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2011 Research Highlights

Stanford scholars are engaged in ongoing basic and applied research that creates new knowledge and benefits society. Following are examples from 2011:

Biological Sciences and Chemistry

Jack Hubbard

Associate Professor Mark Schnitzer explains research that allows researchers to monitor the brain's neurons for months at a time.

Visualizing deep brain neurons

Traditional microscopy techniques do not allow scientists to see deep into the brain, but Stanford researchers in the laboratory of Mark Schnitzer, associate professor of biology and of applied physics, developed a micro-optic technique that changes that. Medical researchers now can monitor the brain’s neurons for months at a time and, as a result, better understand brain disease and the neuroscience of memory.

In the new technique, tiny glass tubes are placed deep in the brains of anaesthetized mice. The subsequent insertion of a microendoscope inside a glass guide tube allows researchers to keep track of individual cells in the brain over a period of weeks or even months. The researchers published their work in Nature Medicine.

Fluorescent carbon nanotubes peer inside mice

A team led by Hongjie Dai, the J. G. Jackson and C. J. Wood Professor of Chemistry, developed fluorescent carbon nanotubes that create color images deeper inside mice and with far more clarity than the conventional dyes used by researchers to peer inside the laboratory animals.

Researchers inject the single-walled carbon nanotubes into a mouse and then watch as the tubes are delivered to internal organs by the bloodstream. The nanotubes fluoresce brightly in response to the light of a laser directed at the mouse, while a camera attuned to the nanotubes’ near-infrared wavelengths records the images. By attaching the nanotubes to a medication, researchers can see how the drug is progressing through the mouse’s body. The research was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Out of southern Africa

A team of biologists and geneticists showed that modern humans probably first appeared in southern Africa, not East Africa, as previously had been thought. In an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they reported on the largest genetic survey to date of hunter-gatherers, in which genetic variations among 25 African populations were tracked.

The size of the sample allowed scientists, led by postdoctoral fellow Brenna Henn of the Department of Genetics, and Marcus Feldman, the Burnet C. and Mildred Finley Wohlford Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, to track the immense genetic diversity among Africans, which previously had been impossible. Bushmen are the population with the greatest genetic diversity and probably are the source population from which all other African populations diverged.

Following sea turtles

A female leatherback turtle deposits her eggs in the nest she dug in the sand on the beach at Playa Grande, Costa Rica. Stanford University marine biologist and alumnus George Shillinger observes.

The population of leatherback ocean turtles has plummeted 90 percent over the past two decades or so, with longline fishing one of the prime culprits in the decline. For five years, Stanford marine biologists tracked the turtles across the South Pacific, thinking that if they could develop models of the turtles’ movements, they might be able to save the quickly diminishing animals.

Previously, scientists could not explain why the turtles went where they did, but now they have found that there is method to the turtles’ madness, which mostly has to do with food. Temporary closure of certain areas to fishing in order to protect the population is one of the solutions. The research was published in Marine Ecology Progress Series.

Researchers see inside protein folding

When vital proteins in our bodies are misfolded, debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s can result. If researchers could see the folding happen, they might be able to design treatments for some of these diseases or even keep them from occurring.

Researchers led by Judith Frydman, professor of biology, have gotten the first-ever peek inside one of these protein-folding chambers as the folding happened, and the folding mechanism they saw surprised them. Their research was published in Cell.

Business and Management

The fabric of good management

A new Stanford-World Bank field experiment in Indian textile plants finds the most compelling evidence to date that management matters.

Indian textile plants were the site for a study sponsored by Stanford and the World Bank establishing the relationship between good management practices and higher productivity. Huge differences in a single industry in a single country can be explained by different approaches to management. The two-year study looked at 20 plants owned by 17 firms; certain practices were introduced in some of the plants and not in others.

The study’s conclusions may make it more likely that executive education programs will be introduced and accepted in developing nations, according to William Barnett, the Thomas M. Siebel Professor in Business Leadership, Strategy and Organizations at the Graduate School of Business.

Do CEOs make the best board members?

A survey from the Rock Center for Corporate Governance uncovered surprises about who makes the best board directors: It’s not necessarily the CEOs whom most companies seek out.

David Larcker, the James Irvin Miller Professor of Accounting at the Graduate School of Business, said the popular consensus is that CEOs make the best board members because of their strategic and leadership experience. But in the 2011 Corporate Board of Directors Survey, a full 87 percent of respondents said active CEOs are too busy with their own companies to be effective directors. A third of the respondents said active CEOs were “too bossy/used to having their own way.”

Analysis bucks conventional wisdom on 2008 oil price turmoil

The 2008 turmoil in world oil prices was not caused by an imbalance of supply and demand, as conventional wisdom holds, according to Kenneth Singleton, the Adams Distinguished Professor of Management at the Graduate School of Business. Instead, Singleton points to the economically and statistically significant effect of investor flows on futures prices.

In an analysis of the oil shock that stirred controversy, Singleton argued that market participants had imperfect information about many of the key drivers of prices, including supply, demand and inventories; these informational challenges were particularly acute for emerging economies. Singleton presented his finding to a forum held by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

Lax bankruptcy laws

Researchers, including Ilya Strebulaev, associate professor of finance in the Graduate School of Business, and Kay Gieseke, assistant professor of management science and engineering in the School of Engineering, have determined that most corporate bond defaults are the result of permissive bankruptcy laws, not bad business practices or economic downturns.

Researchers looked at data from business and financial cycles starting in the 19th century. They found that credit defaults were common before the Great Depression but then essentially ceased until 1978, when bankruptcy laws were rewritten, leading to the phenomenon of junk bonds and a new wave of defaults.


What kids should know about science

Helen Quinn

Theoretical physicist and SLAC Professor Emeritus Helen Quinn chaired a National Academy of Sciences committee that issued a report on science education for children.

Theoretical physicist and SLAC Professor Emerita Helen Quinn chaired a National Academy of Sciences panel on K-12 science education that released its findings in July. The panel’s report, A Framework for K-12 Science Education, stresses how important it is for pupils to learn to argue based on evidence, use models and ask critical questions.

Forty-four states share common standards on math and languages, but there are no common standards for science. The panel established a set of criteria to decide which core ideas of various scientific disciplines are important for pupils to learn, and it met with groups of teachers to help them refine its recommendations. The nonprofit organization associated with the panel will attempt to implement some of the standards in six test states over the coming year.

Student coaching increases likelihood of success

Student coaching significantly increases the likelihood that college students will stay in school and graduate, according to a study by Eric Bettinger, associate professor of education, and doctoral student Rachel Baker.

The study reviewed the academic records of more than 13,500 students from eight colleges and universities across the 2003-04 and 2007-08 academic years. The researchers compared coached versus non-coached students, and found a 10- to 15-percent increase in retention and graduation rates among those in the coached group. Bettinger and Baker announced their findings through the website of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

How to deal with bullies

Teenagers react very differently to bullying—some fight back, while others get depressed. The reasons for their different reactions and the impact of the experience on their later life is the topic of research by a doctoral candidate at the School of Education, David Yeager.

When teenagers are convinced that bullies cannot be stopped, their reactions tend to get more radical, according to Yeager. But if they can be made to believe that both the bullies and they themselves can undergo change, they are better equipped to become more resilient. The study tested students’ predilection toward vindictive behavior in relation to instructions they had received about people’s ability to change.

NASA View from space of the mouth of the Amazon River

The mouth of the Amazon River, where the world’s largest drainage basin flows into the Atlantic Ocean. A location such as this, where fresh and sea water mix, is a good spot for generating electricity with Yi Cui’s new battery.


Getting a charge from seawater

A team led by Yi Cui, associate professor of materials science and engineering, has developed a battery that takes advantage of the difference in salinity between freshwater and seawater to produce electricity.

Anywhere freshwater enters the sea, such as a river mouth or estuary, could be a potential site for a power plant using such a battery, pending environmental considerations. Initially, the simple battery, consisting of two electrodes—one positive and one negative—is filled with freshwater, and a small electric current is applied to charge it up. The freshwater is then drained and replaced with seawater. Because seawater is salty, containing 60 to 100 times more ions than freshwater, it increases the electrical potential, or voltage, between the two electrodes.

Computers learn to evaluate breast cancer

Daphne Koller

'The computer strips away bias and looks at thousands of factors to determine which matter most in predicting survival,' said Daphne Koller, professor of computer science and senior author of a paper published in Science Translational Medicine.

Computer scientists and pathologists teamed up to train computers to evaluate microscopic images of breast cancer and found that computers were more accurate than humans. By analyzing the tumors and their development, computers were able to better predict survival, as well as distinguish the more crucial from less crucial tumors.

Computers have the advantage of not being tied down by preconceptions and learned habits, researchers said. The lead authors of the study, published in Science Translational Medicine, are Daphne Koller, professor of computer science; Andrew Beck, doctoral candidate in medical informatics; and Matt van de Rijn, professor of pathology.

Stretchable, transparent, skin-like sensor developed

Steve Fyffe

Chemical engineering postdoctoral fellow Darren Lipomi demonstrates a new stretchable, artificial skin in the lab.

Using carbon nanotubes bent to act as springs, researchers led by Zhenan Bao, associate professor of chemical engineering, have developed a stretchable, transparent, skin-like sensor. The sensor can be stretched to more than twice its original length and bounce back perfectly to its original shape. It can sense pressure ranging from a firm pinch to thousands of pounds.

The sensor, described in Nature Nanotechnology, could have applications in prosthetic limbs, robotics and touch-sensitive computer displays.

No more ‘over’ to end radio calls

Jack Hubbard

A new radio technology could have some very practical applications, including better wireless reception.

A new wireless radio first conceived by a trio of graduate students will permit communications to go both ways, simultaneously. By taking advantage of the fact that each radio knows exactly what it’s transmitting, and hence what its receiver should filter out, the new device enables each caller to hear the other’s voice even when both people are talking at once.

The students showed their invention at the 2010 MobiCom, an international mobile networking conference, and they walked away with the prize for best demonstration. This year, working under Philip Levis, assistant professor of computer science and of electrical engineering, they took out a provisional patent and developed some of the implications of the invention, notably the fact that the amount of information able to be transmitted will double.

Ubiquitous, teensy solar cells

Photo courtesy of Michael McGehee Nanodomes

Acting like a waffle iron, silicon nanodomes, each about 300 nanometers in diameter and 200 nanometers tall, imprint a honeycomb pattern of nanoscale dimples into a layer of metal within a solar cell.

A multidisciplinary plasmonics team led by Mike McGehee, Yi Cui and Mark Brongersma, all associate professors of materials science and engineering, developed a revolutionary, thin, inexpensive solar cell that could change the way we use solar energy.

According to findings published in Advanced Energy Materials, plasmonics—the study of the interaction between light and metal—would permit the absorption of light in extremely thin films, putting charged particles even closer to electrodes, thus making electricity easier to generate. The solar cells, a bit like tiny nanowaffles, are both durable and cheap.

Super-efficient nanoscale lasers 

Electrical engineers designed a nanoscale semiconductor laser that operates with much less energy and at much higher speeds than other commercially used lasers. Associate Professor Jelena Vuckovic and her colleagues, who published their findings in Nature Photonics, say their research could have an impact on data transmission.

The new lasers use 1,000 times less energy than the best laser technologies in existence and are 10 times faster. Researchers are hoping to do even better.

Vuckovic and her team later in the year produced a similar device that functions at far greater temperature ranges, including room temperature, which could represent an important step toward next-generation computer chips.


Permanently hotter summers begin in 20 years

Stanford researchers analyzed more than 50 climate model experiments including simulations of both historic and expected future conditions to predict future hotter summers.

The tropics and much of the Northern Hemisphere are likely to experience an irreversible rise in summer temperatures within the next 20 to 60 years if atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase.

Those are among the results of a study published in Climate Change Letters. In the study, a team led by Noah Diffenbaugh, assistant professor of environmental Earth system science, concluded that many tropical regions in Africa, Asia and South America could see “the permanent emergence of unprecedented summer heat” in the next two decades. Middle latitudes of Europe, China and North America—including the United States—are likely to undergo extreme summer temperature shifts within 60 years.

Reforestation in China

Gretchen Daily, the Bing Professor in Environmental Science and founding co-director of the Natural Capital Project, has found that planting trees rather than crops on slopes in China that were damaged after major flooding is a far better way of ensuring that the land does not continue to erode.

The Natural Capital Project has developed a software tool called InVEST that is helping the Chinese government decide where to focus conservation and restoration efforts, based on the potential return-on-investment for society in the form of ecosystem services such as water purification and biodiversity conservation. Daily’s findings appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Seaports need to plan for climate change

© Port of Los Angeles Port of Los Angeles

More than 80 percent of the world's freight moves by ship. Despite seaports' crucial role in the global economy, few are preparing for the impacts of climate change, including rising sea levels and more frequent storms.

The majority of seaports around the world are unprepared for the potentially damaging effects of climate change in the coming century, according to a study by Martin Fischer, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and graduate student Austin Becker. Results were published in Climate Change.

A survey posed to port authorities around the world found that most are unsure how best to protect their facilities from rising sea levels and more frequent Katrina-magnitude storms. Fischer, Becker and a group of Stanford engineers are developing computer models to help port authorities and other government agencies make more informed decisions about adapting to climate change as they plan for the next generation of infrastructure.

Rising temperatures could doom corn

An increase of just 1 degree Celsius could cause devastating corn crop losses across sub-Saharan Africa, according to a study by agricultural scientist David Lobell and others in Nature Climate Change.

Combining data from 20,000 trials with weather data from across the region, Lobell and his colleagues found that corn is not as heat tolerant as thought, or at least not over prolonged time periods. As the planet heats up, corn becomes more vulnerable. That, combined with declining rainfall, could spell disaster. Lobell is an assistant professor of environmental Earth system science.

Making aquaculture safer

Mark Shwartz

Concentrated waste plumes from fish farms could travel significant distances to reach coastlines, according to a study co-authored by Roz Naylor and Jeffrey Koseff of the Woods Institute for the Environment.

More and more fish are being farmed, which means species are not being depleted, but the downside of coastal aquaculture is the amount of waste material flowing into the ocean. Stanford environmental scientists Roz Naylor and Jeff Koseff have developed a computational model to predict the movements of the effluent and help facilitate monitoring of the resulting waste plumes that can damage ocean life.

The scientists found that pollution did not simply vanish as it was diluted. Rather, the plume could become a major problem all along the coastline. But given that aquaculture is here to stay, the model will enable them to predict the course of the plume and determine which areas are more appropriate for aquaculture. Koseff is the William Alden Campbell & Martha Campbell Professor in the School of Engineering and the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Woods Institute. Naylor is professor of environmental Earth system science and a Woods Institute senior fellow. Their research was published in Environmental Fluid Mechanics.

Preserving marine mammal species

L.A. Cicero Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich

If we could preserve just 4 percent of the ocean, an area comprising 20 conservation sites, it would provide a crucial habitat for the vast majority of marine mammal species, according to research conducted by a group of environmental scientists at Stanford and their colleagues in Mexico.

Co-author Paul Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies and senior fellow at the Woods Institute, said of marine mammals, “Many of them are top predators and have impacts all the way through the ecosystem. And they’re also beautiful and interesting.” The research was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Origins of Western poetry found in troubadours’ songs

Courtesy of Marisa Galvez Fresco image of troubadour and woman

Medieval singer-songwriters tended to write songs about chivalrous, illicit love.

The European poem as we know it was invented, and fairly recently. What we in the West think of as poetry is largely the result of 12th-century troubadours and their controversial insistence on singing about the profane.

The troubadours introduced the concept of courtly love and invented poetic forms still in use today; the songbooks in which their lyrics were compiled defined the template for the poetry anthology. In her new book, Songbook: How Lyrics Became Poetry in Medieval Europe, Marisa Galvez, assistant professor of French, traces the growth of this literary culture through a few surviving songbooks, or chansonniers.

History of witchcraft prosecution

A dark but iconic moment in U.S. history, the Salem witch trials of 1692, are taught in American schools to educate students about religious extremism and the judicial process. But the origins of witchcraft prosecution can be traced back to Europe centuries prior, when pre-Reformation courts first induced criminals to admit to heresy and witchcraft to exert social control through displays of harsh and often violent punishment.

Book cover

Laura Stokes, assistant professor of history, whose work has focused on the origins and prosecution of witchcraft in 15th-century Europe, published a new book, Demons of Urban Reform: The Rise of Witchcraft Persecution, 1430-1530. Focusing on case studies from the European cities of Basel, Lucerne and Nuremburg, Stokes' work examines the legal underpinnings of witchcraft persecution, as well as the religious and esoteric influences that fueled it.

Who was King Solomon?

What can we learn from the wisest man who ever lived? Maybe not as much as we think, according to a new book, Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom, by Steven Weitzman, the Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and Religion.

According to Jewish tradition, Solomon knew everything, and some legends claim he could turn lead into gold, conjure demons or become invisible. But, curiously, scholars don't know even the rudimentary facts about him. For instance, his reign is believed to be between 960 and 920 B.C., but that's just an educated guess. Weitzman's book is concerned less with the facts and more with the way memory "takes place sociologically with other people" and is reshaped by new circumstances.


Tracing legal origins of human rights

Jenny Martinez

Jenny Martinez

The international slave trade set up the foundation for human rights law. International courts in the 19th century called “mixed commissions” were crucial in eliminating the transatlantic slave trade. In her book The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law, Jenny Martinez, the Warren Christopher Professor in the Practice of International Law and Diplomacy, delves into the history of the transatlantic slave trade and examines the international human rights tribunals that were set up in countries including Sierra Leone, Brazil and Cuba in order to hear slavery cases. These courts, she argues, were the first international courts designed to try “crimes against humanity” and evolved into the modern system of international legal protections that exists today.

Is marriage for white people?

Compared to white women, black women are three times less likely to marry. Successful black women in the United States tend to remain unmarried or marry down rather than marry a person of a different race. Ralph Richard Banks, the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law, uses his book, Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone, to examine the decrease of marriage in American society throughout the past 50 years. By including personal stories and experiences, Banks focuses on the black middle class in the United States and explores the growing tendency of black women to not marry and not engage in interracial marriages. This trend, he argues, extends past racial considerations and has consequences for all American partnerships.


Mark Kelman

Exploring the use of heuristics

Individuals tend to act based on heuristics, or general rules of thumb, rather than making full use of the information that is available. There is a lack of consensus in the philosophical community over whether this use of heuristics leads to better judgments and positive outcomes. In his book The Heuristics Debate, Mark Kelman, the James C. Gaither Professor of Law and vice dean of Stanford Law School, explores the connection between human reasoning and political decision making. By analyzing the major schools of thought on heuristics, Kelman demonstrates how individuals process information and how these findings can be applied to increase compliance with law.

Nuanced solutions to social injustice

Well-intentioned laws can undermine the rights they were created to protect. The urge to constantly condemn racism can sometimes have the negative effect of focusing on trivial forms of discrimination and ignoring more deep-seated social ills. Richard Thompson Ford, the George E. Osborne Professor of Law, investigates this issue in his book Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality. He argues that civil rights laws have sometimes been taken advantage of and used to demand special privileges. Claiming that civil rights legislation has not been effective in curbing a legacy of racism and less overt forms of discrimination, Ford calls for nuanced solutions to social injustice.


Deficits associated with autism, schizophrenia induced in mice

Researchers led by Karl Deisseroth, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and of bioengineering, were able to switch on, and then switch off, social-behavior deficits in mice that resemble those seen in people with autism and schizophrenia, thanks to a technology that precisely manipulates nerve activity in the brain.

In synchrony with this experimentally induced socially aberrant behavior, the mice exhibited a brain-wave pattern called gamma oscillation that has been associated with autism and schizophrenia in humans. The findings, published in Nature, lend credence to a hypothesis that has been long floated but hard to test, until now. They mark the first demonstration that elevating the brain’s susceptibility to stimulation can produce social deficits resembling those of autism and schizophrenia, and that then restoring the balance eases those symptoms.

Creating heart cells

Using skin cells from patients with a severe genetic heart defect, researchers at the Medical School have created human heart cells that carry the same genetic mutation, allowing them to test drugs on the cells in an effort to better treat patients suffering from what is known as Timothy syndrome, a heart ailment that frequently leads to early childhood death.

The senior author of the study, published in Nature, is Ricardo Dolmetsch, associate professor of neurobiology, who said the development marks the first time this “disease-in-a-dish” approach has been used to test drug treatments for heart disorders.

Diabetes-autoimmune link detected

Type-2 diabetes is rooted in an autoimmune reaction deep within the body, according to results by researchers from Stanford and the University of Toronto. The redefinition from metabolic to autoimmune disorder could radically change treatment and research regarding the increasingly prevalent disease, said the scientists, who published their work in Nature Medicine. The results also might blur the differences between types of diabetes.

The senior author of the study is Edgar Engleman, director of Stanford’s Blood Center and a member of the Stanford Cancer Center.

Blood vessels joined without sutures

Steve Fisch Geoffrey Gurtner

A team headed by Geoffrey Gurtner has developed a way of joining severed blood vessels without stitching them together with sutures.

Reconnecting severed blood vessels is mostly done the same way today—with sutures—as it was 100 years ago, when the French surgeon Alexis Carrel won a Nobel Prize for advancing the technique. Now, researchers led by microsurgeon Geoffrey Gurtner, professor of surgery, have developed a sutureless method that appears to be a faster, safer and easier alternative.

In animal studies, Gurtner’s team used a poloxamer gel and bioadhesive rather than a needle and thread to join together blood vessels, a procedure called vascular anastomosis. Results of the research were published in Nature Medicine.

Cigarettes marketed in predatory pattern

Steve Fisch Renee Reijo Pera

A study led by Lisa Henriksen shows that tobacco companies increased the advertising and lowered the price of menthol cigarettes at stores near high schools with larger populations of African Americans.

Tobacco companies increased the advertising and lowered the sale price of menthol cigarettes in stores near California high schools with larger populations of African American students, according to a study led by Lisa Henriksen, senior research scientist at the Stanford Prevention Research Center.

Although cigarette makers have denied using race or ethnicity to target customers, researchers said the data shows a “predatory” marketing pattern geared to luring young African Americans into becoming smokers. The study appeared in Nicotine & Tobacco Research.

Math can change your brain

Just one year of math class can change the way a child’s brain approaches problem-solving, according to a study by psychiatrist Vinod Menon and his team, who are attempting to identify how children acquire problem-solving skills. The results, published in Neuroimage, are based on a study of 90 second- and third-graders.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging scans showed substantial differences between the third- and second-graders and between those children who were quick at math and those who were not. On the whole, third-graders had far greater abilities. The point of the study—preceded by a similar one published in Developmental Science—is to address children’s problems with math learning.

Creating neurons with Parkinson’s symptoms

Renee Reijo Pera

Renee Reijo Pera

Researchers led by Renee Reijo Pera, director of the Stanford Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research and Education, derived neurons from the skin of a woman with a genetic form of Parkinson’s disease that were shown to replicate some of the features of the condition in a dish.

The research, published in Cell Stem Cell, may help scientists learn more about the disorder and test possible treatments. There are no good animal models for Parkinson’s disease.

Brain-computer interface for paralysis

Stanford researchers are enrolling participants in a pioneering study investigating the feasibility of people with paralysis using a technology that interfaces directly with the brain to control cursors, robotic arms and other assistive devices.

The pilot clinical trial, known as BrainGate2, is based on technology developed at Brown University and is led by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Brown and the Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The Stanford team, led by Jaimie Henderson and Krishna Shenoy, associate professors of, respectively, neurosurgery and electrical engineering, is the only trial site outside of New England.

Patient received treatment in stem-cell trial

Stanford and the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center collaborated on the Geron Corp.-sponsored trial of a human embryonic-stem-cell-derived treatment for severe spinal cord injury. The fifth patient was treated under the auspices of neurosurgeon and principal investigator Gary Steinberg, the Bernard and Ronni Lacroute-William Randolph Hearst Professor in Neurosurgery and Neurosciences. The trial was designed to test the safety of the cells in human patients. Although Geron has discontinued the trial, it will continue to monitor the patients for 15 years.

Physical Sciences

120-million-year-old birds

SLAC researchers revealed patterns in the plumage of the first birds.

An international team of scientists at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory discovered traces of pigment in fossils of 120-million-year-old birds, allowing it to get a better idea of what those early species looked like and how they behaved. Two fossilized birds were examined at SLAC with synchrotron radiation, X-ray light produced by electrons circulating in a storage ring at nearly the speed of light.

Uwe Bergmann, deputy director of SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source, said: “If we could eventually give colors to long extinct species, that in itself would be fantastic. Synchrotron radiation has revolutionized science in many fields, most notably in molecular biology. It is very exciting to see that it is now starting to have an impact in paleontology in a way that may have important implications in many other disciplines.” The research was published in Science Express.

Kavli researchers surprised by Crab Nebula


The Fermi Large Area Telescope has recently detected two short-duration gamma-ray pulses coming from the Crab Nebula, which was previously believed to emit radiation at a very steady rate.

The Crab Nebula, one of our best-known and most stable neighbors in the winter sky, shocked scientists, including Roger Blandford, director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology, with its propensity for fireworks—gamma-ray flares set off by the most energetic particles ever traced to a specific astronomical object.

The discovery is leading researchers to rethink their ideas of how cosmic particles are accelerated. Blandford was part of a KIPAC team led by scientists Rolf Buehler and Stefan Funk that used observations from the Large Area Telescope, one of two primary instruments aboard NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, to confirm one flare and discover another. Their work was reported in Science Express.

Einstein was right

NASA Artist concept of Gravity Probe B orbiting the Earth

Artist's concept of Gravity Probe B orbiting the Earth to measure space-time, a four-dimensional description of the universe including height, width, length and time.

Gravity Probe B, a project between Stanford and NASA, has confirmed two predictions of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, concluding one of the space agency’s longest-running projects. Four gyroscopes housed in a satellite measured both the warping of space and time around a gravitational body and the amount a spinning object pulls space and time with it as it spins.

Einstein had predicted both, and it turns out he was correct. If gravity did not affect space and time, the results would have been different. The findings appeared in Physical Review Letters. The principal investigator was C. W. Francis Everitt, a professor at the W. W. Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory who has worked on Gravity Probe B since 1962.

Catch sunspots before they happen

It’s not a good idea to look directly at the sun, but Stanford researchers are looking intothe sun to detect sunspots before they erupt. Sunspots are caused by intense magnetic activity and are highly disruptive for the communications systems that have become essential to daily life. If they could be predicted, their damage could be lessened.

Acoustic waves are the answer, according to physicist Philip Scherrer, professor at the Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory, and his research team. They found they could get up to two days’ lead time detecting solar storms and measuring solar sounds as deep as 65,000 kilometers inside the sun. Sure enough, one or two days later sunspots would appear on the surface. The research was published in Science.

SLAC scientists find evidence of new phase of matter

Scientists, including Zhi-Xun Shen of the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Science (SIMES), found the strongest evidence yet that a puzzling gap in the electronic structures of some high-temperature superconductors could indicate a new phase of matter. Understanding this “pseudogap” has been a 20-year quest for researchers who are trying to control and improve these breakthrough materials, with the ultimate goal of finding superconductors that operate at room temperature.

In work done at SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Advanced Light Source and Stanford, Shen’s team looked at a sample of a cuprate superconductor from the inside out. They examined electronic behavior at the sample’s surface, thermodynamic behavior in the sample’s interior and changes to the sample’s dynamic properties over time using a trifecta of measurement techniques never before employed together. The findings were published in Science. SIMES is a joint institute of SLAC and Stanford.

Social Sciences

Metaphors matter in describing crime

Imagine your city isn’t as safe as it used to be. Robberies are on the rise, home invasions are increasing and murder rates have nearly doubled in the past three years. What should city officials do about it?

Your answer—and the reasoning behind it—can hinge on the metaphor used to describe the problem, according to research by Lera Boroditsky, assistant professor of psychology, and doctoral candidate Paul Thibodeau. Their research, published in PLoS ONE, shows that people will likely support an increase in police forces and jailing of offenders if crime is described as a “beast” preying on a community. But if people are told crime is a “virus” infecting a city, they are more inclined to treat the problem with social reform.

Death and drinking

L.A. Cicero Grant Miller and Jay Bhattacharya

Grant Miller, assistant professor of medicine, and Jay Bhattacharya, associate professor of medicine, discuss the results of the Soviet anti-alcohol campaign and the aftermath when the program was no longer in effect.

It was the end of Russia’s anti-alcohol campaign, not the onset of democracy and capitalism, that contributed to an enormous spike in deaths of working-age men between 1990 and 1994, according to two professors of medicine. Their argument disputes the theory that all the political changes were to blame for the increased consumption of alcohol, which they agree was the immediate cause of the deaths.

Rather, according to Grant Miller and Jay Bhattacharya, assistant and associate professors of medicine, respectively, the anti-alcohol campaign under Mikhail Gorbachev worked to offer alternatives and treatment to alcoholics. Once it was eliminated in 1998, the numbers shot up again.

Overcoming racial stereotypes in school

Jack Hubbard

Greg Walton, assistant professor of psychology, discusses his work on racial stereotyping.

Do I belong? Will I fit in? Greg Walton, assistant professor of psychology, has shown that non-white students’ GPAs notably rise if they are made to feel they are not the only outsiders, not the only students having a hard time fitting in during their first year of college. Addressing feelings of belonging is not the only way to overcome the academic race gap, researchers acknowledge, but it is a strategy to use in combating the problem. His research was published in the journal Science.

In a similar study, Stanford psychologists, including Walton, confirmed that all non-white students performed more poorly if they feared they would be negatively stereotyped. “Stereotype threat” is all it takes to ensure that performance declines, the study confirmed. Black students who had proven mastery over a particular topic saw their scores collapse when questioned in threatening conditions. The work was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Income gap grows, squeezing out the middle class

Sociologist Sean Reardon, associate professor of education, and colleagues from other institutions examined census data in the country’s 117 largest metropolitan areas and reported that middle-class neighborhoods are rapidly diminishing. Increasingly, they found, the rich live with the rich and the poor with the poor.

The research project, funded by the Russell Sage Foundation and Brown University, found that nearly all American cities show signs of growing income segregation, and that income inequality also tends to affect standardized test scores in schools.