McClelland (Photo: Angela Drury)

Psychology Professor JAMES MCCLELLAND, founding director of Stanford’s Center for Mind, Brain and Computation, has been awarded the C.L. de Carvalho-Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. The prize, which includes a $200,000 award, recognizes McClelland “for his important and fundamental contributions to the use of neural networks to model cognitive processes of the brain.”

The research that led to this prize began in the early 1980s when a group led by McClelland and DAVID RUMELHART (who later joined Stanford’s faculty) pioneered what they called the parallel distributed processing approach to computation in the brain. Instead of thinking of the mind as a single computer, they envisioned it as a vast network of more than 10 billion tiny computers working together every time a person engages in a mental process – from activities as simple as recognizing a word to tasks as complex as solving a difficult mathematical problem. The work, published in the two-volume book, Parallel Distributed Processing (MIT Press, 1986), challenged the popular “mind-as-computer” metaphor, replacing it with a very different way of thinking about the nature of computation in the brain.

Early applications of these theoretical models addressed human perception, language and memory. Today, artificial systems based on the same ideas are sweeping the field of machine learning. “We finally have computing systems that can simulate the massively parallel processing activity that takes place in the human brain,” McClelland said. “Models based on the neural networks of the kind we envisioned in the 1980s are now the state-of-the-art methods for machine speech and vision and may soon take the lead in language processing.” For example, the speech recognition systems in today’s smart phones use advanced versions of the neural network models McClelland and his colleagues explored three decades ago. Capturing insights into how the brain solves mathematical problems remains a challenge that McClelland has recently begun to explore.

McClelland joined Stanford’s faculty in 2006. He is the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences and served as chair of the Department of Psychology from 2009 to 2012. He also recently received the inaugural National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Prize in Psychological and Cognitive Sciences for his research.

Five Heineken prizes are awarded every other year to internationally renowned scholars in biochemistry or biophysics, medicine, environmental science, cognitive science, and history. A sixth Heineken prize also is given to an artist living and working in the Netherlands. Several recipients of this prestigious international award, including Stanford pathology and genetics Professor Andrew Fire, subsequently won Nobel Prizes. The Heineken prize will be presented Oct. 2 at a special meeting of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam.

—LISA TREI, School of Humanities and Sciences

Stanford birders beat Cal

April 14th, 2014
Western Bluebird (Photo by Jasen Liu)

Western Bluebird (Photo: Jasen Liu)

The whistle blew at 7 a.m. The two teams hailed from opposite ends of the Bay. Stanford sports an acreage advantage, but Cal was counting on its redwood-lined creeks to put it ahead.

The game was birding – and fundraising. The longtime rivals squared off Sunday, April 13, in the first Big Game Birdathon, a match of eyes and ears to see who could spot the most birds in four hours. Stanford – the winner – now has bragging rights as the birdiest university around (sorry, no Axe). The final score? Stanford 75, Cal 64.

“We have so many birds, we’ll win,” ROB FURROW, a biology graduate student and captain of Stanford’s birding squad, predicted in an interview with Stanford Report last month.

His UC Berkeley counterpart, MAUREEN LAHIFF, a public health lecturer at Cal, said she first thought Stanford would not agree to the contest.

“These Stanford people, they aren’t any dummies,” Lahiff said. “They know our advantages.”

The good-spirited bout raised money for the Audubon Society and drew attention to the joys of bird-watching and the importance of birds in the natural environment.

Pitting the longtime rivals seemed like a “win-win,” said STEPHANIE ELLIS, the executive director of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon chapter. The annual  Birdathons are the major fundraising event for Audubon Society chapters throughout the Bay Area, she said. Teams compete to count the most birds in a set period of time.

The Stanford Birding Club attracts a mix of graduate and undergraduate students as well as some staff members.  At the birdathon, the Stanford team  focused on Lake Lagunita and the Dish Area. Cal’s birders focused their attention on the Faculty Glade and the botanical garden.

Even though this year’s matchup is over, supporters can still contribute to the cause. Visit the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society’s website for more information.

 —BECKY BACH, Stanford News Service intern


Michelle Obama praises ‘sound advice’ of charter school student

April 14th, 2014


What do you do when MICHELLE OBAMA walks in while you’re talking about the importance of learning a second language? Keep your cool.

That was the situation for East Palo Alto Academy (EPAA) student EDGAR ARROYO during a recent videoconference at Stanford. Arroyo was invited, along with four peers from his high school and several Stanford students, to take part in a virtual meeting with Obama during her trip to China.

EPAA is a charter school affiliated with the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

The meeting took place in two highly immersive classrooms – one at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the other at the Stanford Center at Peking University – that made it seem like all were in the same room.

While waiting for the first lady to arrive, the students in each classroom chatted with MARIANO-FLORENTINO CUELLAR, the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford. Cuellar asked how he could get his children to be more interested in speaking a second language.

As Arroyo dished advice to Cuellar (“Speak Spanish always to them”), Obama entered and made her way to a seat.

“Hello, First Lady!” Arroyo said, without skipping a beat.

Obama was briefed by Cuellar about the topic of conversation, and the first lady gave a thumbs-up to Arroyo. She noddingly approved of his “sound advice” to Cuellar and the others.

After the exchange, Arroyo said the video conference was “fun and informative.” He said he learned the importance of learning a second language and about another culture and of studying abroad.

—BROOKE DONALD, Graduate School of Education

Adam Johnson honored with short story award for ‘Nirvana’

April 10th, 2014
Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson

English Professor and Pulitzer Prize winner ADAM JOHNSON has won The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. The £30,000 prize is the largest in its field.

According to the announcement on the website BookTrust, Johnson’s story is “set in the near future” and “employs science-fiction themes and imagery to explore personal tragedy.” The story draws from the life of the late singer KURT COBAIN and his band, Nirvana.

Ironically, Johnson accepted the award in a ceremony at the Stationer’s Hall in London on April 5, 20 years to the day that Cobain died.

Although best known for his Pulitzer-prize winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, Johnson has been happy to “follow what fills his imagination” and write a collection of short stories called “Interesting Facts” set for publication by Random House in 2015. The story “Nirvana” will appear in that collection.
When writing novels, Johnson admits to missing the shorter form  –  the discovery, the struggle, the battle and the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing a story. For Johnson, the form can also be freeing because the short story feels closer to that moment of witness where one human being has true access to another.

“I was inspired by a combination of my wife’s struggle with cancer and a friend who took his own life,” Johnson explained.  “When my wife was going through chemo, and my friend shot himself, I began asking questions about what our duty is to dying people and the departed, when they go, and what remains and how we speak to them and share what they go through.”

In his presentation speech, the Sunday Times literary critic and prize judge JOHN  CAREY described “Nirvana” as “a mind-expanding, futurist story and a story about redemption.” Another judge, novelist and comic DAVID BADDIEL, said, “I loved ‘Nirvana.’ It was both sad and, rare in literary-competition-land, funny. Plus it proves that genre fiction – the story is, at heart, science fiction – can work, emotionally and artistically, at the highest levels.”


Read more about the prize on  The BookHaven

Student Affairs staffer gets national recognition

April 9th, 2014
Diontrey Thompson

Diontrey Thompson (Photo: Joy Leighton)

DIONTREY THOMPSON, assistant director of the Black Community Services Center (BCSC), recently received the Outstanding New Professional award from the American College Personnel Association.

The award recognizes an outstanding new professional who has fewer than five years’ experience in the field of student affairs. Recipients are chosen for their demonstrated promise for future leadership roles and for making an important contribution to their institutions through works related to multiculturalism, specifically as it relates to people of color.

Thompson joined Student Affairs in 2011, starting his career in Residential Education and joining the staff of the BCSC in 2012.

“He brings a fresh perspective, infectious energy and passion for infusing intersectionality into the conversation around student development,” said JARREAU BOWEN, assistant director of the Office of Alcohol Policy and Education, who has worked with Thompson on several Student Affairs projects.

After learning he was a recipient of the award, Thompson remarked, “I feel extremely privileged and honored to receive the award for my contributions to the field. All Student Affairs staff do amazing work, and I am thankful to work with them.”

Currently, Thompson is developing a course designed to educate students on diversity and how issues manifest themselves on college campuses. In addition, he serves on the Student Affairs Assessment Committee, a division-wide initiative. Through his work on the committee, Thompson has helped colleagues develop their assessment ideas to produce projects that enhance the work of each unit and that are inclusive of the unique needs of students, especially underrepresented groups.

GREG BOARDMAN, vice provost for student affairs, is pleased that members of his staff are being nationally recognized for the work they do to contribute to Stanford’s commitment to diversity.

“In addition to enhancing and deepening student academic learning, Student Affairs staff support and promote diversity, in all its forms, throughout the Stanford community. We are delighted that the ACPA has recognized Diontrey and the leadership he has demonstrated in his work and with his peers.”


—JOY LEIGHTON, Communications Director, Student Affairs