Meet our faculty

Scholarship is at its best when it draws upon a diverse community. Here, Stanford faculty members share some of the life experience that fuels 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

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.”

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.”

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.”

Allison Okamura sitting in her lab

Allison Okamura

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

Portrait of Grant Parker

Grant Parker

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.”

Ami Bhatt

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.”

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 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.”

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.”