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Stanford Report, March 11, 1998

Who are the new Graduate Fellows: 3/11/98

How fellows plan to 'make new knowledge'


Nobel Laureate Steve Chu was a National Science Foundation Fellow when he started his career as a physics graduate student. The fellowship gave him a little leeway ­ when things weren't going well in his work on a theory of star formation, he set up an experiment to measure the acoustics of rapid musical notes. "[That was when] I stopped being a theorist," he said. "I decided not to do what seemed important to do, or what appealed to my vanity. I decided to do something that I wanted to do . . . and I didn't know what I liked until I played around. This started my career as an experimentalist."

Chu chose this story to open his speech to the Stanford Graduate Fellows at a banquet held in their honor Jan. 22 because he wanted to drive home a point. The students are the recipients of a three-year grant that allows them the same degree of autonomy he once had over his doctoral research: the chance to choose any course of research and any faculty mentor he wanted. For Chu, the result was a career "following my nose" in experiments that led to a way to cool and trap atoms with lasers ­ and to a Nobel Prize.

The lesson, he said, is that most great discoveries don't come from a grand design but from creative people testing their own limits, doing what they like to do. To the fellows, the next generation of discoverers, he said, "You are here making new knowledge. And you're teaching us."

Who are the people who inspire such confidence? "No doubt about it, these are extremely talented doctoral students," said Dean of Research Charles Kruger. Most had graduated from top universities. Nearly all scored above 90 percent in an admissions committee numerical index, which included grade-point averages and Graduate Record Examination scores ranked against all students taking those tests nationwide, he said.

"Perhaps most extraordinary," Kruger said, "was the number of recommendation letters that contained remarks such as, 'Of all the students that I have recommended in my 25-year career for major national fellowships, she is one of the very best.'

"And not only are the fellows great on paper, when you read their applications," Kruger said. "They are great when you meet them personally."

The 122 fellows include 29 women; 47 have come from other countries, ranging from Canada to China, Croatia to the Philippines. They are poised to work in 29 fields, from economics to neuroscience to chemical engineering.

Many have significant undergraduate accomplishments behind them ­ for example, Eva Zanzerkia of geophysics recently presented her Harvard work on Boston's earthquake risks at a major national scientific meeting. Some, like Steve Maberry of civil engineering, come to their doctoral studies after years of work in related fields: Maberry already has begun preliminary work for his thesis, to design a low-cost breathing system for deep ocean dives.

Here are some of the other fellows and the projects that currently attract them ­ though some may change their final research direction as their interests evolve over the next year:

Tala de los Santos of developmental biology is studying mice to see how abnormal genes result in abnormal development.

Mark Engelhardt of biochemistry is studying enzymes to see how they stabilize a biochemical reaction ­ and how that ability might be harnessed for practical purposes.

Eric Frew (Stanford M.S. '96) of aeronautics and astronautics is working on the Hummingbird Project, building a succession of robot helicopters that can fly and perform tasks autonomously ­ that is, without remote controls.

Jeremy Hourigan of geological and environmental sciences explores the geological history of Eastern Russia, the territory once known as Siberia.

Stacie Lambert of immunology is looking at a new form of "natural killer" cells.

Matt Reidenbach of civil and environmental engineering has started on a project to study the turbulence in the water around coral reefs. Turbulent water distributes the food that corals depend on; Reidenbach says his project is "an opportunity to combine biology with fluid mechanics."

Karyn Rogers, a joint NSF/SGF fellow in geological and environmental sciences, plans to combine hydrogeology and geochemistry to probe the biochemical reactions that occur as water transports various substances through underground soils.

Jessica Ruvinsky of biological sciences will use a Rocky Mountain flowering plant named scarlet gilia to investigate each step in the process of evolution, from changes in genes to changes in the plant's performance at different altitudes ­ changes that affect its ability, in turn, to pass on the altered genes.

Benjamin Vakoc of applied physics is working on a fiber-optic acoustic sensor that works underwater ­ a likely replacement for more cumbersome electrical undersea listening devices.

Aaron Wheeler of chemistry will work with lasers to probe physical or biological processes. SR