Our faculty share the stories and experiences that inspire their research
Brains Behind the Institute
Associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences and of neurosurgery
The core of any career in science is a desire to discover and understand things that we never knew about before. I've always known I wanted to be a scientist, but choosing one direction for my research came more slowly because everything fascinated me. Ultimately, I decided to focus on an area where I thought I would have my best shot of making a difference in the lives of many: improving how patients recover from a stroke.
I still remember seeing a tomato skin cell for the first time as a high school student. We used basic microscopes, so many of my classmates couldn't see the cell’s structure, but under my lens it looked like the image in my textbook: the cell wall, the nucleus, everything. It fascinated me. Working with numbers in subjects like physics felt a little boring compared to exploring the tomato cells and learning how cells communicate and make proteins.
When my father got cancer, I felt helpless. I had just finished my PhD in one of the most radical branches of electrical engineering—information theory—and I had taken a job working in industry, at my former advisor’s startup. We had developed a wireless cable replacement, a data link that connects a setup box to a high-definition TV, the same technology that’s now applied to 5G. The company was doing well—we raised $18 million in our first round of fundraising—but the technology we built didn’t resonate with me.
There's a dance happening between the parts of your brain that interpret motion and those that direct the muscles that allow you to track that motion. For example, if you're trying to catch a football, you have to know that you need to move your gaze to follow the ball's motion. This circuit goes both ways—if you're about to move to the right, your visual system will filter out the signals that don't relate to what you're expecting to do until you've completed the action. That's a pretty computationally intensive trick. And it happens all the time.
Assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences
From time to time, most of us have out-of-the-blue intrusive thoughts, such as "Did I leave the stove on?" We may feel compelled to go back and check the stove to make sure we've actually turned it off. For some people, however, these thoughts and behaviors occupy more than one hour a day, cause distress, and interfere with daily functioning, thus crossing the line into Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Associate professor of biology and of applied physics
My lab and I have developed new technologies to image some amazing things in the brain, such as encoding memories or controlling motor actions. We’ve created microscopes ranging from one of the world’s smallest fluorescence microscopes, which weighs 2-3 grams, to a very large, two-photon fluorescence microscope.
Whatever space you pass through—New York City, a desert, a full parking lot—your brain uses neurons called grid cells to create a map of your environment. These grid cells are the basis of the brain's navigation system, and form a coordinate map with multiple, overlapping grids of varying detail depending on the physical area they represent.
When you approach someone with an off-the-wall idea at Stanford, the first thing people start talking about is whether the idea holds water. No matter whom you’re talking with—a high school student, undergraduate, professor—everyone’s ideas are heard out and vetted to get to a positive kernel of truth.
Associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences
The magic in science happens at the interdisciplinary boundaries of a field. I work at the intersection of biology, psychology, and neuroscience, and began my science career with a question about parenting: Why do mammals form attachment bonds and work together for the long term to raise offspring?
Avram Goldstein Professor of molecular and cellular physiology
I think the brain is fascinating, but I also think how other parts of the body function are fascinating, too; the brain is just an extension of the body. In graduate school, I trained as a biophysicist, and as a postdoctoral student, I worked on cholesterol metabolism. I only switched to studying neuroscience when I started my own lab.
Assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and Bonnie Uytengsu and Family Director of the Stanford Brain Organogenesis Program
Once you get infected with the "virus of scientific discovery," it's impossible to recover. Seeing something for the first time, discovering phenomena that nobody else has ever understood, is really exciting—and above everything else, fun. This can be particularly rewarding when combined with a strong desire to change disease outcomes, and the opportunity to work with exceptional students who are motivated to make a difference.
Accumulating diverse knowledge can lead to the most serendipitous connections.
When I was a kid, I wanted to work in artificial intelligence (AI); I read all the books about it in my local public library. But my first college course on AI did not inspire me. It covered old AI technologies, and ignored insights from the brain. So, I started exploring physics, math, and computer science, and ended up majoring in all three.
Assistant professor of materials science and engineering
I was a late-talking child. I had trouble expressing my thoughts, and was very shy about speaking in front of other people. Because of this, I always dreamed that if I and everyone else had some way to express ourselves without having to move our lips, we would all be really efficient in sharing our thoughts and communicating.
Professor of bioengineering and of electrical engineering
My first computer was essentially a glorified electronic calculator that could run BASIC programs. I was a teenager when my father, one of the first black professors at the University of Ghana, gave it to me. He knew that I was always building something. But I was totally intimidated by this device. So, I went to the library and learned about Boolean logic, and how the whole thing worked.
Everything in science is philosophy at some level. When you're doing science, you're trying to understand the world, which requires you to make decisions about what you'll accept as data, what theoretical framework you’ll work within, and sometimes even which entities or phenomena you'll accept as real.
To be successful as a neurosurgeon, I really think that a healthy life balance is key. Academic pursuits are important, as is having other interests, such as family, athletics, and community—they’ve made me more effective and efficient in the office and the operating room.
Michele and Timothy Barakett professor of genetics
When I started my lab at Stanford, focusing on aging, the field was somewhat controversial. Some people viewed aging as just a matter of unavoidable wear and tear, not a process that could be regulated. But because I’d worked on a molecular pathway key to a new understanding of aging, I thought there was more to uncover.
About half of your brain will respond to visual stimuli—faces of family members, the sun reflecting off the Golden Gate Bridge, words on a screen. But what really interests me is understanding how the brain enables us to comprehend what we see. My research focuses on visual recognition, particularly how children's brains change during childhood.