Archive for the ‘Best of’ Category

Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich wins prestigious biology award

February 4th, 2014
Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich

Stanford biologist PAUL EHRLICH has won the Frontiers of Knowledge Award for Ecology and Conservation Biology from the BBVA Foundation.

“He was the first to describe a case of co-evolution – between butterflies and plants – and how it may contrive to generate biological diversity,” the judges said in their announcement.

The judges noted that his achievements “draw equally on theoretical explorations and experimental results.” Or as Ehrlich put it after being notified of the prize, “I am a biologist with a keen interest in theory, or a theorist who likes testing his theories by experimentation.”

Ehrlich was lauded by the BBVA Foundation, based in Madrid, Spain, for his vital role in addressing one of the key questions in ecology: Why does our planet harbor so many different species? Ehrlich unlocked part of the secret in 1964, the judges said, in a paper co-authored with PETER RAVEN and published in the journal Evolution. In it, they concluded that co-evolution – the interactions occurring between different types of organisms without genetic exchange – is one of the main reasons for diversity of life on Earth and proposed the mechanism whereby this process might lead to the immense variety of plant and insect species.

As the jury put it: “Professor Ehrlich advanced the seminal idea that interactions of plants and herbivores co-evolve and shape the evolutionary history of species, as an engine for species diversity.” The winners of BBVA awards receive $540,000.



Professor Emeritus Carl Djerassi celebrates 90th birthday with lecture at Stanford

February 3rd, 2014

Dozens of students, staff and faculty packed the Clark Center Auditorium last week to wish a happy 90th birthday year to CARL DJERASSI, a longtime professor at Stanford and a world-renowned chemist.

Fellow Stanford chemistry Professors RICHARD ZARE and W.E. MOERNER introduced their friend and brought the standing-room-only audience up to speed on Djerassi’s remarkable life achievements. Djerassi then took the podium for more than an hour to deliver a lecture he called “Beyond Chemistry: The Last 25 years of a Nonagenerian.”

If you’re not familiar with Djerassi’s name, you’ll surely recognize his work. Starting in the 1940s, he was a primary player in synthesizing the first commercial antihistamines, cortisone and norethindrone, the latter being the chemical basis of oral contraceptives, earning him the nickname “The Father of the Pill.” He was also at the forefront of efforts to apply physical measurements and computer artificial intelligence techniques to organic chemical problems, which transformed the field.

In 1952, Djerassi accepted a professorship of chemistry at Wayne State University, and joined Stanford faculty in the same role in 1959, earning emeritus status in 2002. In the years since his retirement, and for a decade before, Djerassi has followed his affinity for integrating science with the arts, chiefly through a technique he calls “science-in-fiction.”

Through several short stories, novels and plays, Djerassi has told fictional tales that describe realistic details and struggles of the day-to-day life of a scientist. In his first novel, Cantor’s Dilemma, he explores pressures that can drive a researcher to commit scientific fraud and how academia handles such a scandal.

In The Bourbaki Gambit, his second novel, he touches on the real conflicts that can arise when a group of scientists must divide credit for a major discovery. In NO, he pulls from his own experiences of commercializing a drug to illustrate the intersection of science and capitalism.

Later, he wrote plays surrounding similar topics as a way to showcase scientific dialogue. An Immaculate Misconception dealt with the science behind intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection, a type of artificial insemination, and the societal and ethical dilemmas surrounding the procedure.

In each case, he has presented readers intimate details that humanize scientists and their research, with the goal of making science more accessible to the general public.

“You can become an intellectual smuggler, by packaging the truth in a fictional context,” Djerassi told the crowd. “If it’s exciting enough, they’ll learn something. And I think that’s why my novels have been successful.”

On Feb. 8, Djerassi’s 2012 play Insufficiency will be performed at Stanford. The satire dives into the motivations, both academic and financial, that can play a deciding hand in whether professors are granted tenure. The event is open to the public. Visit the Stanford Event Calendar for details.


Stanford hosts regional neuroscience competition for high school students

February 3rd, 2014

Sankar Srinivasan, winner of the inaugural Stanford Regional Brain Bee. (Photo credit: Sarah Sadlier)

The Stanford School of Medicine recently hosted the inaugural Stanford Regional Brain Bee. As a local chapter of the International Brain Bee Championship, this neuroscience contest for high school students is one of more than 150 regional qualifying rounds held each year across 30 countries.

Founded in 1999 by neuroscientist NORBERT MYSLINSKI, the International Brain Bee is aimed at “motivating students to learn about the brain, capturing their imagination and inspiring them to pursue neuroscience careers in order to help treat and find cures for neurological and psychological disorders.”

The Stanford chapter is largely run by undergraduates, jointly sponsored by the Stanford Office of Science Outreach and the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neurosciences. More than 120 high school students, some from as far away as Idaho, registered for this year’s contest, held in the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge. The event tested students’ knowledge of neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, neurohistology, neuroendocrinology, neuroethology, psychiatry and clinical neurology.

After over four hours of fierce competition, SANKAR SRINIVASAN of Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose took home top honors.

“The Stanford Brain Bee reminded me that the brain is one of the biggest mysteries in the universe, and one that holds the keys to a vast number of unresolved medical problems,” he said. “Nevertheless, I’m glad I could take [on] the intimidating learning process as a fun challenge!”

For more information about the Stanford Regional Brain Bee, contact regional coordinator and Stanford undergraduate THANH-LIEM HUYNH-TRAN.


Carter, Reardon elected to National Academy of Education

January 24th, 2014
Sean Reardon and Prudence Carter

Sean Reardon and Prudence Carter

PRUDENCE CARTER AND SEAN REARDON, sociologists in the Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE), have been elected to membership in the National Academy of Education (NAEd). They were cited for their outstanding scholarship on the effects of race and class on education and the barriers they impose to social mobility and achieving equity.

The NAEd works to advance education research and to promote its use in developing education policy and practice. The group has produced reports on such pressing national education issues as student achievement assessments and teacher education. In addition, it offers professional development fellowship programs that support the preparation of the next generation of scholars.

Stanford and New York University were the only institutions to have two faculty members among this year’s group of 14 newly elected scholars, according to a recent statement from the academy. Stanford has more NAEd members — 21 of 184 — than any other university.

Carter, professor of education and faculty director of the GSE’s John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, examines academic and mobility differences attributable to race, ethnicity, class and gender, and she consults with educators about measures to address disparities. She is the author of the award-winning Keepin’ It Real: School Success Beyond Black and White (Oxford 2005) and more recently Stubborn Roots: Race, Culture, and Inequality in U.S. and South African Schools (Oxford 2012. She also co-edited and contributed to Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give All Children an Even Chance (Oxford 2013). Reardon, professor of education and a member of Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, develops complex data sets so that he can investigate the causes, patterns, trends and consequences of social and educational inequality. In particular, he studies issues of residential and school segregation and of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in academic achievement and educational success.

One of Reardon’s recent studies showed that the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier. It also revealed that the income achievement gap is now nearly twice as large as the black-white achievement gap, while 50 years ago it was the reverse: the black-white gap was one-and-a-half to two times as large as the income gap.

Read the full story on the GSE website.

Undergraduate trio makes ‘30 Under 30’ list for energy innovation

January 17th, 2014
Daniel Maren, Darren Hau, and Andrew Ponec.  (Photo by Linda Cicero/Stanford News)

Daniel Maren, Darren Hau and Andrew Ponec (Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News)

The editors of Forbes magazine have included three Stanford engineering undergraduates in its annual “30 Under 30″ list in the “Energy and Industry” subcategory for developing a device that can significantly improve the efficiency and reliability of large-scale photovoltaic installations.

DARREN HAU, ’15 (electrical engineering), DANIEL MAREN, ’16 (computer science), and ANDREW PONEC, ’15 (materials science and engineering), all 20 years old, have founded a company, called Dragonfly Systems, and are working to commercialize the product.

The price of solar remains a significant barrier to widespread use. Although the price of solar panels has dropped dramatically over the past several years, the other elements that contribute to the total cost of a solar installation – wiring, labor, maintenance, etc. – have grown from 30 percent to 70 percent. The greatest opportunity to make solar cost effective, the students say, is to tackle this area, termed “balance of systems” costs.

Dragonfly’s device connects directly to the back of a solar panel and can manipulate the panel’s voltage so that it never exceeds a predetermined limit. This allows limiting the voltage to near the maximum power point, called the Vmpp, as opposed to the worst-case open-circuit voltage, or Voc. By guaranteeing that the Dragonfly-augmented solar panel will never exceed a specified limit, the installation can accommodate 30 percent more panels per string.

The three students have taken a leave of absence from Stanford and are grateful for the university’s support in helping them get their device off the ground. The basic idea came to them when they were classmates in an introductory seminar, a course called Green Electronics, that was taught by BILL DALLY, a professor (research) in the School of Engineering, who remains an adviser.

Their independent research project was funded by an Undergraduate Advising and Research small grant, and they later won a TomKat Innovation Transfer award. They said that TomKat’s executive director of innovation transfer, BRIAN BARTHOLOMEUSZ, has been helpful with connecting them to various individuals in the solar industry.

Earlier this month, Forbes published its 2014 “30 Under 30” list of standouts in 15 fields such as finance, law, media and education, including several other Stanford students and alums.

Student-designed brace gets children with clubfoot on their feet

January 14th, 2014

Stanford students have designed a brace that literally gets young children on their feet. The miraclefeet brace is a lightweight, child- and parent-friendly device created to treat children afflicted with clubfoot.

The brace came out of the Stanford class “Design for Extreme Affordability” at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, better known as the Members of the class were teamed up with nonprofit partners and asked to create a product that would address a real-world need.

Clubfoot is a congenital deformity in which one or both of a child’s feet look like they have been rotated internally at the ankle. The traditional treatment for clubfoot requires years of orthopedic braces and shoes costing hundreds of dollars. In contrast, the price tag for the miraclefeet brace is less than $20.

“Their colorful, injection molded brace locks the patient’s feet into a therapeutic position while the light plastic frame makes it possible for kids to stand and play on their own. People watching the kids bound around in their braces might even think that the device was a new toy,” writes JOSEPH FLAHERTY in a recent article in Wired magazine

The video below features JEFF YANG, a graduate student in materials science and engineering, and IAN CONNOLLY, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, in Brazil as they demonstrate their design in action.





Stanford engineer wins third Academy Award

January 10th, 2014
Pat Hanrahan (Photo: Linda Cicero/Stanford News)

Pat Hanrahan (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News)

PAT HANRAHAN, professor of computer science and of electrical engineering, will receive his third award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for work that allows Hollywood to more easily and accurately reproduce real-world lighting in computer-generated films like Avatar and Monsters University.

Hanrahan and his former doctoral students MATT PHARR and GREG HUMPHREYS, who now both work at Google, are being honored with a Technical Achievement Award for what is known as physically based rendering, a process that “transformed computer graphics lighting” by more accurately simulating materials and lights in movies, the Academy said in a recent news release.

Pharr (PhD ’05), Humphreys (PhD ’02) and Hanrahan wrote software for this type of rendering. They then collaborated on a book that not only lays out the theory behind their work but also provides source code and instructions for how to actually implement it. The book, Physically Based Rendering, was developed in support of a Stanford course in image processing and is based in part on Hanrahan’s lectures for the course.

The book and software “allow digital artists to focus on cinematography rather than the intricacies of rendering,” according to the Academy announcement.

The trio are among 52 to be honored by the Academy on Feb. 15. Hanrahan’s earlier Academy Awards also are related to his work in rendering. He received a Scientific and Engineering Award in 1993 for his work on the team developing Pixar’s pioneering RenderMan software, which is still used in the computer graphics industry. In 2004, he was part of a team that received a Technical Achievement Award for research that made it possible for filmmakers to accurately depict skin and other translucent materials.

Read the full announcement on the School of Engineering website.

Xiaolin Zheng hailed as a ‘leading global thinker’

January 9th, 2014
Xiaolin Zheng

Xiaolin Zheng

XIAOLIN ZHENG, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, has been named one of the world’s 100 leading global thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine.

“Xiaolin Zheng has developed what sounds like a toy but is really a groundbreaking engineering feat: the ‘solar sticker,’” the magazine’s citation reads. “It’s a small cell that allows solar power to be generated on virtually any surface. The cell is flexible, about one square centimeter, and one-tenth as thick as plastic wrap, and when attached to an adhesive it functions like a sticker. Critically, it converts the same amount of energy as its rigid, heavier counterparts, but because it bends, it can stick to anything from cell phones to helmets to skylights to clothing. And it’s cheaper to make.”

According to the magazine, Zheng was inspired in part, by her young daughter’s love for stickers.

Read the full citation on the Foreign Policy website.

David Lobell named one of 100 ‘leading global thinkers’

January 8th, 2014
David Lobell has been named on of Foreign Policy Magazine's leading global thinkers. (Photo: Jack Hunnard)

David Lobell has been named one of Foreign Policy magazine’s leading global thinkers. (Photo: Jack Hubbard)

DAVID LOBELL, associate professor of environmental Earth system science, was named one of 100 “Leading Global Thinkers” by Foreign Policy. Among the magazine’s other leaders are founder Jeff Bezos, New York Times writer Thomas Friedman and Pope Francis.

In the fifth annual special issue featuring global thinkers, the editors explain that they look for people who “over the past year have made a measurable difference in politics, business, technology, the arts, the sciences and more.”

They write, “We look at the year’s biggest stories and scout the weird and arcane from obscure journals.” The resulting list, they believe, includes people who are “doing nothing less than bringing peace, protecting the planet and pushing the boundaries of the possible.”

Lobell, also a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, was cited “for helping farmers feed the world.” Lobell won a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” in 2013.

The profile of Lobell reads:

“Against the backdrop of climate change, a question looms large: Can the world feed all its people? There are already 842 million undernourished people on the planet, and recent research suggests that food supplies are increasingly at risk as temperatures rise. If we do nothing to address agricultural practices and climate change, then the picture of human hunger looks dire as our population heads toward an estimated 9.6 billion in 2050. 

David Lobell, an agricultural ecologist at Stanford University who works in the emerging field of crop informatics, wants to brighten this picture.”

Visit the Foreign Policy magazine website for more.

‘Nature’ picks Professor Chris Field as one of ‘Five to Watch’ in 2014

December 20th, 2013

Chris Field. (Photo Credit: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News)

The journal Nature has named CHRIS FIELD, a professor of biology and of environmental Earth system science and the director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution, one of its “Five to Watch” in 2014. The journal’s editors cite Field’s work as co-chair of the upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the impacts of climate change.

Field’s research at Stanford has helped detail the effects of climate change at both the molecular and global levels. For the past two decades, he has conducted experiments at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve to gauge the responses of California grassland to multi-factor global change, both present and future.

As co-chair of the IPCC Working Group II, Field is leading efforts to distill hundreds of scientific findings into a report that will detail the current impacts and consequences of climate change. It will also detail how humans can best adapt to – and possibly mitigate – those changes in the future.

The report will publish this March, which Field said is fortuitous timing, as it will give governments a year to consider the assessments before they meet in 2015 to agree on new international climate change initiatives and policies. It also comes in time to influence the U.S. government’s new national assessment on climate change. In both cases, Field said he hopes the report encourages measurable action, and he thinks that in the wake of major climate-related disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, governments will be ready to act.

“I think the awareness, the issues, the experience with response options, is all beginning to accumulate to the level where I’m really optimistic about people taking meaningful actions,” Field said. “One of the things that we’re getting more and more information on is the potential for making smart decisions that don’t necessarily cost a lot, and in many cases actually save money and represent an ambitious, positive way of looking at the future.

“The climate challenge needs to be taken seriously, but it doesn’t need to be viewed as a net downer,” he said. “Really what we’re trying to do is find a way to a future that’s more sustainable, richer, happier, where we’re really trying to create net benefits, rather than to manage a net cost. There are really some huge opportunities to do things better.”