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

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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 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.”

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

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.”

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.”

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.”