Meet our faculty

Scholarship is at its best when it draws upon a diverse community. Here, Stanford faculty members share the life experiences and interests that fuel the dynamic learning environment on campus.

Image credit: Andrew Brodhead

Elizabeth Reese

Assistant professor of law

Navi towa hahweh Yunpoví. Navi Americana hahweh Elizabeth Reese. Nah Nambé Owingeh we ang oh mu.

My name is Elizabeth Reese, Yunpoví, and I am from the Pueblo of Nambé. I was born in a house that was originally built by my great-grandparents out of traditional adobe brick, and I grew up praying in one of the oldest buildings on the continent.

My parents met as teachers at the Santa Fe Indian School. My mother is Pueblo and my father is from a small town in Pennsylvania, the seventh child of a Lutheran minister. Growing up, my mom took me to ceremony and instilled values from my Native culture and heritage, and my father—who loves history and the classics—read to me from Homer and took me to Shakespeare plays. I was navigating both cultures and worlds.

When I was 4, we moved away from Nambé Pueblo to Champaign–Urbana, and that was really hard. I went from being in this very Indian world to being basically the only Indian family in town, where the university had an Indian mascot. Some of the other kids in my class would say things like, “You can’t be an Indian. All the Indians are dead.” Or, “You don’t wear feathers.” That hurt, but it was also profoundly confusing. There’s still so much mythology around native people as being this thing of the past, as being erased from contemporary existence in the United States.

I’m not sure there was ever a moment when I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, or study law. What really happened was that I saw how much of our life on the reservation was dependent on federal law, from the price of gas and groceries to who answers a 911 call. It became clear to me that learning those rules and using them to fight and advocate for my community was something that could be really important.

I also realized that there were not a lot of people who looked like me at the table, who were in a position to be telling the important stories about who we were and where we belong in the future of American law and society. I just knew that was wrong and I was going to do something about it. I knew that we deserved a say in our own destinies.

There are 574 tribal governments that are making and passing laws all across the United States, that govern as much territory as the state of California. One of the things I write about is just how powerful it is to start paying attention to these communities in a more real and robust way as part of what we think of in the American system.

That point does this beautiful thing, when it clicks for people: it shatters an invisibility that has been comfortably the status quo for far too long.

Go to the web site to view the video.

Kurt Hickman & Julia James

Chang-rae Lee

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.”

Image credit: Andrew Brodhead

Hakeem Jefferson

Assistant professor of political science

My research focuses on questions of race and identity in American politics, especially the politics of marginalized groups. Instead of focusing on more dominant groups – white Americans and their attitudes toward African Americans, for example – I’m much more interested in the lived experiences of the stigmatized. How does being Black condition one’s politics? What are the concerns and considerations that come about because of that experience of living on the margins of society?

I grew up in rural South Carolina, and it was clear to me early on that politics matter. When my mom worked late, I’d spend a lot of time with my grandparents, and my granddad in particular. Neighbors would stop by to talk about politics on the front porch, and it was never an occasion where I was told to go away and be quiet; I could engage in those conversations. I learned about politics literally at the feet of people who understood its power both to set free and to oppress.

I had the occasion to travel around and speak publicly as a young teenager after I won an essay contest for King Day. I only remember small bits of it, but it focused on the various inequities that remained in the public school systems of South Carolina. We have what’s called the “Corridor of Shame,” where schools built after the Civil War are falling apart, where students have access to so little, where teachers are forced to buy things out of pocket. I went to that kind of school. So thinking about these issues, and being unsettled by them, was part of my early socialization, and they move me still.

I think I’ve been teaching privileged folks about race for as long as I can remember. But in my formal role as a teacher, mentor and advisor here at Stanford, I see it as a deep obligation that I have. As I tell my students, my job is never to force them to think a certain way but it’s at least to force them to reckon with why they think the way they think – to engage the possibility of being wrong. I have attempted to create a space where truth is held in very high regard but students can feel comfortable laying bare their ignorance on some topic, their belief set that differs from my own. And I also think I benefit from telling my students the truth about who I am.

I think treating students as full beings who can understand the complexities of the world, who can engage you as a serious interlocutor – students are ready for that kind of education. And that’s what I try to give every time I have the privilege of teaching them.

Go to the web site to view the video.

Kurt Hickman & Julia James

Margot Gerritsen

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.”

Portrait of Kathryn Gin Lum

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.”

Portrait of Alexander Key

Alexander Key

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.”

Portrait of Paula Moya

Paula Moya

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.”

Heather Hadlock

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.”

Portrait of Ge Wang

Ge Wang

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.”

Portrait of Nadeem Hussain

Nadeem Hussain

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.”

Aditi Sheshadri

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.

Gabriella Harari

Gabriella Harari

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.”

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.”

Portrait of Fei-Fei Li

Fei-Fei Li

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.”