Understanding extreme weather; Mixed reality, mixed feelings; why women have more autoimmune diseases

February 13, 2024

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Wildfires and cyclones and floods, oh my.

Once you know Daniel Swain’s name, you’ll see it everywhere. His ability to explain climate science to the masses has made Swain, PhD ’16, one of the media’s go-to climate experts. The staff research scientist at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability gave more than 300 interviews last year—often around extreme events—explaining whether and how climate change is raising the number and exacerbating the viciousness of weather disasters. “I don’t think that he appreciates fully how influential he is of the public understanding of weather events, certainly in California but increasingly around the world,” said Stanford professor of earth system science Noah Diffenbaugh, ’96, MS ’97.

There are less expensive ways to be socially awkward, but if you insist . . . 

If you’ve ever wanted to both glimpse the future and feel like you’re wearing orthodontic headgear in public, your moment has arrived. The newest Meta and Apple headsets look like ski goggles and offer “mixed reality” technology, allowing wearers to see—simultaneously—the real world and digital content on a screen. Ten Stanford researchers conducted field tests with the Meta Quest 3 passthrough video headset (a magnanimous move in the name of science, obviously). “Given how far headsets with passthrough video have come, it’s time to dedicate serious academic thought to the psychological and behavioral effects of this technology,” said Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication and the founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. “We want to understand the implications of living in a life in which we rely on passthrough for hours every day to see the world around us.”

On the positive side, they reported that using the headsets was exciting and could provide inspiring experiences. Indeed, the makers of these devices promise leaps forward in productivity and entertainment. But there were imperfections, including loss of significant peripheral vision in the headsets, distortion of images, motion sickness, and difficulty judging distances. Objects tended to be further away than they appeared, making it trickier to, for example, bring a spoonful of food to one’s mouth or poke a Burgher of Calais in the face. And all of these effects contributed to feelings of “social absence,” instances of which included lack of eye gaze and challenges discerning distant facial expressions. “People in the outside world became very absent, as if we were watching them on TV,” Bailenson said. Given their experiences, the researchers caution against excessive use of the devices. “There is great potential for passthrough video headsets across all kinds of applications,” said Bailenson. “But there are pitfalls as well that can lessen the user experience,” he said, “and aftereffects that could possibly even be dangerous.”

Looking for love in all the right places. 

Someone on one knee proposing in front of MemChu Photo courtesy: Jennifer Jenks, ’13, and Spencer Chang, ’16

Study buddies, blind dates, fellow Trees—find out how this year’s  engaging batch of @StanfordAlumni Stanford Sweethearts met. And if you’re looking for more meet-cutes, relationship advice, or stories of romance novel writers, Stanford magazine’s Love collection will have you head over heels.

X marks the spot.

As many as 50 million Americans have an autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis, and the vast majority of them are biological females. As it turns out, women have too much of a good thing: the X chromosome. Unlike the stubby Y chromosome, Xs are packed with active genes. Females are born with two X chromosomes, so one copy must be deactivated to avoid a lethal overproduction of proteins. But the process of deactivation is messy. A molecule called Xist coats the extra X to shut it down. In doing so, researchers have discovered, it can generate odd combinations of long noncoding RNA, proteins, and DNA—which, together with the appropriate genetic background, may trigger autoimmunity. The discovery of X-chromosome inactivation could lead to better screening panels for autoimmune disorders. For now, just studying them is a breakthrough: “For several decades, we’ve used a male cell line as the standard of reference. That male cell line produced no Xist,” said Howard Chang, a professor of dermatology and of genetics and the study’s senior author. “So all of a female patient’s anti-Xist-complex antibodies—a huge source of women’s autoimmune susceptibility—go unseen.”

That’s quite a gap.

In the first detailed national  study of post-lockdown student achievement, researchers looked at test data from 8,000 public school districts in 30 states and found both encouraging and troubling news. “One of the big and surprising findings is there actually has been a substantial recovery,” said Sean Reardon, a professor of poverty and inequality in education. But that recovery was uneven. During the 2022–2023 school year, students made gains that exceeded what they would be expected to learn in a typical year. But poorer districts had gone into the pandemic with lower test scores, and they lost more ground during COVID before beginning to recover. The typical wealthy district is now about a fifth of a grade level behind where it was in 2019. The typical poor district is nearly half a grade behind. The gap is also widening, with wealthier and whiter schools pulling further ahead.

But wait, there’s more.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Native American novelist N. Scott Momaday, MA ’60, PhD ’63, died on January 24, at 89. In 2021, Momaday spoke with Stanford about everything from sparking a renaissance in Indigenous literature to his most recent books of poetry, which explore humans’ connection to the earth.

Two decades after Nick Robinson, ’04, MA ’05, made the buzzer-beating shot that defined a Stanford basketball era, get the play-by-play of the moment and the photos that memorialized it.

Stanford students are expressing optimism about social life on campus following policy changes that include a faster and more simplified party registration process.

In a hypercompetitive world where speed seems king, experts say there are certain times when it’s better to work more slowly, including when you’re doing creative work, when you want to encourage ethical behavior, and when connecting with customers.

If your name is Fiona O’Keeffe, slowing down isn’t in your vocabulary. This month, she smashed the women’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials record—in her first-ever marathon. But don’t try this at home; O’Keeffe, ’20, was a decorated Pac-12 runner at shorter distances. Let’s all agree to get in our cardio by cheering for her in Paris.

Creating a more sustainable environment is another kind of marathon. But small, daily decisions can ease the plight of the planet. Stanford experts have shared their favorite ways to get their nature on—including bringing your own carry-out container to restaurants and reusing that hard-to-avoid plastic tortilla bag for produce.

People tend to see heart disease as a matter of clogged plumbing, but according to Michael McConnell, MD ’90, a clinical professor of cardiovascular medicine, we should be viewing it more like cancer; it needs serious care to be stopped. A change in attitude could raise the likelihood of screenings and treatment, ultimately lowering the number of deaths from heart disease.

Kansas City safety Justin Reid, ’19, now has a ring for each hand. The Chiefs won their second straight Super Bowl, facing off against the 49ers, which includes two of Reid’s Cardinal teammates—Curtis Robinson, ’20, and Christian McCaffrey, ’18.

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