2009 Research Highlights

Stanford scholars are engaged in ongoing basic and applied research that creates new knowledge and benefits society. Following are examples from 2009.

Biological Sciences

Sequencing the human genome cheaply

Human genome.

The lower cost of sequencing the human genome could lead to helping researchers understand how genes and mutations result in the traits that make individuals unique.

Stephen Quake, professor of bioengineering, sequenced his own genome for less than $50,000 with a team of just two other people. His was the first demonstration that you don’t need a genome center and millions of dollars to sequence the human genome.

Reducing sequencing costs is critical because the more examples scientists have of the whole human genetic code, the more they can discern about how specific genes and mutations result in the traits that make us all different, the diseases that plague us and our response to medicines.

Understanding the aging process

Two previously identified pathways associated with aging in mice are connected—a finding that reinforces what researchers suspected: that the age-related degeneration of tissues, organs and even facial skin is an active and deliberate process.

The research of Howard Chang, associate professor of dermatology and a member of the Stanford Cancer Center, and Katrin Chua, assistant professor of endocrinology, gerontology and metabolism and member of the Stanford Cancer Center and the VA-Palo Alto, was published in Cell.

Adaptation part of human genomic evolution

Research led by Dmitri Petrov, associate professor of biology, shows that adaptation—the process by which organisms change to better fit their environment—is a large part of human genomic evolution.

Researchers had puzzled about whether adaptation plays a major role in human evolution or whether most changes are due to random selection of genes and traits. “Others have looked for the signal of widespread adaptation and couldn’t find it,” said Petrov. “We were able to detect the adaptation signatures quite clearly, and they have the characteristic shape we anticipated.”

Tags reveal white sharks are genetically distinct

A white shark tagged.

Stanford scientists shed new light on the migration patterns of white sharks in the North Pacific.

The white shark may be the ultimate loner of the ocean, cruising thousands of miles in a solitary trek, but a team of researchers discovered that the sharks have maintained such a consistent pattern of migration that over tens of thousands of years the white sharks in the northeastern Pacific Ocean have separated themselves into a population genetically distinct from sharks elsewhere in the world.

Scientists with the Tagging of Pacific Predators program, which includes Stanford, combined satellite tagging, passive acoustic monitoring and genetic tags to study white sharks in the North Pacific.

Business and Management

Handling cutbacks with a minimum of pain

When cutbacks are necessary, can a good boss do right by the company’s finances and by its staff? In a Harvard Business Review article, management science and engineering Professor Bob Sutton says that psychological and organization theory research suggests how to handle such situations.

“The best bosses understand that there is a difference between what they do and how they do it,” says Sutton. “This article is about evidence-based ways to make and implement tough decisions such as layoffs, pay cuts and the like in ways that protect both human dignity and organizational performance.”

Research sheds light on ‘Safe Harbor Rule’

High-profile legal cases alleging misconduct by executives at Countrywide Savings, Novatel and Qwest may be prompting the Securities and Exchange Commission to rethink rules that permit scheduled trading by insiders. 

One catalyst is research by Alan Jagolinzer, an assistant professor of accounting, whose work indicates that prearranged trades allowed under the so-called “Safe Harbor Rule” may be less innocent than they appear. Jagolinzer’s research suggests that Rule 10b5-1, which allows corporate executives to make prearranged trades at specified prices or dates in the future, may be being abused.

‘Giving’ identity rouses donors and volunteers

Jennifer Aaker

Jennifer Aaker, the General Atlantic Professor of Marketing

Charities and nonprofits suffered as much as commercial businesses from the economic downturn. Research by Jennifer Aaker, the General Atlantic Professor of Marketing, shows how nonprofits can reverse this trend.

By encouraging people to adopt a more “giving” identity, nonprofits can affect willingness to donate money, as well as volunteer time. Aaker says a person’s sense of who they are and how they view themselves is surprisingly malleable.

Understanding how framing affects decision-making

Suppose someone says, “I think it’s the right thing to do.” Or, “I feel it’s the right thing to do.” It’s the same thing, right?

No, says Zakary Tormala, associate professor of marketing, who has found that substantively identical messages can have a different persuasive impact depending on whether they are couched in terms of thoughts or feelings. “Even without changing your actual arguments, you can make subtle framing changes by saying ‘I think’ or ‘I feel’ to make your message more persuasive.”

Specializing can mean bigger sales

Product creators whose offerings or expertise are more clearly associated with one or two product categories have better sales than those whose goods or professional identity span multiple categories, according to research by Michael Hannan, the StrataCom Professor of Management and professor of sociology.

The more focused producers give off subtle hints that they know their stuff better, which is not lost on customers. Appeal is an intangible based not only on the intrinsic value of goods or services, but on the degree to which those goods fit neatly into predictable categories that consumers understand.


California failing in student achievement

Sean Reardon

Sean Reardon, associate professor of education

Graduation rates for low-achieving minority students and girls have fallen nearly 20 percentage points since California implemented a law requiring high school students to pass an exit exam to graduate, according to researchers led by Sean Reardon, an associate professor of education.

The exit exam, first given in 10th grade to help identify students who are struggling academically, has failed to meet one of its primary goals: to significantly improve student achievement. The study said the exam is not a fair assessment of the skill levels of minority students and girls.

Simplifying financial aid process improves access

More low-income students would make it to college if changes were made to streamline the complicated financial aid process, according to research by Eric Bettinger, associate professor of education.

His study tracked nearly 17,000 low-income individuals and determined that cumbersome financial aid forms and lack of information about higher education costs and financial aid prevented access to higher education.

Teacher development can have a powerful effect

Research by Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommon Professor of Teaching and Teacher Education, and her colleagues showed that professional training can have a powerful effect on teacher skills and knowledge and on student learning.

But to be effective, it must be sustained, focused on important content and embedded in the work of collaborative professional learning teams that support ongoing improvements in teachers’ practice and student achievement.


Open-source camera reinvents photography

Marc Levoy, professor of computer science and electrical engineering, and graduate student Andrew Adams with their open-source digital camera. Photo L.A. Cicero

Marc Levoy, professor of computer science and electrical engineering, and graduate student Andrew Adams with their open-source digital camera.

Stanford scientists are out to reinvent digital photography with the introduction of an “open-source” digital camera, which will give programmers around the world the chance to create software to teach cameras new tricks.

If the technology catches on, camera performance will be no longer be limited by pre-installed software. Virtually all of the features of the Stanford camera—focus, exposure, shutter speed, flash—are at the command of software that can be created by programmers anywhere. Dubbed Frankencamera, the device was invented by a team led by computer science Professor Marc Levoy and graduate student Andrew Adams. Frankencamera suggests a future where consumers download applications to their open-platform cameras the way apps are downloaded to smart phones today.

Improving magnetic resonance imaging

Scientists from Stanford and IBM improved the sensitivity of magnetic resonance imaging by 100 million times using a new technique for measuring tiny magnetic forces. The sensitivity improvement allowed a dramatic increase in resolving power, achieving a resolution down to 4 nanometers (nm).

In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers released pictures taken with the new MRI technology of tobacco mosaic virus particles that span only 18 nm in width. For perspective, 80,000 nm is approximately the diameter of a human hair.

Making buildings earthquake resistant

Greg Deierlein, the John A. Blume Professor in Engineering, is working to make buildings earthquake resistant. Photo L.A. Cicero

Greg Deierlein, the John A. Blume Professor in Engineering, is working to make buildings earthquake resistant.

A new earthquake-resistant structural system for buildings will not only help a multi-story building hold itself together during a violent earthquake, but also return it to standing up straight on its foundation afterward, with damage confined to a few easily replaceable parts.

The team that designed the system was led by civil engineer Greg Deierlein, the John A. Blume Professor in the School of Engineering. During testing on a massive shake table, the system survived simulated earthquakes in excess of magnitude 7, bigger than either the 1994 Northridge earthquake or the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Technique results in more flexible electronics

Flexible Electronics

Microwires aligned in the same direction

A simple new way of making transistors out of high-performance organic microwires presents a potential path for products such as smart merchandise tags, light and cheap solar panels and flexible “digital paper.”

Engineers at Stanford and Samsung led by Zhenan Bao, associate professor of chemical engineering, reported the new method in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers have been trying to create flexible electronics based on inexpensive organic materials. These materials can be cheaper than silicon and metal materials and are amenable to less costly manufacturing processes. They are also more compatible with flexible substrates, such as plastics.

Innovative biosensor chip spots cancer in mice earlier than current methods

Searching for biomarkers that can warn of diseases such as cancer while they are still in their earliest stage is likely to become far easier thanks to an innovative biosensor chip developed by researchers led by Shan Wang, professor of materials science and engineering and of electrical engineering.

The sensor is up to 1,000 times more sensitive than any technology now in clinical use, is accurate regardless of which bodily fluid is being analyzed and can detect biomarker proteins over a range of concentrations three times broader than any existing method. The nanosensor chip also can search for up to 64 different proteins simultaneously and has been shown to be effective in early detection of tumors in mice, suggesting that it may open the door to significantly earlier detection of even the most elusive cancers in humans.

Brain functioning requires rhythm

Research led by Karl Deisseroth, associate professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, suggests that brain cells need to follow specific rhythms that must be kept for proper brain functioning.

These rhythms don’t appear to be working correctly in such diseases as schizophrenia and autism, and papers published online by Nature and Science demonstrate that precisely tuning the oscillation frequencies of certain neurons can affect how the brain processes information and implements feelings of reward.

Light-absorbing nanowires may make better solar panels

A team of engineers discovered that “nanowires” made of semiconductors like germanium may prove to be effective components for solar cells. The Stanford team discerned how to tune and improve the light absorption efficiency of the wires in research described in Nature Materials.

“For many solar cells, if you can get just a couple of percent improvement in energy conversion efficiency, people are very happy,” said Mark Brongersma, an associate professor of materials science and engineering. “Here we show that we can boost the light absorption by a factor of 10 for some wires at some wavelengths of light.”


Calculating environmental economic benefits

The Natural Capital Project—a collaboration among Stanford, The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund—is developing new software for mapping and valuing the economic benefits provided by temperate marine ecosystems, thanks to support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Called Marine InVEST (Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs), the software builds upon a terrestrial version of InVEST now available through the Natural Capital Project website that will give policymakers an easy-to-use tool for incorporating the values that people derive from oceans into planning processes.

Using biofuel crops efficiently

Using biofuel crops such as corn or switchgrass to generate electricity for running battery-powered vehicles is a more efficient way of producing energy than making ethanol with them, according to Woods Institute Fellows Chris Field, professor of biology and of environmental Earth system science, and David Lobell, assistant professor of environmental Earth system science.

Compared to ethanol used for internal combustion engines, bioelectricity used for battery-powered vehicles would deliver an average of 80 percent more miles of transportation per acre of crops, while providing double the greenhouse gas offsets to mitigate climate change.

Saving species by moving them

Climate change threatens hundreds of thousands of species, including the colorful San Francisco Bay checkerspot butterfly. Stanford scientists have proposed when and how to save the Bay checkerspot and other vulnerable species from extinction by moving them to suitable new habitats.

As the climate warms and alters the global ecosystem, many plants and animals will find themselves in habitats too warm or otherwise physically altered. For some, it may be a case of move or die. A team including researchers from the Woods Institute developed a model for deciding if, when and how species can be viably relocated.

Fishing restrictions can save threatened species

The cowcod rockfish population collapsed in the 1980s but is now showing signs of recovery.

The cowcod rockfish population collapsed in the 1980s, but is now showing signs of recovery.

Five out of 10 global ecosystems once threatened by overfishing are on the mend. A collaboration of scientists that included Stephen Palumbi, professor of biology and director of the Hopkins Marine Station, analyzed fish populations around the world and found that the mass of fish removed from the ocean every year has decreased in some fisheries.

“This improvement might well be a reflection of the call to arms that has gone out over the last five to 10 years about the state of the ocean and its needs. It shows that fishery restrictions can actually pay off and things can get better,” said Palumbi, also a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment.

Global warming increases risk of civil war in Africa

Farmers and pastoralists in a maize-growing region of Eastern Kenya. A new study finds that climate change could severely harm crop productivity and increase the likelihood that disadvantaged rural populations will take up arms. Photo: Marshall Burke

Climate change could severely harm crop productivity in areas like this maize-growing region of Eastern Kenya and increase the likelihood that populations will take up arms.

Climate change is likely to increase the number of civil wars raging in Africa, according to recent research.

Historical records show that in warmer-than-average years, the number of conflicts rises. The researchers, including study co-author David Lobell, assistant professor of environmental Earth system science, predict that by 2030, Africa could see a greater than 50 percent increase in civil wars, which could mean an additional 390,000 deaths just from fighting alone. The study provides the first quantitative evidence linking climate change and the risk of civil conflict.


Laptop orchestra creates mobile renaissance

The sound is unearthly—perhaps a vibration picked up via radio signals from another galaxy. Or the sort of hypnotic drone you might hear from the chanting of state-of-the-art Tibetan monks.

In fact, it’s not a human sound at all. It’s a half-dozen mobile phones. The eerie music is part of a “mobile renaissance” started by Ge Wang, creator of the Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra, known as MoPhO. Wang is also the founder of the Stanford Laptop Orchestra and an assistant professor of music at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics.

Mark Twain as animal welfare advocate

Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s research suggests that Mark Twain was the most prominent American of his day to throw his weight behind the movement for animal welfare.

In her new book, Mark Twain’s Book of Animals, Fishkin, an English professor, examines how Twain’s fascination with, and advocacy for, animals reveals itself in many of his works. Fishkin suggests Twain played a pivotal role in raising Americans’ concerns about cruelty to—and exploitation of—animals.

Tracing the roots of celebrity

Art historian Michael Marrinan’s book Romantic Paris: Histories of a Cultural Landscape, 1800-1850, suggests that virtuoso and composer Niccolo Paganini may have been one of the first to experience the downside of being famous.

Marrinan, professor of art and art history, uses the Paganini story to illustrate both the history and concept of celebrity and to better understand the transformations in Parisian culture between 1800 to 1850, a period when the city weathered extremes of political and economic fortune.

Finding the richness in students’ writing

Professor Andrea Lunsford works with senior Chao Bai in the Hume Writing Center.

Professor Andrea Lunsford has conducted a study that refutes conventional wisdom about students' writing.

Today’s kids don’t just write for grades anymore. They write to shake the world. Moreover, they are writing more than any previous generation, ever, in history. They navigate in a bewildering new arena where writers and their audiences have merged.
These are among the findings in the Stanford Study of Writing, spearheaded by Andrea Lunsford, director of Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric and the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor. The study refutes conventional wisdom and provides a wholly new context for those who wonder “whether Google is making us stupid and whether Facebook is frying our brains,” said Lunsford.

Celebrating England’s earliest polymath

English Professor Emeritus George Hardin Brown, one of the world’s leading Bede scholars, is author of the newly published Companion to Bede. Bede was the ultimate polymath—a master of every subject of his time—as well as author of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, one of the most important sources on Anglo-Saxon history.

Brown is founder of Stanford’s Medieval Studies program, a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America. But the title he cherishes most is unofficial: “Bedemeister.”


FSA history reveals U.S. political dynamics

American public law is affected by two dynamics impacting the relationship between citizens and their government: how the executive branch defines national security and how politicians compete to secure control of the public organizations through which governments implement the law.

Law Professor Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, the Dean F. Johnson Faculty Scholar, analyzes the intersection of these dynamics by investigating the now-forgotten history of the U.S. Federal Security Agency and draws perspectives from separation of powers, organization theory and the study of American political development in an article, “‘Securing’ the Nation: Law, Politics and Organization at the Federal Security Agency, 1939-1953.”

Transfer of wealth reflects changing U.S. values

In the United States, some $41 trillion will pass from the dead to the living in the first half of the 21st century. Law and custom allow people many ways to pass on their property.

As Lawrence Friedman, the Marion Rice Kirkwood Professor of Law, reveals in Dead Hands: A Social History of Wills, Trusts and Inheritance Law, a decline in formal rules, the ascendancy of will substitutes over classic wills, social changes like the rise of the family of affection, changing ideas of acceptable heirs and the potential disappearance of the estate tax all play a role in the balance of wealth. Friedman uncovered the social and legal importance of this rite of passage and how it reflects changing values and priorities in American families and society.

Defining intellectual property rights

Defining intellectual property rights as a nation and in the broader international sphere is an issue that emerging Asian markets face.

Paul Goldstein, the Stella W. and Ira S. Lillick Professor of Law, co-edited Intellectual Property in Asia: Law, Economics, History and Politics, a collection analyzing intellectual property in key markets. It gives an overview of laws and enforcement options and branches into the socioeconomic context surrounding each nation’s manifestation of intellectual property and the history of its evolution.

Does media consolidation affect viewpoint diversity?

A central predicate of the legal regulation of media ownership is that consolidation reduces viewpoint diversity. Daniel Ho, an associate professor of law, investigates this claim with an analysis of more than 1,600 editorial positions in 25 top newspapers from 1988 to 2004.

Co-author of “Viewpoint Diversity and Media Consolidation: An Empirical Study,” Ho reveals complex patterns that show stability, convergence and divergence of viewpoints in the face of—and depending on the circumstances of—consolidation.

Defining constitutional fidelity

Pamela Karlan, the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law, co-authored Keeping Faith with the Constitution, which examined the text and history of the Constitution to show how the framers inscribed the values of liberty, equality and democracy into the document.

The authors describe what they call “constitutional fidelity,” a principle that “serves not only to preserve the Constitution’s meaning over time, but also to maintain its authority and legitimacy. The words and principles of the Constitution endure as our fundamental law because they have been made relevant to the conditions and challenges of each generation through an ongoing process of interpretation… Our Constitution thus reflects, in a spare outline, the moral trajectory of a nation continually striving for greater justice.”


Liposuction leftovers called ‘liquid gold’

Globs of human fat removed during liposuction conceal versatile cells that are more quickly and easily coaxed to become induced pluripotent stem cells—cells that can differentiate to become any cell type—than are the skin cells most often used by researchers.

Surgery Professor Michael Longaker, who collaborated with postdoctoral fellow Ning Sun and cardiologist Joseph Wu, called the readily available liposuction leftovers “liquid gold.” Reprogramming adult cells to function like embryonic stem cells is one way researchers hope to create patient-specific cell lines to regenerate tissue or to study specific diseases in the laboratory.

More links found between hormone use and breast cancer

Postmenopausal women who take combined estrogen plus progestin menopausal hormone therapy for at least five years double their annual risk of breast cancer, according to new analyses from a major study that clearly establishes a link between hormone use and breast cancer.

The multi-center study also found that women on hormones can quickly reduce their risks of cancer simply by stopping the therapy. The study, coauthored by Marcia Stefanick, professor of medicine, is a follow-up to the Women’s Health Initiative report of 2002, which found that postmenopausal women taking estrogen plus progestin were at far greater risk of developing breast cancer and other serious conditions than women on placebo.

Establishing narcolepsy as an autoimmune disease

Ten years ago, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Emmanuel Mignot and his colleagues identified the culprit behind the sleep disorder narcolepsy. Now Mignot, the Craig Reynolds Professor of Sleep Medicine, and his collaborators have shown for the first time that a specific immune cell is involved in the disorder—confirming a long-held suspicion that narcolepsy is an autoimmune disease.

The work, published in Nature Genetics, could lead to better treatments and help immunologists understand other autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis and juvenile diabetes.

Proving the value of hepatitis inoculation in China

hepatitis vaccination

Although China aims to give all newborns

free hepatitis B vaccines, this child getting

the shot and millions more fell through the cracks.

A massive new program in China to provide “catch-up” inoculations against hepatitis B to unvaccinated children could prevent millions of infections, save tens of thousands of lives and return twice as much in savings to the Chinese economy as the program costs.

In research published in the journal Hepatology, a team of researchers led by Samuel So, professor of surgery and the Lui Hac Minh Professor, predict that if China spent $423 million to inoculate an estimated 150 million children, it would produce a net return in the economy of $840 million from lower health costs.

MS and epilepsy pose only slightly elevated pregnancy risk

Having multiple sclerosis or epilepsy doesn’t put a mother-to-be at significant risk for pregnancy-related problems, according to a new study.

The work, done by researchers led by immunologist Eliza Chakravarty, is based on a national patient database that represents the largest study to date of pregnant women with MS or epilepsy. It shows that women with the disorders face only a slightly elevated risk of abnormal fetal growth rate and cesarean section delivery, and are not more likely to have blood pressure problems or deliver prematurely.

Key molecular player in synapse formation identified

Researchers led by Ben Barres, professor and chair of neurobiology, identified a key molecular player in guiding the formation of synapses—the all-important connections between nerve cells—in the brain.

This discovery, based on experiments in cell culture and in mice, could advance understanding of how young children’s brains develop, as well as point to new approaches toward countering brain disorders in adults. The new work also pinpoints, for the first time, the biochemical mechanism by which the widely prescribed drug gabapentin (marketed as Neurontin) works.

Evasive bladder cancer stem cell identified

Researchers led by Irving Weissman, the Virginia & D.K. Ludwig Professor for Clinical Investigation in Cancer Research, have identified the first human bladder cancer stem cell and revealed how it works to escape the body’s natural defenses.

“This is the first time we’ve found this ‘don’t eat me signal’ in a stem cell of a solid cancer,” said Weismann. “We’re now moving as fast as we can to look at other tumors to see if this is a universal strategy of all or most cancer stem cells.” If so, the signal may be a valuable therapeutic target for many types of cancers.

Discovery of ion channel turns ear on its head

Scientists thought they had a good model to explain how the inner ear translates vibrations in the air into sounds heard by the brain. It looks like parts of the model are wrong.

Anthony Ricci, associate professor of otolaryngology, and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin and the Pellegrin Hospital in France found that the ion channels responsible for hearing aren’t located where scientists previously thought. The discovery turns old theories upside down, and it could have major implications for the prevention and treatment of hearing loss.

Physical Sciences

Earth’s early ocean cooled earlier than thought

Professor Page Chamberlain observes Peter Blisniuk, Stable Isotope Lab manager, as he performs an isotope analysis of a rock sample.

Page Chamberlain, right, professor of environmental Earth system science, led researchers who discovered that the Earth's early ocean cooled earlier than thought.

The scalding-hot sea that supposedly covered the early Earth may in fact never have existed, according to a new study led by Page Chamberlain, professor of environmental Earth system science.

The researchers analyzed isotope ratios in 3.4-billion-year-old ocean floor rocks. Their findings suggest that the early ocean was much more temperate and that, as a result, life likely diversified and spread across the globe much sooner in Earth’s history than has been theorized. It also means that the chemical composition of the ancient ocean was significantly different from today’s ocean, which may change interpretations of how the early atmosphere evolved.

Standard model confirmed

A detailed picture of the seeds of structures in the universe was unveiled by an international team co-led by Sarah Church of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology.

These measurements of the cosmic microwave background—a faintly glowing relic of the hot, dense, young universe—put limits on proposed alternatives to the standard model of cosmology and provide further support for the standard cosmological model, confirming that dark matter and dark energy make up 95 percent of everything in existence, while ordinary matter makes up just 5 percent.

Early stars came in pairs

This computer-simulated image shows the formation of two high density regions (yellow) in the early universe. The cores are expected to evolve into a binary—or 'twin'—star system. Image and simulation courtesy of Ralf Kaehler, Matthew Turk and Tom Abel.

This computer-simulated image shows the formation of two high-density regions in the early universe.

The earliest stars in the universe formed not only as individuals but sometimes also as twins, according to new computer simulations.

By creating robust simulations of the early universe, astrophysicists Matthew Turk and Tom Abel of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology and their colleagues gained the most detailed understanding to date of the formation of the first stars. Their findings, published in Science Express, have increased understanding of how stars and galaxies formed.

Massive gamma-ray blast revealed

Just months after launching, the Fermi gamma-ray telescope revealed the most massive gamma-ray blast ever detected, painting a new picture of the high-energy universe.

The orbiting observatory, whose design and assembly was directed at Stanford and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, features the most sensitive instruments capable of recording gamma rays, the highest energy photons in the universe. The Fermi telescope detects gamma-ray bursts almost daily, but this giant was roughly twice the size of any others and was reported in Science Express.

Research reveals Titan’s topsy-turvy topography


A radar image of hydrocarbon lakes on Titan

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, may have a subterranean ocean of hydrocarbons and some topsy-turvy topography in which the summits of its mountains lie lower than its average surface elevation.

Titan is also more squashed in its overall shape—like a rubber ball pressed down by a foot—than researchers had expected, said Howard Zebker, a professor of electrical engineering and of geophysics involved in work that may help explain the presence of large lakes of hydrocarbons at both of Titan’s poles, which have been puzzling researchers since being discovered in 2007.

Releasing the power of graphene nanoribbons

A world of potential may lie tied up in graphene nanoribbons, particularly for electronics applications. But researchers have been hampered in their efforts to explore that potential without a reliable way of creating the large quantities of uniform nanoribbons needed to conduct extensive studies.

A Stanford team developed a new method that will allow relatively precise production of mass quantities of the tiny ribbons by slicing open carbon nanotubes. The work was detailed in Nature by Hongjie Dai, the J. G. Jackson and C. J. Wood Professor of Chemistry.

Faster computer chips likely to result from new material

Physicists Yulin Chen from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Zhi-Xun Shen, the Paul Pigott Professor in Physical Science and professor of photon science, confirmed the existence of a type of material that could one day provide dramatically faster, more efficient computer chips.

The material allows electrons on its surface to travel with no loss of energy at room temperature and can be fabricated using existing semiconductor technologies. Such material could provide a leap in microchip speeds and even become the bedrock of an entirely new kind of computing industry based on spintronics, the next evolution of electronics.

Research reveals method for stacking semiconductor layers

Researchers have developed a method of stacking crystalline semiconductor layers that sets the potential for three-dimensional microchips.

Scientists, including Paul McIntyre, director of the Geballe Laboratory for Advanced Materials, added tiny growing crystals called nanowires to a sheet of silicon and then topped it off with a layer of non-crystalline (amorphous) germanium. With heat, the nanowires, which have the same internal structure as that of the silicon, transformed the amorphous germanium layer into a perfect crystal. Integrating germanium onto silicon is a difficult process that is important for fabricating future three-dimensional integrated circuits on microchips.

Social Sciences

MRI illuminates social anxiety disorder

Stanford psychology researcher Philippe Goldin has shown that mentally healthy adults can put their minds at ease by adding to the story behind an otherwise disturbing image. When test subjects were shown pictures of someone being hurt, for instance, they might say to themselves that the victim received immediate medical attention.

But for people with social anxiety disorder (SAD), calming down is more complicated. By using magnetic resonance imaging to compare the brains of psychologically healthy adults to those with SAD, Goldin and his fellow researchers found both groups of test subjects reacted similarly when they saw pictures of violent scenes. But when the participants were shown images of a perceived social threat—such as a photograph of an angry-looking face—their reactions were different. “Social phobics are more challenged by social threats. They take them much more personally,” Goldin said.

Effectiveness of multitaskers questioned

People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time, according to researchers led by Clifford Nass, professor of communication.

High-tech jugglers are everywhere – keeping up several e-mail and instant message conversations at once, text messaging while watching television and jumping from one website to another while plowing through homework assignments. But after putting about 100 students through a series of three tests, the researchers realized those heavy media multitaskers are paying a big mental price: “They’re suckers for irrelevancy,” said Nass, the Thomas More Storke Professor.

Retooling California’s constitution


A poll commissioned by the Bill Lane Center for the American West suggests that California voters want change.

California voters have decided issues ranging from whether gays can marry to how cramped a cage may be for an egg-laying chicken. Nearly every Election Day, they find themselves weighing a slew of unconnected ballot initiatives on things like state spending, social issues and environmental policies.

Many are fed up with the piecemeal approach and sometimes razor-thin margins that end up creating laws, according to a poll that was commissioned and partly designed by the Bill Lane Center for the American West. The poll coincided with a conference in Sacramento sponsored by the center to address ways of reforming California’s constitution. The survey shows that by a 51 percent to 38 percent margin, voters believe the state constitution needs a “fundamental change.”