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2013 Research Highlights

Stanford scholars are engaged in ongoing basic and applied research that creates new knowledge and benefits society. Following are examples from 2013:

Biological Sciences

Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam roughly overlapped

Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam, who passed down a portion of their genomes to the vast expanse of humanity, are known as our most recent common ancestors. A study led by genetics Professor Carlos Bustamante indicates the two roughly overlapped: The man lived between 120,000 and 156,000 years ago, and the woman lived between 99,000 and 148,000 years ago.

Natural selection shapes ant collective behavior

In ancient Greece, city-states that waited until their harvest was in before attacking a rival community’s crops often experienced success. Ant colonies that show similar selectivity when gathering food yield a similar result, according to biology Professor Deborah Gordon. Her study provides the first evidence of natural selection shaping collective behavior.

Sea urchins rapidly evolve in acidic ocean water

Stephen Palumbi, the Jane and Marshall Steel Jr. Professor in Marine Sciences, discovered that some purple sea urchins along the coast of California and Oregon have the ability to rapidly evolve in acidic ocean water, which may come in handy as climate change increases ocean acidity. This capacity depends on high levels of genetic variation that allow urchins’ healthy growth in water with high carbon dioxide levels.

Biologists get a squid’s eye view of the world

Pursuing the misunderstood Humboldt squid, William Gilly, professor of biology, has strapped video cameras and electronic sensors to the animals, analyzed their habitats, tracked them with sonar and raised their eggs. Humboldt squids, it turns out, are capable of remarkable bursts of speed.


Too much bank borrowing

In The Bankers’ New Clothes: What’s Wrong with Banking and What To Do About It, Anat Admati, the George G.C. Parker Professor of Finance and Economics, argues that reckless bank borrowing or excessive leverage was the central cause of the great financial crisis. The book warns that unless government forces banks to increase their reliance on equity, banks will continue to pose a threat to taxpayers, financial stability and the economy itself.

In-house innovation slows after IPOs

Shai Bernstein, assistant professor of finance, has shown that innovation slowed down by about 40 percent in tech companies after they went public. In a study of patent data from nearly 2,000 companies, Bernstein found that newly public companies became noticeably more incremental and less ambitious with in-house research than comparable firms that remains private.

Technology and scale create the new wealthy

Finance Professor Josh Rauh went looking for sources of wealth among the richest Americans and found that two popular conceptions are wrong: The top 1 percent of Americans were not born to wealth nor were they mainly CEOs of the largest public companies. Using the Forbes 400 wealthiest people list, he discovered that the new wealthy are those able to access education while young and apply their skills to the most scalable industries: technology, finance and mass retail.


Photo: Sean Reardon
Sean Reardon, professor of education, has documented how the U.S. has become increasingly segregated by race and income.
High-income Americans more segregated than ever

Sean Reardon, professor of education, has documented how the United States is becoming increasingly segregated by income and by race. He and a colleague at Cornell found that, in 2009, only 42 percent of families lived in middle‐income neighborhoods, compared with 65 percent four decades earlier. More than one-third of families now live in either affluent or poor neighborhoods, double the proportion in 1970.

Countering the academic achievement gap

The achievement gap in performance between academically at-risk minorities and white students has concerned educators for decades. Geoffrey Cohen, the James G. March Professor in Organizational Studies in Education and Business, and colleagues suggest that countering “stereotype threat”—that is, the stress of belonging to a negatively stereotyped group—can reduce the gap in middle school Latino American students.

Incentive plan for Washington teachers works, study shows

A controversial teacher evaluation system in Washington, D.C., appears to improve the performance of hundreds of teachers, while encouraging low performers to leave the classroom. A study by Thomas Dee, professor of education, with a colleague at the University of Virginia, shows for the first time that incentive systems—merit pay and strict rules for dismissal—can improve teacher performance.

Troubling teacher assignments identified

Even within the same school, lower-achieving students often are taught by less-experienced teachers, as well as by teachers who received their degrees from less-competitive colleges, according to Susanna Loeb, the Barnett Family Professor of Education, and colleagues. Their study, using data from one of the nation’s largest school districts, also shows that student class assignments vary within schools by a teacher’s gender and race.


‘Peak oil’ concerns should ease

Fears of depleting Earth’s supply of oil are unwarranted, according to Adam Brandt, assistant professor of energy resources engineering, and colleagues at UC-Santa Cruz. Their research shows that limits to consumption by the wealthy, better fuel efficiency and lower priced alternative fuels should begin driving down demand for oil around 2035.

Solar cooler for buildings, cars

A team led by Shanhui Fan, professor of electrical engineering, designed an entirely new form of cooling panel that works even when the sun is shining. Such a panel could vastly improve the daylight cooling of buildings, cars and other structures by radiating sunlight back into the chilly vacuum of space.


Stanford, SLAC scientists invent self-healing battery electrode

Stanford and SLAC researchers, led by Zhenan Bao, professor of chemical engineering, and Yi Cui, associate professor of materials science and engineering, made the first battery electrode that heals itself, opening a path for making the next generation of lithium ion batteries for electric cars, cell phones and other devices. The secret is a stretchy polymer that coats the electrode, binds it together and spontaneously heals tiny cracks.

Record broken for thinnest light absorber

Scientists led by chemical engineer Stacey Bent, the Jagdeep and Roshni Singh Professor in the School of Engineering, built the thinnest, most efficient absorber of visible light on record, a nanoscale structure that could lead to less-costly, more efficient solar cells.

Hydrogel process creates transparent mouse brain

Combining neuroscience and chemical engineering, researchers led by Karl Deisseroth, the D.H. Chen Professor of Bioengineering and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, transformed an intact, post-mortem mouse brain into a transparent three-dimensional structure that keeps all the fine wiring and molecular structures in place. Known as CLARITY, their technique will transform understanding of the brain and of any biological tissue.

High-speed video reveals secrets of flight

Mechanical engineering Assistant Professor David Lentink and his students captured slow-motion video from the fastest wings in the bird world with an eye toward building flying robots that take design cues from nature. They used an ultra-high-speed Phantom camera that can shoot upward of 3,300 frames per second at full resolution, and an amazing 650,000 at a tiny resolution.

First computer created using carbon nanotube technology

A team of engineers led by Subhasish Mitra, associate professor of electrical engineering and of computer science, and H.S. Philip Wong, the Willard R. and Inez Kerr Bell Professor in the School of Engineering, built a basic computer using carbon nanotubes, a semiconductor material that has the potential to launch a new generation of electronic devices that run faster while using less energy. The achievement galvanizes efforts to find successors to silicon chips.


Climate change occurring faster than at any time

The planet is undergoing one of the largest climate changes in the past 65 million years, say Noah Diffenbaugh, associate professor of environmental Earth system science, and Chris Field, the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor in Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies. They found that it’s occurring at a rate 10 times faster than any change in that period. Without intervention, this pace could lead to a 5-6 degree Celsius spike in annual temperatures by the end of the century. (graphs, no video)

Mother Nature best defense against catastrophic storms

Natural habitats such as dunes and reefs are critical to protecting millions of U.S. residents and billions of dollars in property from coastal storms, according to a study by the Natural Capital Project at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. The study offers the first comprehensive map of the U.S. coastline that shows where and how much protection communities get from natural habitats. (pictures, no video)


What does the traumatic past mean for our future?

Amir Eshel, professor of German studies and of comparative literature, suggests there's more to apocalyptic novels than meets the eye. In Eshel's Futurity: Contemporary Literature and the Quest for the Past, he argues that these literary works challenge readers to move from traumatic history to empowered future.

Historian examines the politics of sexual violence

The story of rape is not one of progressive liberalization, but rather “of repeated contestations over power, played out through sexual categories, laws and prosecution,” says Estelle Freedman, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in U.S. History, in Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation. Freedman reveals how attitudes toward sexual violence are influenced by gender and racial politics.

Poetry as a cultural mirror

Roland Greene, the Mark Pigott KBE Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, finds that globalization and technology are changing how poetry is viewed. The popularity of electronic publishing and the visibility of portals such as UbuWeb and the Electronic Poetry Center have led to more curiosity about poetry across national linguistic borders. Greene is editor in chief of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.

Website takes a digital approach to an ancient topic: families

Winston Churchill is a descendent of Henry VIII. There is a distant relationship between Virginia Woolf and Anne Boleyn. These are just a few of the family links that can be seen on Kindred Britain, a digital humanities website created by Nicholas Jenkins, associate professor of English. The site shows how families influenced British history and is built on a database of nearly 30,000 individuals.

18th-century European travels followed digitally

During the 18th century, thousands of letters on academic subjects like mathematics were exchanged between European scholars. Wealthy aristocrats and their tutors penned many when they were on the “Grand Tour” of ancient sites in Europe. Digital visualization has allowed Giovanna Ceserani, associate professor of classics, to recreate the routes of British and Irish travelers in the heyday of the Grand Tour.


Photo: Hank Greely
Hank Greely has identified the ethical challenges involved in the new concept of de-extenction.
Ethics of resurrecting extinct species explored

Scientists predict that within 15 years they will be able to revive some more recently extinct species, such as the dodo or the passenger pigeon, raising the question of whether or not they should. In Science, Hank Greely, the Deane F. and Kate Edelman Johnson Professor of Law, identifies the ethical landmines of this new concept of de-extinction and recommends that the government leave de-extinction research to private companies and focus on drafting new regulations.

Citizens United ruling hardly revolutionary

In his article, “In Defense of Citizens United,”published in the Yale Law Journal, Michael McConnell, the Richard and Frances Mallery Professor of Law, wrote a reappraisal of the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling about campaign contributions. McConnell argues the academic outcry against the Citizens United ruling missed the point, which he attributes partly to a confusing ruling that “gives off a lot of vibes of overreaching and not being well focused.” In fact, he says, the ruling is hardly revolutionary when restated in simple terms.

Realignment legislation encourages reentry cooperation

Stanford Law School students researching the implementation of California’s Public Safety Realignment legislation and aspects of the parole process for California “lifer” inmates believe the law led to greater cooperation between local agencies. Realignment, which shifts back to counties the resources and responsibility for supervising their offenders, encourages agencies to collaborate in providing more effective reentry of paroled prisoners. The research, given to Gov. Jerry Brown, was supervised by Joan Petersilia, the Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law.

Disruption and innovation in transactional law practice

After a series of articles that explore techniques for improving the design of business contracts, George Triantis, the James and Patricia Kowal Professor of Law, has turned his attention to the process of contract design and management as it is undertaken inside corporations and their law firms. In“Improving Contract Quality: Modularity, Technology and Innovation in Contract Design,” published in the Stanford Journal of Law, Business and Finance, Triantis analyzes the impact and potential of new contract automation technology in both cutting costs and improving the quality of contracts.


Biological transistor enables computing within living cells

A team of bioengineers has taken computing beyond mechanics and electronics into the living realm of biology. The team, led by Drew Endy, assistant professor of bioengineering, described in Science a biological transistor made from genetic material—DNA and RNA—in place of gears or electrons. The team calls its biological transistor the “transcriptor.”

Early protein buildup in brain may set us up for neurodegenerative disorders

The steady accumulation of a protein in healthy, aging brains may explain seniors’ vulnerability to neurodegenerative disorders, according to a study by researchers led by Ben Barres, professor and chair of neurobiology. The study’s unexpected findings could fundamentally change the way scientists think about neurodegenerative disease.

Down syndrome cognitive deficits probed

The learning and physical disabilities that affect people with Down syndrome may be due in part to defective stem cell regulation throughout the body, according to researchers led by Michael Clarke, the Karel H. and Avice N. Beekhuis Professor in Cancer Biology. The defects in stem cell growth and self-renewal observed by the researchers can be alleviated by reducing the expression of just one gene on chromosome 21.

Stanford technique induces egg growth in infertile women

Researchers led by Aaron Hsueh, professor of obstetrics and gynecology, identified a way to induce the ovaries of some infertile women to produce eggs. Using the technique, clinicians at the St. Marianna University School of Medicine in Japan collected viable eggs from five women with a condition called primary ovarian insufficiency. One gave birth to a healthy baby.

Technique allows high-speed, low-cost epigenomic mapping

A new technique developed by Howard Chang, professor of dermatology, and William Greenleaf, assistant professor of genetics, could lead to an era of personalized epigenomics. The technique could quickly yield useful information about which genes are active in particular cells. The technology involved is cheap, fast and easy to use, and all that would be needed from the patient is a blood sample or needle biopsy.

Physical Sciences

Photo: Sigrid Close
Sigrid Close has suggested that space dust may be to blame for satellite failures.
Eavesdropping on an erupting volcano

Scientists led by Eric Dunham, assistant professor of geophysics, listened in on the 2009 eruption of the Redoubt Volcano outside Anchorage, Alaska. Tremors too weak to be felt are audible to sensitive seismic instruments. By studying and modeling the accelerating earthquakes preceding the volcano’s blasts, scientists hope to better predict the behavior of future volcanic eruptions.

Why do satellites fail?

Research by aeronautics and astronautics Assistant Professor Sigrid Close suggests a way to solve a mystery that has long bedeviled space exploration: Why do satellites fail? Large meteoroids are just one of the factors in space that cause satellites to fail. Close is proving that the effects of “space dust” are a more likely cause.

High-energy gamma ray burst reshapes astrophysics theories

Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory physicists, including research scientist Nicola Omodei, played a key role in analyzing the brightest gamma ray burst ever measured, and suggest that its never-before-seen features could call for a rewrite of current theories. In April, a bright flash of light burst from near the constellation Leo. Originating billions of light-years away, this gamma ray burst was the brightest ever observed.

Iron melt network helped Earth’s core grow

Scientists led by Wendy Mao, assistant professor of geological and environmental sciences, recreated the intense pressures and temperatures found deep within the Earth. Their work resulted in a discovery that complicates theories of how the planet and its core were formed. The findings lend credence to a theory first proposed nearly half a century ago suggesting that Earth’s iron-rich core and layered internal structure might have formed in a series of steps that took place over millions of years under varying temperature and pressure conditions.

Social Sciences

Virtual superpowers can encourage empathy

If you give people superpowers, will they use those abilities for good? Researchers led by Jeremy Bailenson, associate professor of communication, gave people the ability of Superman-like flight in the Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory. While several studies have shown that playing violent videogames can encourage aggressive behavior, the research suggests that games could be designed to train people to be more empathetic in the real world.

Willpower is in your mind, not in a sugar cube

Psychologists led by Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology, argue that you don’t need sugar for a performance boost. A change in mindset will do. Through a series of experiments, Dweck’s team examined participants’ beliefs about willpower, defined as the ability to resist temptation and stay focused on a demanding task. People who believed willpower was abundant didn’t need sugar to persevere through two difficult tasks.

Chronicling California’s poverty

Because of a weak labor market and the state’s expensive housing, 22 percent of all Californians are in poverty and 25 percent of children are poverty-stricken, according to a study by Stanford’s Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Public Policy Institute of California. The study, led by David Grusky, professor of sociology, used a new measure of poverty in the state.

Getting low-income, high-achieving students into selective colleges

The smartest low-income teens rarely enroll in the country’s top colleges. In fact, they don’t apply. Caroline Hoxby, the Scott and Donya Bommer Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, says cost isn’t the reason—high-achieving, low-income students actually pay less to attend a selective college than the nonselective ones they usually attend. The key is targeting the students with information about their college opportunities.

Origins of agriculture in China pushed back 12,000 years

The first evidence of agriculture appears in the archaeological record some 10,000 years ago. But the skills needed to cultivate and harvest crops weren’t learned overnight. Scientists led by Li Liu, the Sir Robert Ho Tung Professor in Chinese Archaeology, have traced these roots back to 23,000-year-old tools used to grind seeds, found mostly in the Middle East.