Meet our faculty
Scholarship is at its best when it draws upon a diverse community. When individuals are exposed to novel perspectives from a broader group, their thoughts become more creative, and they generate innovative solutions they might not have otherwise considered. Here, Stanford faculty members share their breadth of life experiences and interests that fuel the dynamic learning environment on campus.
Professor of Psychology and, by courtesy, of Law
“Both of my parents passed away at a pretty young age, in their 50s. My father was a mailman and an antique dealer on the side, and my mother was a data entry clerk working at the federal building in downtown Cleveland. After I completed graduate school, and before my mother told me she was dying, she shared that seeing how far I could go in education had made a real impression on her, and that she wanted to follow in my footsteps. She decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in urban studies and went on to complete her degree. I didn’t realize I could have that kind of influence on someone I loved just by doing what I loved. Going to college was a big change for her late in life, and I’m really proud of how she took that leap and seized the opportunity to advance her education. It encouraged me to keep doing more of the same.
“When I was twelve, we moved from an all-black neighborhood to an all-white neighborhood. My parents knew there was a better school system in the new neighborhood, and they wanted to try to give us a chance at better educational opportunities. I think that move got me very interested in race and inequality. In the new neighborhood, it was expected that most of the kids would go to college and do great things. I felt like I was on a different path than I would’ve been had we stayed in the old neighborhood, where it wasn’t the expectation that people would go to college. Most people there didn’t pursue degrees. I think that experiencing this racial divide and seeing the discrepancies between the two communities is what first made me want to investigate human behaviors and interactions, and my current research addresses significant social issues such as bias, discrimination, and inequality. The idea that we can use science as a way to explore possible solutions to significant problems is really exciting to me. Social science research provides me with a unique avenue for contributing to society – while also inspiring others to pursue what they’re most passionate about.”
Associate Professor of Philosophy
“This past year, I took physics, math and chemistry courses with freshmen. It’s much easier the second time around – I’ve figured out how to learn! When you spend your time as a teacher carefully trying to explain things to others, it makes you better at understanding others’ explanations. Indeed, one of my professors last year taught me physics when I was a Stanford undergraduate. These classes may seem like they don’t have much to do with philosophy, but to make real progress on some central philosophical questions we need to look carefully at the interconnections between philosophy, science and mathematics.
“I think philosophy has often not been taught effectively. We often throw students in the deep end of the swimming pool by giving them difficult classics or hard contemporary research articles. More students would be interested in the humanities if they were given courses that met them where they are. I’ve also been studying non-Western intellectual traditions in the hopes of redesigning my classes so that they do a better job of assessing why we’ve ended up doing the kind of philosophy we do. We need to give our students the tools of rational, critical thinking so that they can engage in difficult conversations even when their disagreements are generated by deep differences in background worldviews.”
Assistant Professor of Art and Art History
“At times, art has been an escape from a reality that I didn’t see myself as being a part of. It’s served an escape from some of the brutality I’ve witnessed. It’s a space where I’m able to make things right and whole, where I can question things and craft my own method for reorganizing the world. It’s also an opportunity for me to step outside of what’s happening around me and become a mirror, creating things that reflect where we are as a culture. I’m part of the culture, but as an artist, a portion of me feels that it’s my job to step partially outside of it in order to record it. I love what I do: It allows me time and space to process, question and create. My field also allows me to explore and advocate for areas of our world that aren’t getting enough attention. Ultimately, art is a way to remake and redirect the world. I’m lucky I get to spend my life doing that.
“I’m a photographer because ultimately that’s the way I look at the world, and it’s the medium I always return to. One nice feature of saying you’re a photographer is that everybody knows what that means and can relate to it. I think that in a way, being a photographer has simplified identity for me, while still leaving it open-ended enough to define the aspects of it that I want to. Photography is everywhere, and people connect with it on a personal level. Everyone’s taking photos and storing them, daily. Most people may not know what to do with them, how to categorize them, or if they’re good or bad, but we all have catalogs of our lives that we’re carrying around wherever we go.”
Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics
“It’s an exciting time to be an aerospace engineer. There have been amazing breakthroughs in the field, such as the realization of rockets that can launch, land and launch again. My research group is developing micro- and nanoscale sensors that can survive and function within extreme conditions found on the surface of Mars, Venus or within rocket engines. It’s thrilling to think that our work could eventually impact space exploration.
“Deciding which engineering problems to solve and how to pursue the best solutions can be challenging. After completing my doctorate, I didn’t know which career path to choose. I ended up taking a job in industry, which opened my eyes to the challenges of commercialization and taught me how to transition a design concept to an actual product. However, I realized that I missed being in an academic research environment, so I took a nontraditional path and became a postdoctoral researcher after working in industry. It was a risky career choice, and people close to me questioned my decision, but the move was a helpful deviation in my career path. As a postdoctoral researcher, I learned how to run a lab, mentor students, teach classes, write proposals, and eventually, I decided to pursue a career in academia. Now, as an assistant professor, my work is multifaceted – I’m never doing the same thing every day – and I get to work with amazing students.”
Associate Professor of Theater and Performance Studies
“In India, performance is part of the everyday life of the city. You can’t escape it – whether it’s cinema, visual performances or your cab driver bursting into song. I started acting at a young age and have always been in love with reading, particularly Shakespeare and Chekhov. As I grew up, I wanted to understand drama, not just as words on a page, but also as stories carried by actors’ bodies. Even when a theater is dark and empty, it is still a very affective space.
“At Stanford, many students use performance to draw attention to issues of social inequality. Our students’ commitment to social justice moves me – they’re what I love the most about Stanford. Many students are drawn to my classes because they’re interested in questions of racial, gender or queer justice. Their creativity pushes the boundaries, and although one might assume that studying theater and performance studies means you emerge as an actor, the field is a good training ground for a variety of careers, including law, consulting and education. The humanities-based curriculum develops students’ abilities in critical thinking and writing, leadership, stage presence and collaboration, all essential skills for a range of careers.”
Assistant Professor of Medicine (Hematology) and of Genetics
“When I was really young, I was fascinated by space exploration. I thought about becoming an astronaut because it allows you to go out and discover the unknown. In my current work with genetics and medicine, I get to do that, but instead of looking outward, I look within. During my undergrad years I became obsessed with the idea of studying how bacteria and viruses can impact our health when I learned that they could be associated with and cause cancer. After completing a PhD in biochemistry and finishing my medical training, I began a postdoctoral fellowship, which was right around the time that genomics became a fast-growing field. Suddenly, the ability to sequence genomes was at our fingertips. This lent itself well to better understanding the organisms that live within us and on us. While I was still a postdoc, I put together the genome of a newly discovered bacteria. There was something special about being part of such groundbreaking work. That’s when I decided I wanted to go after discovering new organisms, understanding what they do, and applying this knowledge to medicine. We’re discovering new things in our lab every day, so it’s an opportunity to fulfill my desire for a sense of wonderment while working to improve medicine and help people.
“There’s always an opportunity to learn when you work with people. While caring for cancer patients, I’ve had the opportunity to see how people savor and appreciate each day. I try to take the sadness and stress that comes with the job and channel it into motivation and appreciation for life. Being by my patients’ sides as they go through difficult times has allowed me to see some of the best of human nature, which I value deeply. It’s important to me that my trainees understand that there are people and stories behind the samples that we evaluate, so that they can be emotionally connected to our mission. Everyone here is intellectually committed to the work, but that can only take you so far. Having an emotional connection to your work allows you to be truly invested in what you do. For me, another component of that investment is a desire to engage the entire world in our efforts in order to improve global health equity. I think we have a duty to push the forefront while also bringing up the rear by sharing our discoveries and collaborating with researchers from around the world.”
Associate Professor of Classics
“Studying the ancient Romans is like doing a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with only 53 pieces. When studying contemporary society, there’s no shortage of source material. With the Romans there’s much less, so we need to be creative to fill in the picture and bring it to life. I want to show students the rich variety within ancient cultures and their afterlives. They’re much more than just the columns outside the Supreme Court building. Let’s try to understand the hopes and fears of different communities around the ancient Mediterranean, even if they’re not the ones whose texts have survived.
“I focus on what happens when different groups of people come into contact: What persons, ideas and objects can we discern? What kinds of impact are involved? Generally speaking, it’s the victors that tell the stories, so we need to look for ways of going beyond that. It’s an intellectual challenge, but also an ethical one. In such ways we need a critical and self-aware dimension in our research. Stanford makes it easy to collaborate with scholars from different fields, and this has helped me develop a broader approach. In studying any society, ancient or not, language deserves to be a key element whenever possible. Regardless of your field, you can never know enough languages. Studying languages – even just a little bit, and even if a language is no longer anyone’s mother tongue – is fundamental if we’re going to be humble, respect different perspectives and see the breadth of human experience.”
Assistant Professor of Communication
“I thought I’d be a librarian. I was born and raised in Miami, which is a diverse place full of colorful characters and cultures, and I basically spent my childhood there reading books.
“My dad was born in Israel. He’s a jeweler and a small business owner, and he worked seven days a week to support our family of five. My mom was born in Colombia. She was a stay-at-home mom while I was growing up. When I was in high school and old enough to help babysit my younger siblings, she went and got her college degree. I get a lot of my academic ambition from her. She always made it seem like anything was possible, if you just focused on getting a good education.
“In college, I double-majored in psychology and humanities. I’ve been keeping journals since I was 5, and I’ve always been fascinated by the self – how it gets expressed and how it changes over time. Today I focus on the way digital technologies—like social media platforms and smartphones—impact these processes. Those tools, by their design, do the same thing journaling does: they’re mediating and recording our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. But they’re not typically giving us access to the insights. That’s an underlying motivation in my work: I’m always trying to think about ways that we could harness everyday technologies as a kind of digital diary. I’m trying to figure out how we can use data to give something back to people, to promote self-discovery and behavior change.
“The narrative around tech can be so negative, as though we just have to deal with all the ways our gadgets are affecting us. I think that there’s more of an empowerment angle in there. We can use these tools to change ourselves in desired ways, to meet our own self-improvement goals. I try to figure out how to do that.”
Assistant Professor of Arabic and of Comparative Literature
“Nothing separates us from scholars working in Arabic and Persian 1,000 years ago. When those scholars did work in science fields like physics and optics, they didn’t have all the tools we have now, but when it comes to how metaphors work or how poetry is beautiful, we’re at the same level of expertise. We have access to the same raw material – our brains, our words, literature, the things we like reading. Now, the task in my research is capturing the quality of their work and translating it into something that people interested in language can benefit from today. It’s tremendous fun. If you have a familiarity with how a language works, you can better understand the things people say and do using that and other languages.
“And the things we don’t know are worth finding out. Society needs universities that produce knowledge, including knowledge that doesn’t seem to have any immediate impact and doesn’t seem to be immediately monetizable. The process of translating something tells us about ourselves and where we are today. That’s the payoff – you get to think about how we humans find out knowledge.”
Professor of Creative Writing
“Writing a novel is like going off on your own and painting a giant mural that no one has commissioned or asked to see. You make a big commitment to a risky project. You have to be willing to take those risks, while also managing the negative ideas and feelings that come up while pursuing such a difficult goal. It takes a lot of guts, it takes a lot of stubbornness, and it takes a lot of faith. Even now, as deep in my career as I am, I’m still managing those challenges.
“When I graduated from college, I took a job on Wall Street. I ended up quitting it pretty quickly to give writing a serious shot, taking odd jobs while also writing on my own. At the same time, my mother became terminally ill with cancer. I was working on my own, considering what I was supposed to do with my life. My mother’s illness and later, death, were a huge blow to our family, but it provided a moment of clarity about the fragility of life and that we should all try to do what we really want to do. The first novel I ever wrote failed – no one wanted to publish it. It wasn’t any good, but it helped me learn the value of endurance and facing serious failure. I wrote my first published novel while pursuing my Master of Fine Arts, with the support of colleagues and a great mentor. I still struggle with the challenges that come with writing novels, but with experience I gained a measure of faith that things will work out, even when it seems that they won’t.”
Professor of Law and, by courtesy, of Education
“I’m not sure what grade my father completed, but I know he didn’t graduate high school. He was a barber, and he ran a shop with his brothers. They were well-known in Cleveland: if you wanted a proper haircut, you went to the Banks Brothers. He was a very smart and philosophical man but didn’t have much formal education. He envied people who did. If he met someone who was a lawyer, it was a big deal to him to know someone who’d achieved that status.
“The last chance I had to spend time with him was when I graduated from Stanford undergrad. He suffered from high blood pressure and prostate cancer, and his health went into a steep decline after a heart attack. Before he left the hospital to come to my graduation, the doctor told him not to go, that he wasn’t strong enough for the trip. My father shared with me that he told the doctor he was going to be at my graduation if he had to crawl. My mother had passed away when I was nine, so he was my only living parent. He made it, and that was the last time my family was together before he died. We had a different experience of Commencement compared to most families because he was so sick and I only had my dad and my sisters, but it meant a lot to me.
“It wasn’t until after his death that I decided to go to law school. He’d always wanted me to go to Harvard, which I refused. We had a big fight about it — one of the biggest fights of our life. He’d known someone else whose son went to Harvard and he wanted me to go too, but I refused to apply. He knew so little about college that I think Harvard may have been one of the only names he knew, but he knew that everyone else knew it, too, so that it must be good.
“After everything, I ended up going to Harvard Law. I applied about a year and a half after he died. It was in the wake of his death that I decided to go. Truth be told, in retrospect, I think it was partly a way to please him because of how much he had always respected lawyers – even if he wasn’t alive to see me become one. I was also drawn to Law because it’s a place where ideas meet the world. I get to think about the connections between big abstract issues and the concrete issues that arise in people’s lives.”
Associate Professor of Music
“Anything worth designing is worth designing beautifully. There’s an art to shaping our world in a way that’s both useful and human. Only recently have I realized that my work with music and technology is unified by design, specifically a notion of ‘artful design.’ We can’t simply ‘smush’ disciplines together and hope things work out – and design is how we fit all the elements together in the right place and order to create something new. Stanford is a place where creative things happen naturally at the intersection of many different disciplines, and such an intersection is where I work and play. And the weather here is pretty good, too.
“It’s not enough to follow your interests – you have to fight for them. Back when I was an undergrad, there was no academic program that combined computers, music and design. Even as I pursued it out of interest, it was with constant doubt in my mind: ‘By doing this, am I shooting myself in the foot, or ultimately making myself unemployable?’ The one reassurance was knowing that if I were to ‘fail,’ it would be without regret because it was done out of solid interest. Looking back, life feels like a feedback loop, and I seem to be living what I am working on. And much like the book I’m currently writing, and the design process itself, I have no idea how it will turn out – and along the way, it’s enjoyable, sometimes agonizing, but always filled with curiosity.”
Professor of English
“Stories – narratives – are very powerful. I love literature for what it can teach us, what it makes us feel and how we use it to communicate with each other. The first book I remember really affecting me was the children’s book Striped Ice Cream by Joan Lexau. It moved me deeply. Raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I grew up around Mexican Americans and Native Americans. I did not know any African Americans at the time and would not meet any for several years. And so the book powerfully framed my understanding of what kind of people African Americans might be. The experience provided an early lesson in the power of narrative to create understanding and foster empathy.
“As much as I loved reading as a child, I did not always know that I would – or even could – be a professor. And my path to Stanford was by no means a smooth or straight one! Few people know that for the first 10 years of my young adulthood, I was involved in electoral politics in Houston, Texas – I was, in fact, a political wife. At that point, I would never have believed it if you told me that I would ever be a professor at Stanford.
“But my love of reading and my desire to seek out answers to some of humanity’s most fundamental questions took me on the path to graduate school and academia. Now, in my ongoing conversations with scholars across the disciplines, I research how narrative shapes the schemas through which people understand race and other significant issues in the world today.”
Associate Professor of Political Science
“My mom is black and my dad is white, and I grew up closely with both sides of my family so I experienced a blend of cultures. I know that other people of mixed-race backgrounds have different experiences, though, and I’m interested in understanding the identities and political attitudes of people who belong to multiple racial worlds. Consider, for instance, the 2016 election where we saw a majority of whites vote for Donald Trump and a majority of minorities vote for Hillary Clinton. This political party divide has been present for the last several presidential elections, but where do people who belong to both the majority and minority racial categories fall? The mixed-race population is the fastest-growing youth group in the nation, and most people who label themselves with multiple racial groups are under the age of 18. Mixed-race individuals often have more of a choice in how they identify. I want to understand how people grapple with their identities and the relationship between these identities and their political behavior.
“I studied political science as an undergraduate. I’m not the first person in my family to go to college, but I am the first to get an advanced degree. There aren’t any other academics in my family, so the idea of getting a PhD in political science was foreign to us. One of my professors encouraged me to pursue graduate research in political science and to consider academia as a possible career – which I did. I’m now grateful for the opportunity to be researching and teaching on topics that I’m so invested in. In my work, I draw upon evidence that includes census data, national surveys, experiments and interviews. Our country is profoundly polarized on issues of race, ethnicity and immigration, and hearing people share their encounters and opinions inspires rigorous research of these fraught topics.”
Jennifer DeVere Brody
Professor of Theater and Performance Studies
“I come from a long line of academics, and that history has been hard-earned. My parents met in graduate school in 1959, and because they were an interracial couple, their marriage would have been illegal had they not been in a northern state. After they graduated, my father’s advisor reached out to a university through the ‘old boys’ network’ because this was before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had been established and before jobs were advertised publicly. My parents were told that the institution had met their quota for Jews and wouldn’t hire my mother because they didn’t accept black professors. Fast-forward 30 years, and they both got jobs at that same institution. Now that I’m the director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, I get to drive the mission to increase faculty diversity and carry on their legacy. As a black queer scholar, I don’t often see my identity reflected in the faculty at Stanford, but we’re working to make this a place where everyone of all faiths and persuasions feels welcome and can pursue their interests, where we can learn from one another and have truly robust intellectual discussions.
“I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t explored and stayed open to new conversations, possibilities and life paths. As an undergrad, I was a Victorian studies major, and early in my career I wanted to be a manuscripts librarian. One of the first fellowships I was awarded was at the British Library, where Marx used to study. While working there, I discovered 75 plays about black women and slavery in the 19th century and these ended up becoming an integral part of my first book project. About 15 years ago, I switched from English to theater and performance studies, which looks at a wider range of material than just the printed word. I’ve always loved thinking about the ways in which art is a matter of social justice. At one point, I thought I might want to be a museum curator, but I’m very glad I became a professor; I like the variety, the new questions that emerge and the opportunity to work with Stanford’s number-one asset – its brilliant students.”
Associate Professor of History
“My research on racial passing really began when my aunt told me a story about a family member who passed as white in the 1940s. Our family member resisted assuming the life of a white woman, but her mother insisted that this was the best – if not the only – way to succeed in Jim Crow America, so her daughter agreed. Years passed, and the daughter married a white man and had children. Then, her mother called and begged her to come home because her father was dying. Her daughter had no choice but to say, ‘I can’t. It’s not possible.’ At that point, she was a white woman and there was simply no turning back. My aunt’s magnificent storytelling and this personal connection to racial passing inspired me to delve into the history of how racial passing affects families, and to explore the pain, loss and separation that resulted.
“It is critically important to study race now. We must study race, gender, class, sexual orientation and the intersections of these identity categories. We are dealing with many unresolved issues that stem from the long and enduring history of white supremacy. We have to understand the history of white supremacy so that we can challenge and dismantle it. It’s inspiring to teach students who are so courageous in wanting to confront issues of racial injustice, economic inequality, sexual violence, sexism and multiple forms of discrimination. My students have taught me to constantly be aware of what’s happening in the current moment. To be effective teachers and historians, we must connect historical knowledge to our own times. We must help students to see their place in our history and to give them the tools to create a more just world.”
Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education
“I always imagined myself as a teacher or a professor. I liked the idea of it. My dad used to call me ‘doctor’ when I was a little kid, as in PhD, doctor. I suppose that’s because I was always trying to teach people things.
“Over time, my interests shifted. By the time I entered college, I didn’t expect to go to graduate school in education or to become a professor in that field. After my undergraduate studies, I was all set to begin a doctorate in comparative literature. But the summer before I was supposed to begin, I got cold feet and decided to give teaching a formal try. I had been a student for so long, and beginning a doctorate was just signing up for more time as a student, studying theories and abstract ideas. I wondered what the experience might be like on the other side, with much more practical applications. I found a position as a volunteer teacher on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, in a very poor county. They needed someone to teach English, so on a few weeks’ notice I moved out there and ended up teaching high school students for two years. It felt real in some way that mattered. After that, I left to pursue a doctorate in philosophy, but within months I missed teaching. I scrambled to find another teaching position, and I got a job at a Quaker school in a wealthy part of New Jersey, where I taught high school math for a couple years. Although I was in a completely different setting, I loved this teaching job as much as the last. I felt that same sense of making a difference in people’s lives.
“My experience taught me that you can’t plan it all out. Doing the thing that’s interesting to you now usually leads you somewhere that’s interesting in the future, even if you don’t know where exactly that will be. My experience of seeing the two Americas—some of the poorest and richest parts of the country—naturally made me think a whole lot about inequality and the different kinds of opportunities kids have growing up in different places. When I finally went back to graduate school, I got a doctorate in education with a focus on race and inequality. I’ve been doing that kind of work ever since. A recent project I’m proud of is the launch of a new interactive data tool that allows users to generate charts, maps, and downloadable PDFs to illustrate and compare educational opportunity data from individual schools, districts, or countries. The tool is part of the Educational Opportunity Project, an initiative I direct in support of efforts to reduce educational disparities throughout the United States.”
Associate Professor of Geological Sciences and of Photon Science
“My dad and I do similar work. He was a geology major in Taiwan and moved to the United States to do graduate work in material science research. I’m the youngest of three daughters, and none of us were interested in what he was doing when we were young, but we ended up peripherally learning more about it because he worked long hours during weekends. We’d regularly visit his lab and see a lot of cool stuff going on, but he never pressured us to pursue his line of work. I think he knew that if he did, we’d push back.
“Later on, after I made the difficult decision to take a hiatus from pursuing a graduate degree in a line of research I was no longer certain I wanted to follow, my dad offered to show me around his workplace. After seeing what he and his colleagues were doing, I became captivated with their projects and went on to pursue graduate research in a similar field. Now, I’m working to understand how materials from inside the Earth behave at extreme conditions, such as high pressures and variable temperatures. In my lab, we try to simulate the conditions inside our planet. We then study how lattice structures and atoms rearrange, and how the properties of materials change as a result. It’s exciting for me because it involves things that people haven’t seen before. We’re discovering new geological materials that nature knows exist, but that no person has ever seen.”
Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and of Mechanical Engineering
“Natural talent is helpful, but I think grit is far more important. I come from a very modest upbringing, and my parents taught me and my siblings that education was vital – that working hard and studying would open a lot of doors. That’s definitely been the case for me. My perseverance has served me well: For every 10 good ideas I think I have, maybe one or two of them actually pans out. People see the one or two successes, but no one sees the other eight failures, which can give a false impression of ease. People talk about taking risks and overcoming failures, but we only celebrate “the unicorn,” the company or project that becomes a billion-dollar success. I’ve realized that the people who eventually make it in their field have failed in different ways; it’s much more important to stick with something than it is to have some sort of inherent gift.
“I’ve always had an appreciation for science; ever since I was a kid, I’ve been curious about how things work. In bio-inspired engineering, we look at nature for inspiration to solve engineering problems. We then begin to figure out how to translate a given biological system into new and useful technology – such as wind turbines that are inspired by how fish school together in a group, which we can implement in wind farms for sustainable energy production. At Stanford, I’ve found that chance encounters often lead to unexpected and fulfilling research collaborations where each team member considers a project from a different angle: Some people think about the biological effects of a solution, while others consider the social or economic implications. One of the great things about our campus is that you have all of these different perspectives in one place – which was a huge draw for me when deciding to come here.”
Meet Our Faculty alumnus: John Dabiri is now a Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering at Caltech
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
“Going to college and becoming a professor was like a far-off dream. I don’t come from a traditional academic background: I worked full-time as a butcher for seven years, beginning at age 13. Raised in underdeveloped neighborhoods in Mauritius and later the UK, I did not have role models in academia to look to for mentorship. I struggled to see a path toward achieving my dreams. Once I started working full-time, it became even more difficult to sustain my ambition, keep up with school and manage work – which made my academic goals feel that much more unreachable. I was eventually able to break into academia, but it was a difficult journey getting there. And unbeknownst to me, my time as a butcher would unexpectedly provide me with a serendipitous opportunity to enter the area of research I was most interested in – archaeology.
“As luck would have it, the first person that I spoke to about my background happened to have been researching archaeological butchery for some 25 years. Having had degrees in biology, health and ecology, it was a challenge to enter archaeology because I had no experience with the subject – but it seemed to hold the promise of the type of research I hoped to do. Fortunately, my background in butchery was the ideal foundation for studying human-animal relationships in the past. I understand animal anatomy from a morphological perspective, as well as how people interact with the commodity of meat on a social level. My niche expertise within the meat industry opened a door of opportunity for me. Sometimes the things that you feel make you stand out unfavorably are actually what set you apart in a positive way.”
Professor of Computer Science
“Humans are the only animals that can tell stories from seeing pictures. One of my projects involves teaching a computer how to do this kind of work, how to look at an image and determine what’s important and tune out the ‘noise.’ Combining language and vision isn’t easy, and every day it’s challenging to think of the most fundamental questions of what intelligence is. I like the feeling of being challenged and not completely at ease – we should reinvent ourselves and our research.
“Artificial intelligence is a deeply humanistic discipline. We tend to focus on the ‘cool’ factor, but what excites me and my students is the mission of changing transportation, health care, human communication and more for the better. Even still, deciding to dive into computer science and AI in graduate school was difficult. As an immigrant, I felt an intense personal responsibility to take care of my family, including my parents, who were then immigrants in survival mode. Pursuing graduate studies meant delaying the start of my working career, with unclear prospects after finishing graduate school. Ultimately, no one can give you this kind of pressure – it’s something you choose to take on, just as you choose to stay true to your responsibilities. When you know you’re staying true to yourself, you stay happy, even if things aren’t always easy.”
Professor of Religious Studies
“I had a three-year identity crisis in college, wrestling with the question of ‘Am I going to be a molecular biologist or a historian of ancient religion?’ I started out majoring in molecular biology, but during my second semester of college I randomly took an introductory course in world religion and fell in love with it. Unfortunately, I was at one of the few institutions that allowed you to choose only one major – no dual majors, no minors, no certificates, no study abroad. My loophole ended up being that there was no limit on the number of classes I could take. For the rest of college, I took classes toward my degree while also taking tons of courses in world religion, history, and languages. I wasn’t yet ready to let go of molecular biology, but I was increasingly passionate about history. Both fields offer a sense of discovery.
“After graduating, I decided to pursue graduate work in ancient religions and became a professor of religious studies. At Stanford, I have the exciting opportunity to be part of large, collaborative research. I work with computer scientists, data scientists, and software developers, within and outside of our university. Some of my current research involves using advances in how computers analyze modern handwriting for security software to help match up handwriting from ancient scribes. This helps us figure out when manuscripts were written, by whom, and the connections between them. And I get to be one of the first to uncover these findings! I look at artifacts like ancient cow hides that haven’t been seen for over a millennium – precious pieces in a larger historical puzzle. It’s exciting to discover new parts of history and share that context with the world, bringing light to our past as well as our present.”
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Diseases) and of Microbiology and Immunology
“We’re really like walking planets to the microbes that inhabit us. For me, looking in the microscope is like being in a submarine, exploring landscapes that most people will never get to see. Shrinking through the porthole of a microscope and exclaiming ‘Mira!’ (Look!) with my students brings me back every day to the sense of wonder that gave me the courage to pursue higher learning.
“In a similar way, a place like Stanford is really made special by the communities of people working and studying here. The freedom to brainstorm with all of these brilliant people is the campus’s biggest asset. I grew up in Mexico, and it was very challenging leaving my home to attend college in the United States, but I was lucky to be able to explore what I wanted to do. That’s one of the reasons that I stayed in the United States. This country lets you pursue things that are luxuries in other places. Along the way, I’ve learned that the personal and cultural history you bring to the medical profession is just as valuable as your medical training – so don’t forget who you are. Even studying biology, you can see that diversity creates resiliency, and increases the number of solutions to problems.”
Department chair and K.K. Lee professor of chemical engineering and, by courtesy, of materials science and engineering and of chemistry
“My father tells stories about how when I was younger, I often opened up gadgets in an attempt to figure out how they functioned. He also says that when I would ask questions, I already had some postulated explanations in mind—like hypotheses. Because I was naturally interested in building hypotheses and testing them through experimentation, chemistry felt like a natural fit once I discovered the field. I was drawn in by the limitless possibilities of chemical reactivity—the ability to create entirely new substances that could serve as solutions to complex real-world problems was really exciting to me. Over time, I dove deeper into materials chemistry, feeling called to create useful innovations for the world.
“Human skin—which is a remarkable organic material that is stretchable, self-healable, and biodegradable all at the same time—serves as an inspiration for one of the current focuses of my research group: artificial electronic skin. We started out by trying to mimic our human sense of touch and were able to show that we can create flexible sensors that are just as sensitive—or even more sensitive—than human skin. Through material design and engineering, we added properties like stretchability, self-healing properties, and biodegradability without compromising electronic properties. Incorporating these skin-like abilities into our electronic devices will transform how we interface with electronics.
“These new materials open up so many possibilities, particularly for their applications in electronic medical devices. For example, it’s now possible to implant soft electronics inside the body without causing damage, while also being able to collect electrical and chemical information directly from within. We can build electronics that grow with the organs they wrap around without constraining the tissue. We can also make electronics accommodate dynamic human movement naturally, whether they are attached to the surface of the body or implanted inside. I believe this rapidly expanding research frontier is going to positively impact the lives of many, and I feel fortunate to be a part of the vision.”
Kathryn Gin Lum
Associate Professor of Religious Studies
“Studying religion lets me ask what people care deeply about and what they do about it. Being a historian allows me to spend time in dusty archives hearing what they have to say. I enjoy telling stories rooted in archival finds and love sharing the richness of American religious history with students at Stanford.
“One thing that people don’t often realize about studying religion is that religious concepts can offer a unique window onto seemingly non-religious people and environments. ‘Religion’ doesn’t just have to mean traditions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Buddhism. The features of many religions – such as myths, rituals and end-times scenarios – can be found in environments that seem secular, too. Stanford, for instance, has myths about its founders and rituals like fountain hopping. The culture at Stanford, and Silicon Valley in general, instills a drive to save the world and preserve our minds through technology. Stanford creates community and a shared sense of identity as much as many churches or temples. Understanding how humans are religious is key to understanding what it means to be human in the world, both historically and in the present.”
Assistant professor of earth system science
When I was very little, I wanted to be an astronaut. But it didn’t seem like it was an achievable goal. As I grew up, I continued to be interested in space and astronomy. I thought a lot about propulsion and things like that, I guess because I wanted to be like my dad, who’s a professor of aerospace engineering, and because I was reading a whole lot of science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were particular favorites.
I did my bachelor’s degree in Bangalore, in India. There were about 130 of us in the class doing mechanical engineering as a major. I was the only woman. I ended up at MIT in a PhD program in aeronautics and astronautics. It wasn’t a great fit. So I sort of sidestepped and got a PhD in atmospheric science instead. I already knew all the fluid dynamics, and I realized I could apply those skills to the climate problem, which is beautiful and fundamental and basic, but also has an immediate, practical importance in human lives.
I do a lot of idealized modeling, which means that, for instance, I make up an ocean world in which there are no continents, and I ask, in some approximate scaling, can we come up with a theory about how many hurricanes we would expect under very different circumstances? One thing I find compelling in this work is that the small scales really affect the large scales. If you look down at the Earth from space, you see this whole range of motion, from little poofs to organized bands of clouds. They all impact weather and climate. I love this interplay between small and large and different time scales.
I don’t have a unified theory for dealing with people. I’m not a people person, except in the scientific context, I totally am. I’ve been having a whole lot of fun getting to know my colleagues across the world. I very much enjoy interacting with people who are thinking about similar sorts of problems in potentially different ways, and learning from them.
In science, there are so many times you feel like things aren’t going to work out. But you’ve just got to keep going. It’s all about curiosity and persistence.
Professor of Mechanical Engineering
“I’m always looking for ways to make connections between humans and science. I’m currently studying the development of an artificial sense of touch for humans, particularly for its applications in medicine and rehabilitation. I’ve always been interested in human-machine interactions, but I didn’t always know I wanted to be an engineer. When I first entered college, I was considering becoming a lawyer because I like working with people. But then I took an introductory mechanical engineering class and fell in love with the field when I discovered how technology allows you to directly improve people’s lives.
“Part of our research efforts to improve the future of human health and quality of life is developing minimally invasive medical robots for pediatric patients. These robots demonstrate enormous potential because they can precisely execute difficult maneuvers. Although some successful surgical robots exist, they’re too large for use on small children in certain procedures. One idea we’re pursuing is personalized surgical robots. These are made possible through 3D printing, medical imaging and virtual modeling — which would allow mechanical engineers and surgeons to work together to create robots customized for an individual’s body and needs. These tailored machines would minimize the invasiveness of operations and advance the precision of procedures, significantly reducing patients’ recovery time and risk of infection.
“To introduce robotics to groups that would otherwise be underrepresented in our field, my lab runs an outreach program to conduct introductory engineering sessions with small groups of students. We demonstrate what robots can do outside of the movies and show them what a diverse team can look like in practice. I strive to make my lab a good role model for diversity, and outreach allows me to share my vision for inclusion with more of the world, as well as provides the opportunity to positively influence younger generations.”
Senior associate dean for educational affairs, professor of energy resources engineering, and senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy
“I grew up in the Netherlands, on a small peninsula not too far from the North Sea and surrounded by river estuaries. Our village was quiet and quite religious. Luckily, like most kids at that time, my siblings and I were pretty much free-range kids. We would take our little bicycles and bike everywhere. But on rainy days and Sundays, we were mostly inside the house, and I became a ferocious reader. Reading allowed me to escape, and dream of sunnier places. I was very young when I decided that I wanted to move away.
“I’ve always loved math. In high school, it came easy to me, and I continued on with it at university because I was determined to challenge myself as much as I could; I’m a competitive person, and because there were such few women in the field, it was like, I’ve got to show people that I can do this. At the same time, I really wanted to be an ornithologist and study birds. I’ve also been interested in natural hazards and I was fascinated by fluid flow. I was pulled in multiple directions, but I realized that if I built a foundational background in math and physics I could keep all those doors open—be agile, move around, study different topics through the computational science and engineering lens. That’s exactly what I’ve done, and I’ve really enjoyed it.
“I’ve always been one of the very few women in my field. It’s a lonely experience at times. People notice you, and when you’re different, you’re often also scrutinized. I remember, in undergrad, our grades were always displayed by our names on a big list by the classroom door. People would look for my grade—”Let’s see what Margot has.” And they would compare and contrast. That was not such a nice feeling. Particularly when you’re a woman who’s like I can be—I wouldn’t say I’m in-your-face, but I’m assertive, I’m active—you can feel quite vulnerable at times.
“You could also say that being one of the few women in my field is what has given me a wonderful platform. I’ve always found that I could help make a difference to girls and other women, and that has been a big motivator for me. Even if I occasionally have trepidation or hesitation to do something, I tell myself, if I don’t do it, then other women may not do it.
“I co-founded Women in Data Science in 2015. I sometimes call it a revenge conference, but that’s a bit too dramatic. It came from the frustration of, for the umpteenth time, seeing a conference with only male speakers, and the response to it being the same as well: “We looked everywhere, but we just couldn’t find any women.” We thought, You know what? We’ll just set up a conference showcasing outstanding women doing outstanding work—simply saying, “You’re looking for women? Here they are.” We sold out and realized we’d hit the nerve; it was almost as if people had been waiting for this to happen. Now we have 500 ambassadors and 230 events and reach tens of thousands of girls and women across the globe each year. I’ve never been part of a conference with such energy and so much positivity. We’re not lamenting the state of things for women; we’re celebrating outstanding individuals. And it feels so good.”
Director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology and Associate Professor of Physics and of Particle Physics and Astrophysics
“One of my goals as a leader is to cultivate an environment that allows everyone to flourish. Physics is still a very white and male dominated field, and we lose a lot of talented people because we don’t have an environment that allows them to do their best work. I’ve faced challenges as a woman in physics, but I think obstacles are more severe for first generation college students and students of color. Now that I’m the director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology, I want to make sure that we take advantage of our position as a leading institute to reach out to people who are underrepresented in the field, by doing active outreach and also by including a more diverse community of scientists. We host open houses where our students lead scientific activities for kids, we have researchers visit schools, and we bring students into SLAC for field trips to see our research in action.
“I want to share the sense of wonder that I experience in my work with others. I study how the universe forms, from its earliest moments until today, on scales from an individual galaxy to billions of galaxies. Understanding how this structure forms can teach us about what the universe is made of and how galaxies come into existence. We’re now building a camera for one of the largest cosmology projects of the next decade, called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, or LSST. It’s a 3.2 gigapixel camera that will scan the entire sky from a given point every three days, for 10 years. Over time, you’ll get a dynamic movie of the sky that captures asteroids, stars, galaxies, and supernova, and when you add the images together you’ll get a map of where all the matter is in the universe. I feel lucky to have a career where I get to enjoy the beauty of our universe, and I’m motivated to drive efforts that create opportunities for more people to explore these marvels.”
Associate Professor of Music
“As an undergraduate, I double majored in history and music; at that point I didn’t really understand that they could be intertwined. It wasn’t until I was a senior in college that one of my professors suggested that I pursue musicology, which is the study of the history of music. Earlier this year actually, my mother told me, ‘When you went off to study musicology in grad school, we didn’t know what you were doing, but we kept our mouths shut.’ And I’m thankful that my family didn’t plant a seed of doubt or skepticism back then, because I see that anxiety in more and more students: There’s reluctance to study something without a clear path toward a job and supporting oneself. I remember that sense of uncertainty myself as I searched for an environment where I could immerse myself in music, its history, and how it intersects with and informs our understanding of the world today.
“I think the performing arts are exciting because they always have to be reincarnated: A musical score is a set of instructions from the past, and you need live people to reanimate it. So a musical work exists in multiple eras, from the moment it was first created through the most recent performance. The work I do on gender in opera is a perfect example of that. We can explore how changing ideas about gender inform our perception of operas from the past and our performances of them now. The gender systems and values of the past have changed so much, and we come to old artworks with new questions about modern people, voices and new ideas about gender and sexuality. The arts are a wonderful place where the past and the present are in conversation. And here at Stanford, people are constantly in conversation with one another. During my time as the director of the Program in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, I saw how faculty and students in different disciplines were incredibly engaged with their material and with one another. People are very intellectually generous here.”