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

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.

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.”

Zhenan Bao

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.”

Portrait of Jisha Menon

Jisha Menon

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.”

Allyson Hobbs

Allyson Hobbs

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.”

Image credit: Holly Hernandez

Sean Reardon

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.”

Jennifer Eberhardt

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.”

Wendy Mao

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.”

Krish Seetah

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.”

Lauren Davenport

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.”

Portrait of Debbie Senesky

Debbie Senesky

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.”

Michael Penn

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.”

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