Archive for the ‘In the Spotlight’ Category

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.”


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

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


Stanford Professor Harry Elam Jr. honored for contributions to academic theater

April 9th, 2014

Each year the Association for Theatre in Higher Education recognizes an academic professional with one of its highest honors: the Career Achievement Award in Academic Theatre. This year the award goes to HARRY J. ELAM JR., vice provost for undergraduate education at Stanford.  He will receive his award in July at a ceremony in Phoenix.

A scholar of social protest theater, performance and popular culture, Elam is praised by colleagues for his scholarship and leadership. Students know him as an advocate and mentor.

“Professor Elam has been a vital artistic mentor and adviser to me during my time at Stanford,” said KEN SAVAGE, ’14. “He has expanded my understanding of theater and inspired me to believe that I am capable of producing meaningful productions that can have an immense impact on the larger landscape of American theater. Without Professor Elam’s constant support, I would not be pursuing a professional career in directing after Stanford.”

The Department of Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) applauds the national recognition of our wonderful colleague, Harry Elam,” said TAPS department chair JENNIFER DEVERE BRODY.  ”Quietly charismatic and extremely caring, Harry epitomizes the best qualities of a scholar, director, mentor and teacher. From his work as the editor of Theatre Journal, to his directing and his books on [LUIS] VALDEZ, [AMIRI] BARAKA, [AUGUST] WILSON and more, to his extraordinary encouragement of generations of theater enthusiasts, Harry has changed the field not only for the better but also for good.”

Criteria for the career award include acclaim, test of time, service, innovation, mentoring, advocacy and support of multiculturalism and diversity in education.

“Harry Elam is so highly regarded as a scholar, teacher, artist, mentor and administrator. We are thrilled to honor him this year,” said DANI SNYDER-YOUNG, vice president of ATHE awards,  “His nomination included a wide range of stunning, heartfelt letters from scholars and artists whose lives and careers he has touched. Their love for him pours out, highlighting his generosity as a mentor and ‘rigorous collegiality’ alongside the way he has opened critical avenues of investigation in African American theater, built a career balancing scholarship and artistry and inspired students in classroom contexts.”

In addition to the two career achievement awards, one in academic theater and the other in professional theater, ATHE bestows eight other awards each year, including recognition for excellence in teaching, leadership and different aspects of writing. Elam won the editing award in 2006. Stanford alumnus DAVID HENRY HWANG, ’79, won the Career Achievement Award in Professional Theatre in 2013.





Stanford hosts first conference for new California Alliance

April 8th, 2014
Robin Garrell, vice provost and professor of chemistry  and  biochemistry at UCLA, talks with  Gabriela Bernal, Stanford Graduate student of material science and engineering, and Peter Sorel right, UC Berkeley graduate student in chemical engineering during informational discuss session at the California Alliance Retreat.   (Photo credit:  Steve Castillo)

Robin Garrell, vice provost and professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCLA, talks with Gabriela Bernal, Stanford graduate student in material science and engineering, and Peter Sorel, a UC Berkeley graduate student in chemical engineering, during informational discuss session at the California Alliance Retreat. (Photo credit: Steve Castillo)

At the inaugural conference of the California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate last weekend, doctoral students from four of the state’s top research institutions networked and shared ideas about how to successfully chart a path to an academic career.

The alliance, announced in February, includes four leading West Coast universities – Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA and the California Institute of Technology.  With this intellectual firepower, the group was formed to help knock down age-old barriers that have boxed in many people. The effort is funded by a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Together, these institutions are targeting a serious problem in higher education – the lack of underrepresented minority PhD students in the mathematical, physical and computer sciences and in engineering.

Among the California Alliance schools in 2011, the year for which the most current data exist, 845 new PhD students in the targeted STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields began their doctoral programs – only 81 of them were from underrepresented minority groups. Of the 753 doctoral degrees awarded in these fields, only 59 of them were to underrepresented minority students. And only 51 of the 1,189 faculty members employed on all four campuses in the targeted fields were from underrepresented minorities.

At the April 4-5 retreat, hundreds of students, faculty members, postdocs and staff from the four institutions attended panels, workshops and small group discussions that addressed ways to build bridges over those walls.

The sessions included a keynote address by California State Assembly Speaker JOHN A. PÉREZ on how minority students can advance to postdoctoral and faculty positions at top-tier research universities.

Participating schools at Stanford include Earth Sciences, Engineering and Humanities & Sciences.

“Absolutely invaluable” was how LILIANA DE LA PAZ, a conference attendee and doctoral student in chemical engineering at Stanford, described the retreat.

“The active mentorship theme was critical to the success of the conference,” she said. “To identify role models and be able to follow through will be instrumental to my professional development. It was extremely inspiring to meet fellow peers as well as faculty and research scientists.”

De La Paz added, “I’m excited to create change for the future.”

What is Stanford doing to advance the cause? The School of Earth Sciences, for example, is creating faculty mentoring connections for postdocs and graduate students, according to TENEA NELSON, assistant dean for multicultural affairs in the School of Earth Sciences.

Faculty, she added, plan to host students and postdocs in their labs for weeklong research visits and will strive to develop career connections for them both in and out of the alliance for the foreseeable future. “The California Alliance will exponentially expand the network of opportunities for postdocs and grad students,” said Nelson.

Those smaller discussions – in workshops, labs and offices – were extraordinarily successful at the Stanford event, said GABRIELA BAYLON.

“I really enjoyed attending the faculty panels,” said Baylon, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering and president of the Stanford Latino Engineering Graduate Organization for Students. “But my favorite event was the smaller discussions where students truly had a chance to express their concerns about being a professor.” 

NOÉ-PABLO LOZANO, associate dean of student affairs and director of diversity programs in Stanford’s School of Engineering, said the conference’s biggest benefit was the high-caliber minority faculty involved. “These are premier leaders in the STEM fields,” he said, “who happen to be focused on original discovery.”

Lozano said that such conferences are “slowly dispelling the myth that these quality students do not exist. Their presence defies all the odds and moves them from being a statistical anomaly to one of projecting the future of science and engineering.”



Stanford lecturer Anthony Marra wins Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction

April 7th, 2014

Anthony Marra

Novelist and Stanford lecturer ANTHONY MARRA has received an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

Marra joins the ranks of past winners like NADINE GORDIMER, TONI MORRISON, WOLE SOYINKA and MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. in winning the only national juried prize for literature that recognizes works that confront racism and examine diversity.

While on a recent book tour in Germany, Marra received word from the jury’s chair, Harvard Professor HENRY LOUIS GATES JR., that Constellation received this year’s award in fiction.

“I was, to say the least, stunned,” Marra said of winning the award. “So many of the previous recipients are writers of artistic vision and moral urgency whose work has inspired and continues to inspire my own. I’m deeply humbled and grateful for this extraordinary honor.”

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, set in war-torn Chechnya, begins as Russian officers burn down a Muslim home and abduct the father but can’t find his daughter. A neighbor hides the 8-year-old girl in a barely functioning hospital. The story unfolds over five days, as the child is hunted and the protective adults around her try to navigate radically different circumstances.

While studying in St. Petersburg, Russia, Marra was drawn to the region of Chechnya initially because he knew so little about it.

“The more research I did,” said Marra, “the more I realized that the scant and often stereotypical images of Chechnya that have permeated American culture do little justice to the enormous complexity of the conflict there.” And when Marra discovered there were no novels in English about the recent Chechen wars – and the psychological, ethical and emotional tolls taken on the civilian population there – he decided to write a novel about it himself.

The novelist’s work has garnered much critical and popular acclaim over the past year. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena has been a New York Times Bestseller and a Washington Post Top 10 Book of the Year, and Marra recently received the 2013 National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, which recognizes an outstanding first book in any genre.

Marra finished Constellation during his first year as a Wallace Stegner Fellow in 2011 in Stanford’s Creative Writing Department.

“The support of the Creative Writing Program allowed me to devote myself entirely to [the novel] during that delicate final-draft phase,” said Marra, “and the feedback of my fellow Stegners and the faculty was invaluable.”

When asked if he began the book with the intention of examining race and diversity, Marra said,  “My only agenda was to write the kind of book I would want to read, and the kinds of books I most admire usually explore the moral conflicts that arise in the space between the individual and society, culture and history.”

The book’s enthusiastic reception has certainly surprised Marra: “I don’t think anyone would write a nonlinear novel set in Chechnya with the expectation it would be published, much less read and received so generously.”

In addition to the literary accolades, Marra’s book has also resonated with war survivors. Recently, a young woman from the Caucasus wrote to him to say that the book helped her deal with memories she’d long tried to ignore.

Connecting with a reader like that surprises and encourages Marra: “You realize your story has become a part of other people’s stories in ways you never could have imagined,” Marra said,  “It’s a remarkable thing.”

—TANU WAKEFIELD, The Humanities at Stanford

Stanford Recreation to host a climbing festival this weekend

April 3rd, 2014

On Saturday, April 5, and Sunday, April 6, Climbers Rage Against Gravity (CRAG), an annual intercollegiate bouldering competition, will take place at the Arrillaga Outdoor Education and Recreation Center.

Saturday’s competition is a members-only event for the Collegiate Climbing Series.  However, spectators are encouraged to come out and watch the CCS climbers compete beginning at noon that day. You also can view a livestream of that day’s finals here.

On Sunday, the wall is open to climbers of all ability levels. All you need is the $15 registration fee and a current student, staff or faculty ID card from any college or university to participate.

“Although CRAG is a competition, the atmosphere is supportive and fun,” the festival website notes.

Sunday’s events begin with registration at 9 a.m., competition from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and finals from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. The weekend concludes at 4 p.m. with raffle prizes and awards.

For the full schedule and more information, visit the Outdoor Education website.

Watch a video from last year’s event:


High schoolers get a taste of Stanford Medicine

April 2nd, 2014
Students exam brain of animals during the brain lab session at Medicine on the sidelines at Med School 101 at Stanford University School of Medicine on Friday, March 28, 2014. ( Norbert von der Groeben/ Stanford School of Medicine )

Students examine brain matter of animals. ( Photo credit: Norbert von der Groeben/ Stanford School of Medicine )

“I was once in high school,” anesthesiologist SEAN MACKEY, told a roomful of high school students last Friday at Med School 101. Now he runs a large NIH-funded lab, takes care of patients, makes scientific discoveries, and helps people get better. Mackey delivered his talk on pain and the brain to the aspiring medical professionals at a high level.

“This is the same talk that I give a national audience of experts,” he said – for his younger audience he just explains the jargon. And he includes clips from The Princess Bride, selected with the help of his 17-year-old son, to illustrate certain pain points.

Classes at Med School 101 tend to swing this way – with the instructors not mincing science while still making learning about medicine as fun as it is. In its eighth year, Med School 101 drew 140 students from 10 local high schools to Stanford’s Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge to try on white coats, so to speak. ANN WEINACKER, chief of staff at Stanford Hospital & Clinics, welcomed students in the morning and shared, “It is so cool to be a doctor.”

Sleep expert RAFAEL PELAYO, explained to the students attending his lecture why we sleep and outlined some common sleep disorders in adults and children and how medical science has addressed them. “When I started at Stanford 20 years ago, we didn’t know what caused narcolepsy,” Pelayo said. “Now we know it’s an autoimmune disease.”

For her session on global health, SHERRY WREN, a professor of surgery, talked about her experience volunteering with Doctors Without Borders in Africa. She caught students’ attention with some sobering statistics: Only 3.5 percent of surgeries worldwide are done in low-income countries; 2 billion people have no access to surgery; and in Africa alone, 42 million people presently have problems that could be treated by surgery.

In the ever-popular session, “So you want to go to med school?” with CHARLES PROBER, senior associate dean of medical education, students named different specialties within medicine and Prober explained their functions and sub-specialties.

Questions on preparing for a career in medicine, and on what it takes to get into a good medical school, flowed, with Prober telling the students that the name of their college doesn’t matter as much as what they do there. (Check out the @SUMedicine Twitter feed and the hashtag #SUMed101 for more.)

While Prober mentioned the “big three” list of uses for an MD – patient care, research and education – many of the presenting faculty described other ways to be involved in health care, including public health, nursing, and physician assistant roles.

One young lady said she was in seventh grade when she got the idea that she might want to be a doctor, but really solidified her plans in eighth grade. Where is she now? “Ninth grade.”


— BY EMILY HITE, for the Stanford Medicine SCOPE blog