Grads Diversify

Linda A. Cicero

Eric Tattwei Ho, a second-year graduate student in electrical engineering, never expected to be isolating strawberry DNA.

But there he was in genetics professor Rick Myers’s lab last summer, mashing the fruit in a Ziploc bag, along with Dawn dishwashing detergent, table salt and rubbing alcohol. “It was a really cool experiment,” Ho recalls. “And I still have that little vial of strawberry DNA.”

Ho and Myers were among the first graduate students and faculty to sign on for one of the University’s newest cross-disciplinary initiatives—the Stanford Graduate Summer Institute (SGSI). “It’s very easy to concentrate in my core, and learn what I need to, to do a good job,” says Ho, an international student from Malaysia. “But I think graduate education should be more than that.”

Whether they’re precipitating DNA out of fruit or learning about entrepreneurship, when students and faculty from disparate corners of the University make connections, electrical engineering professor Mark Horowitz is one happy administrator. In 2005 he and Chuck Holloway, business professor emeritus, co-chaired the Commission on Graduate Education, which recommended that the University provide more opportunities for graduate students to broaden their campus experience. Now the associate vice provost for special programs in the office of the vice provost for graduate education, Horowitz enlists faculty to teach in the one- and two-week free summer seminars. “It’s an opportunity for students to learn something about a topic that they’re curious about, but that isn’t directly in line with their research,” he says.

Myers, who co-taught Frontiers in Genetics with Nobelist Andrew Fire, says he was drawn to the institute because he’s “always up for an experiment.” Graduate students from a range of departments—including psychology, computer science and business—were curious enough to sign up for what Myers calls a “boot camp” in genetics and genomics. They talked about computation and ethics, and visited Genentech and the Stanford Human Genome Center to learn about how drugs are designed.

“One always gets extremely good ideas from the questions students have, especially students coming from outside the field,” Fire, professor of pathology and of genetics, says. “They are more broadly inquisitive than any of us in the field, and I thought that would be valuable. So it was totally selfish.”

Graduate School of Business professor Garth Saloner will be back this year to teach Summer Institute for Entrepreneurship, a new version of the Introduction to Entrepreneurship course he offered last summer. Also returning: computer science professor and affiliate Terry Winograd, who is teaching Adventures in Design Thinking, a revision of last year’s course. Last summer, Winograd gave 31 graduate students from fields as diverse as applied physics, Spanish, psychology, aeronautics and music a winsome design challenge: improve people’s experience of fruit. The result: “One team invented a blender-type thing, and another team came up with an ice cream-type truck that sold fruit.”

Design professionals from Bay Area firms took turns as guest lecturers in Winograd’s classroom, and the course got good reviews. But he’s making a few changes this year, including setting aside a fundamental premise of the (officially the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford), which encourages students to be playful and think outside every color of box. “With ‘fruit,’ some students found it fun, but a little too frivolous,” Winograd says. This summer, there will be a more “serious goal,” perhaps something to do with ecology.

One of the faculty members new to the SGSI team this summer is John Boothroyd, professor of microbiology and immunology. He’ll be offering the not-so-frivolous Virus! Predicting, Preventing and Responding to Emerging Infectious Diseases: Avian Flu as a Paradigm.

“Above all, I want a mix of different academic backgrounds,” says Boothroyd, who previously has taught a freshman seminar on Modern Plagues. He envisions graduate students in law, political science, economics, engineering and business “brainstorming” about avian flu. “We’re going to structure the class like a task force that you might assemble around a national emergency.”

Horowitz recalls his own enthusiasm when he was on a sabbatical two years ago and spent much of it taking courses in molecular biology and neuroscience. “I hadn’t done any biology, and I was curious about whether I could understand what was going on,” he says. “And it was fun.”

Eric Ho knows the feeling. “Summer is your break period, and you want to explore the richness in Stanford academic life, besides just electrical engineering,” he says. “And genetics is something I wanted to know more about for some time.”