Skip to main content

Highly competitive postdoctoral program for elite scholars enters its second year

The postdoctoral program that fosters foundational scientific research by a diverse community of top researchers starts its second year.

The School of Humanities and Sciences has awarded seven exceptional scholars selected from the world’s top research programs the distinguished Stanford Science Fellowship for 2021.

The 2021 Stanford Science Fellows, from top left to bottom right: Stepfanie Aguillon, Brian Hie, Zhurun (Judy) Ji, Dakota (Cody) McCoy, Maggie Miller, Victoria (Vicky) Morgan and Vishal Patil. (Image credit: Images courtesy of the recipients)

Launched as part of Stanford’s Long-Range Vision in 2020, the highly competitive Stanford Science Fellows program for postdoctoral researchers aims to support top scholars with diverse perspectives and backgrounds who are conducting award-winning research in the fields of the life sciences, mathematics and physical sciences.

Advancing our understanding of foundational science and fostering effective interdisciplinary approaches to fundamental questions through research are central tenets of the Stanford Science Fellows program.

“I have experienced first-hand how international education and interdisciplinary networks can broaden your mind and help you find creative solutions to complex problems,” said President Marc Tessier-Lavigne as he welcomed the first cohort of fellows at a virtual dinner in October 2020.

“Each of you brings a unique perspective and background … and each of you will enrich and energize our community. We believe in your abilities and in the exciting research you are undertaking … and everyone here is dedicated to ensuring your success.”

Providing exceptional postdoctoral scholars access to critical resources is a key part of ensuring this success, explained Debra Satz, the Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences. “Stanford Science Fellows will receive mentorship and training from Stanford faculty experts. They’ll also have access to incredible facilities at Stanford research centers at Stanford’s Schools of Humanities and Sciences, Earth, Engineering, Medicine and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory,” said Satz.

“Stanford has worked hard to make this program open to people from a lot of different backgrounds and part of the way they have done that is by providing the funding that’s necessary to live and work in Palo Alto,” said Stepfanie Aguillon, a biologist in the 2021 cohort.

“The Stanford Science Fellowship is really unique among the funding opportunities I’ve seen because it creates a community of people from different disciplines, and I love that,” said 2021 cohort member Dakota (Cody) McCoy.

Diverse ideas from diverse researchers

Success seldom comes to researchers working solo. Yet scientists often describe their postgraduate work as an “isolating” experience where conversations and collaborations are limited to researchers who study the same system and research problem, or who work in the same lab.

“There’s a tendency for disciplines to become highly siloed,” said Stanford Science Fellows faculty host Todd Martinez, the David Mulvane Ehrsam and Edward Curtis Franklin Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

“The Stanford Science Fellows program attracts scholars that could really benefit Stanford, as well as be benefited by Stanford. … And it connects groups and areas that didn’t necessarily have well-developed lines of communication and collaboration.”

Describing one’s research and area of expertise to people outside of a researcher’s scientific field is hard work. But this art of effective communication is absolutely essential for scholars who want to develop academic leadership skills and accelerate scientific discovery. That’s why the Stanford Science Fellows program emphasizes developing communication skills and interdisciplinary approaches to foundational scientific research.

“It’s really important to have a group of people who are willing to work with you to try to understand, and the Stanford Science Fellows program gives you the testing ground to practice this skill,” said Martinez.

It also establishes the fellows as experts in science communication. In time, “people will view the Stanford Science Fellows program as a resource of people who know how to describe what they’re doing in a broader way,” said Martinez.

Freedom to think big

The inaugural cohort of fellows began work in fall 2020, when traditional approaches to lab work, fieldwork and in-person collaboration were being upended by a global pandemic. Fortunately, the Stanford Science Fellows program was designed to encourage postdoctoral scholars to be bold, independent thinkers and come to Stanford with the mindset to do things differently from day one.

Many postdoctoral programs provide fellows two years of financial support to pursue research that closely matches their faculty member’s interests. The Stanford Science Fellows program is unique because it gives the fellows three years of funding to explore the curiosity-driven, foundational research of their choice, helping to accelerate research that advances knowledge of our world.

When she came to Stanford, 2020 cohort member Ivana Cvijović was investigating how populations of white blood cells evolve using a theory and data-driven approach.

Then, “I realized there was this enormous opportunity to actually generate some of this data myself. I embarked on it and it’s just been a fantastic experience. I learned that I really enjoyed being in the lab, and I made some fantastic connections,” said Cvijović. “I don’t think that would have been possible in any other non-independent position.”

“At this stage, we’re all pretty formed scientists with a distinct scientific taste,” she added. “This doesn’t mean that we don’t need advice, mentorship or people to tell us ‘this is a really bad idea, don’t work on that.’ But having the ability to take a risk and develop our scientific interests and approaches, it feels like it’s why we do science; so that we can follow our curiosity and pursue what we’re interested in.”

The fellows aren’t the only ones who benefit from this approach; it’s advantageous for the host faculty members and their labs, too.

“I didn’t anticipate how great it is for the other trainees in my lab to have such an amazing person come in and share their perspective and teach us new things,” said Tom Clandinin, the Shooter Family Professor in the School of Medicine. “When a great person comes from outside, from another country, they bring with them a different perspective on doing science. And that’s always good.”

“Just in terms of what has happened, the president of the university getting on a Zoom call to welcome us … you can tell that Stanford as an entity is extremely invested in our career,” said Caleb Lareau, a member of the 2020 cohort.

“You know that this program will be great,” said Lareau. “And that it’s only going to get better in the years to come.”

2021 Stanford Science Fellows:

The seven researchers in the 2021 cohort of Stanford Science Fellows represent Stanford’s Departments of Biology, Biochemistry, Applied Physics, Mathematics, Bioengineering and Materials Science and Engineering.

Stepfanie Aguillon plans to study the genetic basis of mate choice behavior in a hybridizing fish system.

Brian Hie will explore ways to use technology to understand interactions between pathogens and their host organisms.

Zhurun (Judy) Ji will investigate the nature of electrons and develop quantum materials for use in the next generation of green electronics.

Dakota (Cody) McCoy will research biological adaptations related to light.

Maggie Miller will broaden her work on topology of low-dimensional manifolds to include modern ideas from gauge theory.

Victoria (Vicky) Morgan will complete a transcription of the genome of the coconut crab, the planet’s largest terrestrial arthropod.

Vishal Patil will explore topology and geometry in the context of elastic materials, including fibers with adaptive properties capable of mimicking neural networks and biological systems such as tumors.

Media Contacts

Holly Alyssa MacCormick, Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences: hollymac@stanford.edu