Archive for the ‘Best of’ Category

This is computer music: Ge Wang at TEDxStanford

July 1st, 2014

At TEDxStanford on May 10, GE WANG, assistant professor at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, offered a primer on computer music. He invited the audience to join him in “geeking out,” as he wrote code. He showed the audience a speaker array created out of salad bowls from Ikea. He made a variety of sounds using parts of a gaming controller. He played chords with an iPhone.

Wang’s research focuses on programming languages and interactive software design for computer music, mobile and social music, laptop orchestras and education at the intersection of computer science and music. He is the author of the ChucK audio programming language, as well as the founding director of the Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk) and the Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra (MoPhO). He also is the co-founder of Smule (which makes social music-making apps and has more than 100 million users) and the designer of the iPhone’s Ocarina and Magic Piano.

And while the technological aspects of his talk were compelling on their own, the overarching theme was about human expression and connection.

“Computer music isn’t really about computers.” Wang said in closing. “It is about people. It’s about how we can use technology to change the way we think and do and make music, and maybe even add to how we can connect with each other through music.”

In addition to being avialable on the TEDxStanford website, Wang’s talk now is available on .

Children’s book by Stanford researcher chronicles a baby elephant’s life

June 30th, 2014


In the new children’s book written by CAITLIN O’CONNELL, a consulting assistant professor at Stanford Medical School, the adorable baby Liza steals every scene – taking her first steps, playing with other babies, taking a bath, letting her older brother help her get to her feet.

Except the baby at the center of this captivating story weighs 250 pounds, learns how to walk on four legs within hours of her birth, greets other babies by placing her trunk in their mouths, and takes a bath by rolling in a cool mud puddle in the African savannah.

A Baby Elephant in the Wild, written for preschool through elementary school readers, features Liza, an African elephant born in Etosha National Park in Namibia.

O’Connell and her husband, TIMOTHY RODWELL, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego, have been taking pictures of Liza since her birth.

Liza’s arrival marked the first time that O’Connell has been able to follow the growth of one specific elephant from birth during the 20 years she has devoted to studying elephant behavior and conservation. O’Connell has a research station in the park.

Each photograph in the book is a marvel, from a sequence of pictures of a tiny Liza rolling in the mud in the shadow of her 8,000-pound mother’s legs to group photos of the young elephant and her extended family relaxing in the dappled shade of an acacia grove.

The book introduces young readers to how elephants live in the wild:

“A layer of mud is not just fun – it also helps protect an elephant’s skin from parasites and sunburns.”

“While resting in the shade, elephant mothers will stand facing outward, on guard while baby elephants either lie down or lean against their mothers to sleep. Flapping their ears while resting helps baby elephants cool down.”

“Elephants have an aquatic ancestry, so it makes sense that they like the water and are good swimmers. In fact, they use their trunk as a snorkel when swimming in deep water.”

Gently imparting a message about conservation, the book says that Liza’s mother knows how to protect her from danger and even trouble within the family, but she won’t be able to protect her from disease or starvation in the years ahead. The book notes:

“Too many fires, a bad drought, and the cutting down of forests to make room for crops are some of the reasons why an elephant might not have enough food to survive. Poachers looking for either meat or ivory also threaten elephants in the wild. In some areas, elephants are risk of going extinct if they are not better protected.”

Through their nonprofit organization, Utopia Scientific, O’Connell and Rodwell are conducting an ongoing study of elephants in partnership with Stanford and with support from the Oakland Zoo. Learn more about O’Connell and her other books, including The Elephant’s Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa and, for young readers, The Elephant Scientist, on her website.


Tales from the Farm: Stanford history stories

June 26th, 2014

Ever wanted to know more about the origins of the Big Game, the death of Jane Stanford, the first inhabitants of Encina Hall or Stanford’s first African American student? To commemorate its 40th year, Stanford magazine has published a compilation of its best historical stories that have published since the magazine has had an online presence.  From Leland Junior’s childhood to his mother’s murder, from the development of the modern mouse to memories of Lake Lagunita, the resulting list is filled with nostalgia, intrigue and more. Read the full story on the magazine’s website.



Stanford physicist Renata Kallosh honored as part of University of Groningen’s 400th anniversary celebration

June 25th, 2014

Physics Professor RENATA KALLOSH has been awarded a Doctorate Honoris Causa from the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, as part of its 400th anniversary celebrations.

The university announced that Kallosh was nominated for the honor by the faculty of mathematics and natural sciences there because of her “great influence on the field of theoretical physics and because she is an inspiration to a whole generation.”

Kallosh is well known for her contributions to theoretical physics, particularly to string theory. A video commissioned by Groningen to highlight her work, however, focused more on one of her accomplishments as a teacher. She explains that she had to teach classical mechanics, and decided to find modern parallels to make the lesson more relevant. In doing so, she learned more about a dynamical system, called the “attractor mechanism,” that explains many phenomena.

“It’s when the system ‘forgets’ the initial condition and goes into the situation that is generic, independent of where it started,” Kallosh says in the video. As she began to study the mechanism further, she realized it held up outside of classical mechanics, in particular in the worlds of economics and medicine. “This is what stabilizes heartbeats. Something happened, and then you have a regular heartbeat.”

She soon realized that the same principles applied to her research in supersymmetry theory, string theory and black holes,. By incorporating this in her work, she made advances and discoveries that have had lasting impact on the field of theoretical physics. In the video, she humbly remarks of her achievement that she was “just trying to improve the intellectual quality of my teaching.”




The art of saying goodbye: Isabel Stenzel Byrnes at TEDxStanford

June 23rd, 2014

ISABEL STENZEL BYRNES has lived with cystic fibrosis for 42 years. She received a lung transplant at Stanford Hospital 10 years ago. In a talk she gave at TEDxStanford May 10, Byrnes, a bereavement counselor, described her illness journey and the lessons she has learned about grief and loss. Before the death of her sister, Anabel, who also had cystic fibrosis, the twins, both Stanford alumnae, published a memoir titled The Power of Two, which inspired a documentary film of the same title. At the close of her 2014 TEDx talk, Byrnes played the bagpipes to celebrate her lung donor.

To view more of this year’s TEDxStanford videos, visit the YouTube playlist.

Two graduating seniors celebrate their commencement on the Arctic Ocean

June 15th, 2014

On a bright, frigid Tuesday afternoon, two Stanford seniors were honored in their own private commencement ceremony aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a polar icebreaker located in the Arctic Ocean, some 3,400 miles from Stanford’s main campus.

For the past several weeks, the students, ERIN DILLON and CAROLINE FERGUSON, have been active members on a scientific research project called SUBICE that is searching for large under-ice algae blooms in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea. The massive blooms, which scientists think have only become possible in recent decades due to thinning ice caused by climate change-driven ocean warming, could have implications for the global carbon cycle.

“We’re here to follow up on a discovery made in 2011 related to blooms of under-ice phytoplankton,” said KEVIN ARRIGO, professor of Earth sciences and the mission’s chief scientist. “That was a very unexpected result and something we didn’t understand very well but turns out is probably very important for the ecosystem. So we decided to come back to study it a little more comprehensively.”

Dillon and Ferguson have been critical members of the SUBICE team, Arrigo said. “They do most of the actual work in terms of processing the seawater samples. It’s a difficult thing to do a research cruise when you’re working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, for six weeks on end. They were two that I certainly thought could handle the stress.”

Being in the Arctic prevented Dillon and Ferguson from graduating with their peers at Stanford on Sunday. So Arrigo hatched a plan to honor them before he left on the polar research expedition.

“It’s a really big deal to miss your graduation, and the students are giving up a lot to be a part of this research,” Arrigo said. “I wondered if there were something we could do to help make up for the fact that they’re missing events at home. So I thought we might be able to hold a ceremony on the Healy.”

From left, Cmdr. Greg Stanclik, Healy executive officer; Kevin Arrigo, professor of Earth sciences and co-director of the Earth Systems Program; graduating seniors Erin Dillon and Caroline Ferguson, and Capt. John Reeves, Healy commanding officer. (Photo credit: Carolina Nobre)

From left, Cmdr. Greg Stanclik, Healy executive officer; Kevin Arrigo, professor of Earth sciences and co-director of the Earth Systems Program; graduating seniors Erin Dillon and Caroline Ferguson, and Capt. John Reeves, Healy commanding officer. (Photo credit: Carolina Nobre)


Healy officers, with the Coast Guard crew standing in formation, as well as scientific researchers and staff. Arrigo and the students walked out of the icebreaker’s hold dressed in full graduation regalia brought all the way from Stanford. Pinned to their gowns was the Coast Guard Arctic Service Medal, a gold medallion they received for serving more than 21 days above the Arctic Circle.

“Caroline and Erin, we honor you here in the Arctic as you wear the traditional cap and gown commemorating your upcoming graduation,” Arrigo said during his remarks. “To our knowledge, you are the first two people to be so honored in Stanford University’s history.”

Healy Commanding Officer Capt. JOHN REEVES also spoke at the ceremony. “As the grandson of a Stanford alum, and an icebreaker sailor myself, it’s my privilege to bring these two worlds together in a ceremony that is befitting of the occasion and the location,” he said.

Dillon and Ferguson, who will receive a BS in biology and a BA in human biology, respectively, said they were surprised and filled with gratitude by the extraordinary efforts undertaken on their behalf.

“We thought maybe it would be us and Kevin,” said Ferguson, who is continuing work toward a co-terminal master’s degree in Earth systems. “But everyone worked tirelessly to make us feel special. The kitchen got involved and baked a cake, and everyone congratulated us. We also received fake flowers – because flowers don’t grow here – so it’s been really, really special.”

Ferguson said she couldn’t imagine a better or more personal way to celebrate the occasion. “When we received our diploma cases, we opened them to discover a touching letter written by Kevin, which was even more meaningful than an actual diploma,” she said. “I’m sad to be missing Stanford traditions like watching the movie The Graduate and attending the senior dinner on the Quad, but I wouldn’t trade this experience for a hundred commencement ceremonies back on campus.”

Dillon called the experience “surreal” and said she thought it was an appropriate way to mark the end of her undergraduate years. “I have spent a significant chunk of my time at Stanford studying abroad and these experiences have been the defining moments of my time as an undergraduate,” she said, “so it only seems fitting that I graduate in my element doing research and traveling.

“In 10 years, when people ask, ‘What did you do for graduation?’ we’re going to have an incredible story to tell.”

Read the original story on the School of Earth Sciences website.

— BY KER THAN, associate director of communications for the School of Earth Sciences.



Awards honor Stanford student organizations, individuals for their service

June 13th, 2014

Four Stanford student organizations have received Student Activities and Leadership Campus Impact Awards, which recognize contributions to the community. In addition, the Dean of Student Life Office honored eight individual students for their exceptional contributions.

SAL Campus Impact Award


Sara Jenks ’16 as Eliza Doolittle during a rehearsal of the Asian American Theater Project’s production of “My Fair Lady.”  The Theater Project was cited for its dedication to sharing work that addresses the Asian and Asian American experience. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News)

Given by the Office of Student Activities and Leadership, the awards honor organizations for their contributions in four categories: “Building Bridges,” “Inspiring Innovation,” “Leaving a Legacy” and “Capturing the Spirit.”

  • For Building Bridges: The Asian American Theater Project, an organization dedicated to the sharing and creation of work that addresses the Asian and Asian American experience through theater and the performing arts;
  • For Inspiring Innovation: MINT magazine, a student-run fashion and culture publication;
  • For Leaving a Legacy: Kids With Dreams, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of disabled children;
  • For Capturing the Spirit: Challah for Hunger, which brings people together to bake and sell challah bread to raise money and awareness for social justice causes.

“This year’s honorees have earned recognition for unique achievements including staging the first student-directed musical production in Bing Concert Hall, publishing a fashion and culture magazine, maintaining strong partnerships that engage youth with disabilities, and creating fun and accessible service opportunities on campus,” said a press release announcing this year’s winners.

Lyons award winners, from left, Timothy Huang, Dominique Mikell, Hunter Kodama, Jim Lyons, Tessa Ormenyi, Annie Atura, Karen  Jared Naimark and Sandra Kjono and Sandra Powroznik

Lyons Award winners, from left, Timothy Huang, Dominique Mikell, Hunter Kodama, Jim Lyons, Tessa Örményi, Annie Atura, Karen Powroznik, Jared Naimark and Sandra Kjono.



The James W. Lyons Award for Service

The Lyons Award for Service is named in honor of JIM LYONS, who served as Stanford’s dean of student affairs from 1972 to 1990. This year’s winners are:

ANNIE ATURA, a doctoral student in English, for her “unique and innovative programming at the Women’s Community Center, which has engaged both men and women in feminist dialogue.”

TIMOTHY HUANG, ’14, a coterminal student majoring in human biology and education, “for innovative curriculum design, program development and mentorship that continues to engage youth and educators in STEM subjects with an aim of increasing student participation throughout K-12 schooling and for establishing a youth-run café in Bhutan that empowers youth to train others for employment in the tourism industry to uplift themselves and their community.”

SANDRA N. KJONO, a graduate student in electrical engineering, for “stepping up to assume a leadership position in the newly founded Student Veterans Affairs Office, uniquely representing the needs of both undergraduate and graduate student veterans through your personal experience, and for reinvigorating the Stanford Native American Graduate Student Organization through your enthusiastic leadership, dedication to service, inclusive style and intellectual curiosity.”

HUNTER CRAIG KODAMA, ’14, a senior majoring in public policy, for his “passion and commitment to serving the Stanford community in the many roles you have held, including Dance Marathon leadership, ASSU elections commissioner, student activities and leadership peer adviser, resident assistant for Kappa Sig, freshman transition coordinator and executive cabinet member.”

DOMINIQUE AISHA MIKELL, ’14, a senior majoring in philosophy, for “enthusiasm and leadership as executive director of Alternative Spring Break; expanding the program’s infrastructure and scope to include a fall quarter ThanksGiving Back service opportunity.”

JARED NAIMARK, ’14, a senior majoring in Earth sciences, for hisefforts to promote a nuanced understanding of international human rights conflicts on campus by engaging with academic departments and local organizations as president of STAND and for bolstering the Haas Center for Public Service’s support of student activists and championing public service among Stanford students as a peer adviser.”

TESSA EVA ÖRMÉNYI, ’14, a senior majoring in comparative studies in race and ethnicity, for “dedication and leadership as head producer of the 2013 Faces of Community production during New Student Orientation, fostering a campus community of tolerance, acceptance and understanding around all aspects of diversity.”

KAREN POWROZNIK, a doctoral student in sociology, for “tireless dedication serving the Stanford community in many roles including New Graduate Student Orientation co-coordinator, community associate, lecturer and teaching assistant of sociology courses, and co-chair of the Graduate Student Programming Board.”


Stanford’s ‘robo-shuttle’ goes to Washington

June 10th, 2014

Engineers have spent the last decade developing and improving autonomous vehicles that use sensors and software systems to replace human drivers.

Now one Stanford professor is working on the next challenge: developing software systems to manage fleets of autonomous taxis, buses or shuttles.

“The work that we do can be viewed essentially as a giant dispatch system, whereby we are dispatching autonomous vehicles throughout an entire transportation network,” said MARCO PAVONE, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford.

Pavone is part of a government-industry-academic consortium that is collaborating to create a test bed for an autonomous shuttle system. (See and learn more about the Stanford software in the accompanying video.) That effort is called ARIBO, short for Applied Robotics for Installations and Base Operations. Its goal is to study how autonomous vehicles perform in real environments, such as a military base or college campus.

On Wednesday, June 11, Pavone will join his ARIBO teammates in Washington, D.C., to take part in the SmartAmerica Challenge Summit, an event organized by the Presidential Innovation Fellows project. SmartAmerica is highlighting key advances in so-called Cyber-Physical Systems – the Internet of Things – applications where networked technologies are revolutionizing everyday activities such as, in this case, riding in a robo-shuttle controlled entirely by software.

With RICK ZHANG, a graduate student in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford, Pavone has developed systems to manage fleets of autonomous vehicles and prevent them, for instance, from bunching up at popular drop-off points or the end of the line. At the moment his “fleet” consists of fist-sized models that scurry around the mock streets of a fake town in the basement of his Stanford lab.

“This test bed is a small-scale demonstration of what we hope to achieve on a real scale,” Zhang said.

After the SmartAmerica event, Pavone and Zhang will present their dispatch and control software at the Robotics: Science and Systems Conference in Berkeley, where their research has been nominated for best paper. 

BY TOM ABATE, Stanford Engineering




Motion Picture Academy awards Stanford alums gold and silver for their documentary films

June 9th, 2014

On Saturday, June 7, two alumni of Stanford’s MFA program in Documentary Film and Video won gold and silver medals from the  Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 2014 Student Academy Awards.

The gold went to HELEN HOOD SCHEER for The Apothecary, about the sole pharmacist in a 4,000-square-mile region in the American Southwest.  J. CHRISTIAN JENSEN received the silver for White Earth, a winter portrait of North Dakota’s oil boom seen through unexpected eyes.

Scheer and Jensen, who were featured in The Dish when they were named finalists last month,  graduated from Stanford in 2013.

Helen Hood Scheer's documentary 'The Apothecary' took gold at the 2014 Student Academy Awards last weekend.

Helen Hood Scheer’s documentary “The Apothecary” took gold at the 2014 Student Academy Awards last weekend.


J. Christian Jensen, winner of the silver medal in the documentary film category for “White Earth,”

J. Christian Jensen, winner of the silver medal in the documentary film category for “White Earth.”



Four Stanford undergraduates win Taube Center for Jewish Studies short story contest

June 9th, 2014
The organizer, winners and judges of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies inaugural short story contest gathered at the Faculty Club to celebrate. From left, senior Kim Leon, Professor Tobias Wolff, sophomore Beatrice Garrard, writer Sarah Houghteling, freshman Max Weiss, senior Alberto Hernandez, Marie-Pierra Ulloa, associate director for academic programming and student outreach at the Taube Center for Jewish Studies, and writer Maya Arad.

From left, Senior Kim Leon,  Professor Tobias Wolff, sophomore Beatrice Garrard, Sarah Houghteling a lecturer in Continuing Studies,  freshman Max Weiss, senior Alberto Hernandez,  Marie-Pierra Ulloa, associate director for academic programming and student outreach at the Taube Center for Jewish Studies, and writer Maya Arad.

Submissions from Stanford students who entered the inaugural Taube Center for Jewish Studies undergraduate short story contest illustrate the depth, breadth and diversity of the Jewish experience.

The grand prize of $600 was awarded to Stanford sophomore BEATRICE GARRARD for her story, “A Man Without a Watch.” The seed of Garrard’s story comes from a Jewish folktale in which a clever trickster outwits a highwayman. Her prize also includes a one-year mentorship with SARA HOUGHTELING, a writer and lecturer in Continuing Studies

A history major and an avid student of Yiddish literature, Garrard used the contest as an opportunity to reframe a chapter from her working novel into a short story. She has received a Chappell-Lougee Fellowship to research and complete that novel in Lithuania this summer.

MARIE-PIERRE ULLOA, associate director for academic programming and student outreach at the Taube Center, developed the contest to encourage all undergraduates to explore the Jewish experience from a Jewish perspective or from the perspective of another culture.

“Among the many submissions we received, several stood out because of their compelling narrative and velocity, so we decided to award four prizes instead of three,” Ulloa said.

Contestants were asked to write a short story that draws on any aspect of Jewish life, history and culture, and addresses any aspect of the Jewish experience.

TOBIAS WOLFF, professor of creative writing at Stanford; MAYA ARAD, writer-in-residence at the Taube Center; and Houghteling judged the stories.

Houghteling, who presented the awards a Jewish Studies reception earlier this month, was impressed by the literary quality of the submissions.

“There was a wonderful range,” she said. “A lot of the stories had their foundations in Jewish literature, referring to Isaac Babel or to the teaching of the Talmud, and so there were a lot of echoes between the generations.”

Garrard set her story, “A Man Without a Watch,” in 1913 because during that period “many felt that traditional Jewish life was falling apart in the face of the modern era,” she explained. “I wanted to take the original comic scenario and transpose it into a setting that reflects the anxieties of the time.”

A second prize of $300 was awarded to freshman MAX WEISS for “Kasanov’s Bakery,” a story inspired by his grandfather’s memories of growing up in Boston.

Set in 1948 at the time of the narrator’s bar mitzvah, tensions erupt between narrator and father over whether he will carry on the cultural and professional traditions of his family.

“Max mixes humor and drama with an unerring sense of how to tell a good story,” said Houghteling. “We were delighted to discover that a writer of prose this assured was only a freshman.

Two third-prize awards of $150 each were given to senior ALBERTO HERNANDEZ for his work, “Tefillin,” and to senior KIM LEON for her story, “Babel.”

When asked if there is something specific that makes a story distinctly Jewish, the winners paused to reflect.

“It’s really the voice and the values,” Weiss said. “A lot of the best Jewish stories don’t directly address Judaism at all.”

The Taube Center plans to offer another short story contest next spring.

— BY TANU WAKEFIELD, the Humanities at Stanford