What matters to Siegel and why? One lecture not enough to answer

Courtesy of Robert Siegel

Bob Siegel (center) takes a break from his 2006 undergraduate seminar in Tanzania to pose with Sasha Buscho ’07 and Nada Boutros ’08. He tries to get a photograph of himself and fellow travelers jumping on each of his many forays overseas.

Bob Siegel

Bob Siegel, MD, PhD, introduces himself in a dozen different ways.

He is the nutty professor who sometimes lectures to medical students in a cow suit and uses stuffed animals to illustrate the microbes he studies. He's the Darwin fan who took students to Great Britain to follow the path of the fabled naturalist. He's the perennial student of life who earned five degrees in four different subjects. He is the photographer, sometimes poet and writer, sportsman, social justice advocate and inveterate traveler. And he's a father who delivered two of his three boys.

"There is so much that matters to me. What matters is everything," Siegel told a campus crowd on Jan. 21. "I characterize myself as a dilettante, which is both a weakness and a strength. I just wake up every morning and think, 'There are so many things I look forward to.'"

Siegel, associate professor of microbiology and immunology, was the featured speaker in the ongoing campus series, "What Matters to Me and Why." The program, sponsored by the Office for Religious Life, encourages faculty and staff to reflect on matters of personal values, beliefs and motivations.

There is no pinning Siegel down to a single topic that matters, for he's a person whose to-do list is 284 pages long. "There are several items at the top of that list that I never get to, but they're really important to me," said Siegel, who also has appointments in the Program in Human Biology and the Center for African Studies.

He is, for one thing, a big Stanford fan. He first came to the university as an undergrad 36 years ago "at the age of 5," he joked. Early in his career, he was a Stanford Tree, the infamous university mascot. He is a familiar figure now on campus as he commutes his way around on his bicycle, equipped with his blue backpack, his Peet's coffee and his ever-present bow-ties (he wore his "pandemic flu" tie for his presentation, a precious gift from a student, he said). He loves teaching and has won numerous teaching and advising awards.

Siegel earned three of his degrees at Stanford and taught chemistry at the university for 13 years though he'd managed to avoid taking a formal class in the discipline at any point in his high school or college career. Last year, he parlayed his love of the university into a course called the Stanford Safari in which he and his sophomore students explored the secrets of this vast campus.

"I have a much greater appreciation for this place after teaching that class," Siegel said.

Like his parents, Siegel is the consummate explorer. Traveling and photography are near-obsessions for him, he said. He has taken Stanford students on forays to six continents.

"I really believe you get one shot at this," he said of his travel adventures. "This world is quirky, and there's a lot of stuff that's really great, and I want to experience it."

A lecturer in virology, Siegel takes students every year to East Africa to work on HIV education and prevention. He's helped three students start small nonprofits overseas, including a group in Tanzania that provides healthcare services to rural residents affected by the AIDS epidemic. He is planning a trip next to Namibia, one of the exotic locations he's yet to visit, he said. The continent of Antarctica is also high on his list of coveted places to see.

When he travels, it's his habit to be photographed with his companions in the air. That can sometimes be a challenge, he noted. "I go all over the world and jump," he said. "It's incredibly difficult to get 20 people off the ground at the same time." But in Siegel's inimitable style, he invariably manages to make it happen.