Stanford undergraduate Eric Smalls imagines a different kind of learning environment

July 9th, 2014

As a child, ERIC SMALLS was an inquisitive kid who was fascinated by the world around him. But school was often a place where curiosity was not encouraged.

“If it wasn’t in the curriculum, I didn’t get my questions answered,” Smalls recalled during a talk he gave May 10 at the 2014 TEDxStanford conference.  Far from discouraged, he looked for ways to challenge himself.  In middle school he discovered CARL SAGAN in the library. As a teenager, he searched the Web and found a robotics group that met so far from his home that he took three buses to get to it. Appreciating the distance Smalls had come, the director of that program sent him home with a robotics kit. Within three hours he had build his first robot. Smalls found robotics enthusiasts on Facebook who helped him reprogram his design.

Before his arrival at Stanford as a freshman in 2012, Smalls participated in a six-week residential program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and was a contributor to Carnegie Mellon University’s Multi-Robot Research Project. He also had an internship at the University of Pennsylvania’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception Laboratory, where he developed computer vision software for autonomous drones. In 2012, President BARACK OBAMA featured Smalls in a campaign video about the importance of STEM education.

Soon after his arrival on the Farm, Smalls founded the Stanford Robotics Club, which now has more than 100 active members.

During his TEDxStanford talk, in which he was interviewed by the event’s co-host SHEILA DHARMARAJAN, the computer science major asked:

“What if we made learning more like a kitchen than a cafeteria? What if we made it more creative, where you’re engaged in the process? When I built the robot it was turning these math symbols that I’d learned in school and memorized into something that moved a robot, and that really inspired me.”




Stanford research team wins 2014 Eni Award

July 7th, 2014


Three researchers from Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences were recently honored with a 2014 Eni Award, a prize aimed at promoting more efficient and sustainable energy sources, as well as inspiring future generations of researchers.

The researchers, TAPAN MUKERJI, associate professor of energy resources engineering and of geophysics, GARY MAVKO, professor of geophysics, and JACK DVORKIN, a senior research scientist in geophysics, were honored with this year’s Eni Award in “New Frontiers of Hydrocarbons” for their work in devising a way to obtain quantitative information about the rocks and liquids that lie beneath the Earth’s crust. This information is critical for research related to the production of oil and gas. DARIO GRANA, a Stanford alumnus who is now an assistant professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Wyoming, also was part of the prize-winning team, which was led by Mukerji.

The Eni Award is an honor bestowed by the Italian energy company Eni S.p.A. to recognize scientific research that advances our knowledge and ability to use more efficient and sustainable energy sources. The Eni Scientific Award Committee that selects the Eni Award winners is composed of Nobel Prize winners, researchers and scientists. This year, the 23-member committee received more than 1,400 applications.

Two prizes were given for “New Frontiers of Hydrocarbons” to acknowledge the research of two separate research groups. The other prize recipient was AMIR HOVEYDA, a professor of chemistry at Boston College, who has identified new and particularly efficient methods for synthesizing complex molecules with specific shape arrangements. The winners received their Eni Award medals at a special awards ceremony held in Rome on June 17.

— BY HOLLY MACCORMICK, communications assistant in the School of Earth Sciences

Recommended summer reads from Stanford Law School faculty

July 6th, 2014

McConnell named Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor

July 2nd, 2014
Susan McConnell

Susan McConnell

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has named biologist SUSAN MCCONNELL, the Susan B. Ford Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, one of 15 HHMI professors. According to the HHMI press release, each professor receives $1 million over five years to create activities that integrate their research with student learning in ways that enhance undergraduate students’ understanding of science.

According to the press release: “HHMI professors are accomplished research scientists who are making science more engaging for undergraduates. By providing HHMI professors with the funds and support to implement their ideas, HHMI hopes to empower these individuals to create new models for teaching science at research universities. The newly selected group—who represent 13 universities across the country—will join the community of HHMI professors who are working together to change undergraduate science education in the United States.”

Said McConnell, “Now more than ever, our ability to communicate science to a broad audience is essential for the public support and funding of basic science. Just as importantly, effective communication is central to the success of any Stanford undergrad, in any field, both now and in the future. Through this award, I hope to engage undergraduates in the life sciences in communicating science to a variety of audiences and through many media, including the arts.”

This is how HHNI explains McConnell’s work on its website:

“Neurobiology, education and art can be distinct pursuits, but for Susan McConnell, they overlap and complement one another.

“In her lab at Stanford, McConnell is working to understand how neural circuits are constructed in the mammalian brain. She explores several key steps in that developmental process: how neurons are produced as the brain’s cerebral cortex develops, how new neurons are assigned their identities, and how those cells are wired together into information-processing circuits.

“Her lab’s findings have opened new lines of research in several distinct areas of neurobiology. They have determined at what point in their development cells in the cortex commit to becoming specific types of specialized neurons, and shown that those cells lose their ability to respond to fate-inducing cues over time. McConnell also found that cells called subplate neurons are responsible for pioneering early connections between the brain’s cortex and thalamus, and developed genetic methods to explore the patterning of the early telencephalon, the embryonic structure from which the cerebrum develops.

“She brings her enthusiasm for neuroscience into the classroom, and Stanford has recognized McConnell with its two highest teaching honors, the Hoagland Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and the Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching. Her course on neural development, which she has taught at Stanford since 1989, is praised by students for its impact not just in conveying course material, but also in teaching them ‘how to think.’

“From 2010-2012, McConnell co-chaired a university-wide commission that evaluated undergraduate education at Stanford and provided recommendations for the future. The intensive analysis culminated with recommendations for a wide variety of changes, including a new system of breadth requirements based on ‘ways of thinking’ and ‘ways of doing’ rather than on traditional academic disciplines.

“That experience prompted McConnell—who also teaches a course in conservation photography at Stanford—to consider the role of creative and artistic expression in the sciences. As a result, she piloted The Senior Reflection in Biology, a senior-year capstone experience in which students in the life sciences are invited to undertake an in-depth creative project that joins a compelling scientific subject with a passion for the arts. At the same time, she revised the biology courses that enable students to fulfill Stanford’s ‘Writing in the Major’ requirement, creating opportunities for students to either write for scientific audiences or to translate biology topics for non-scientists.”

Visit the HHMI website.

World Cup men’s soccer; then and now

July 1st, 2014
    A group of World Cup soccer fans assembled at the large monitor in Y2E2 Tuesday, July 1, to watch the U.S. team play Belgium in an elimination round. The U.S. battled but fell to Belgium 2-1 with all the goals scored in extra time. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

A group of World Cup soccer fans assembled at the large monitor in Y2E2 Tuesday, July 1, to watch the U.S. team play Belgium in an elimination round. The U.S. battled but fell to Belgium 2-1 with all the goals scored in extra time. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

On Tuesday, crowds gathered across campus to huddle around TVs to watch the United States battle Belgium in the FIFA World Cup. And despite the heartbreaking loss, the U.S. and Stanford have much to be proud of, given how far the country has come in the soccer world over the past two decades.

“To understand how the 1994 World Cup changed soccer in America, you must consider what soccer was like in America,” wrote DAVID KIEFER, assistant media relations director in Stanford Athletics.

“Most young American soccer players had never seen a professional match  – on TV or in person. Virtually the only soccer programming came on Spanish-language channels, and often only with the help of rabbit-ear antennas draped with tin foil.

“There was no true outdoor soccer league in the country in 1994. The mercenaries who tried to make a living at the game in the United States played indoor soccer, on turf-covered ice rinks. The indoor league was more stable than the top outdoor circuit, the American Professional Soccer League (ASPL), which lived up to the adage that if you need to have ‘professional’ in your name, you probably aren’t.

“The APSL averaged ‘crowds’ of barely more than 2,000 and hardly was the launching pad the American game required to increase its popularity and stature. At the time, American players were not really accepted in Europe, and the best players had barely any club options at all …

“Much of the mainstream media only begrudgingly embraced soccer, and only because they understood that the World Cup was a big deal. Soccer, however, was not, at least in their eyes. Most newspaper sports editors did not grow up with the sport, were unfamiliar with it, and were eager to belittle it.

“But the 1994 World Cup, which included six matches at Stanford, changed all that. And Stanford’s role in that transformation was a great one.
“When the U.S. was awarded the World Cup by FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, in 1988, the U.S. hadn’t qualified for a World Cup since 1950. The concern internationally was whether the tournament would be a source of embarrassment for the U.S. on the field and in the stands, and for FIFA, for taking the chance on the U.S. in the first place.

“Stanford played a role in earning the trust of FIFA because of its success in hosting matches during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Nine were played at Stanford, drawing crowds of 83,642 for an Italy-Brazil semifinal, 78,000 for a first-round match between the U.S. and Costa Rica, and 75,000 for West Germany-Brazil.

“In the years that followed, Stanford became a regular stop for the U.S. national team, playing five exhibitions from 1990-93, against the USSR and Russia, Argentina, China, and Germany. The 1998 World Cup cycle included two qualifying matches at Stanford, against Costa Rica and Canada.

“The South Bay’s rich soccer history, featuring the original San Jose Earthquakes of the old North American Soccer League, and the massive size of Stanford Stadium made Stanford an ideal choice as one of the 1994 Cup’s nine host venues.

“It got even better – the Stanford venue would become the home base for Brazil, the three-time world champion and the masters of ‘the beautiful game,’ in which style is just as important as results in the soccer-mad nation.

The average attendance at the six matches that were held at Stanford in 1994 was 81,736.

Brazil vs. Russia was the first game of the XV World Cup of Soccer at Stanford Stadium in 1994. That year,  the FIFA World Cup was held in nine cities across the United States. The average attendance at the six matches that were held at Stanford that summer was 81,736. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

“The Brazilian fans descended upon the team’s tournament headquarters at the now-closed Villa Felice lodge in Los Gatos and the team’s training grounds at Santa Clara University’s Buck Shaw Stadium. Training would be joined by chanting and singing fans, who at night would shift to Los Gatos’ Town Plaza Park for samba, soccer and one big continuous party.

“The Brazilians taught Americans how to be soccer fans and their influence remains in evidence today with the singing, chanting and drum-beating supporter groups that now proliferate the American soccer scene.”

Kiefer noted that the average attendance at the six matches that were held at Stanford in 1994 was 81,736.

“But, even more important,” he added, “was the respect the U.S. gained as a soccer nation. “Not only did America prove to the world that it could appreciate and support the game at its highest levels, but the quality of play by the U.S. was proof of inclusion into the realm of soccer’s elite.”
Read Kiefer’s full story on

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.



Paul Goldstein named head men’s tennis coach

June 25th, 2014
Paul Goldstein

Paul Goldstein

Former Cardinal standout PAUL GOLDSTEIN has been named Stanford’s men’s tennis head coach by Jaquish & Kenninger Director of Athletics BERNARD MUIR.

Goldstein becomes the 10th head coach in school history and only the third since 1967, following a successful 10-year stint by John Whitlinger, who announced his retirement on May 29 after guiding Stanford to a 160-85 overall record and nine NCAA Tournament appearances.

“I am humbled, honored, but most of all inspired by the opportunity to lead a program with such a strong inter-generational legacy of athletic and academic excellence,” said Goldstein. “I have been a proud member of the Stanford tennis family since I first arrived on campus in 1994 and am thrilled to be returning to the Farm. I look forward to working with our student-athletes and the broader Stanford community to drive success both on and off the court.”

“Paul has enjoyed success at every level of his career and his noticeable passion for our men’s tennis program makes him a great fit to be our next head coach,” said Muir. “Paul’s infectious enthusiasm and ability to cultivate and sustain positive relationships stood out as dynamic qualities during the search process, which attracted both national and international candidates. Throughout the search, Paul’s name continued to rise above an extremely deep, talented and distinguished pool.”

Visit to read more.

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.”