2015 Research Highlights

Stanford scholars are engaged in ongoing basic and applied research — much of it interdisciplinary — that creates new knowledge and benefits society. Following are examples from 2015:

Biological Sciences

  • Biologist Paul Ehrlich says humanity is entering the Sixth Mass Extinction and calls for fast action to conserve threatened species, populations and habitat.

  • Bioengineer David Camarillo's lab provides the first-ever measurements of the acceleration forces imparted on the brain during a diagnosed concussion.
  • Biologist Marcus Feldman’s lab devises a computer model to help solve a long-standing mystery over why the introduction of new tools in prehistoric societies comes in periodic bursts.
  • Paleobiologist Jonathan Payne’s research shows that animals evolve toward larger body sizes over time, with the mean size for marine animals increasing 150-fold over the past 542 million years.
Paul Ehrlich video

Paul Ehrlich

Sixth Mass Extinction


  • The information content of earnings announcements is positively associated with profitability, firm size and analyst coverage, say business professors William Beaver and Maureen McNichols and alumnus Zach Wang.
  • Workplace stress contributes to at least 120,000 deaths each year and accounts for up to $190 billion in health care costs, according to Graduate School of Business professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Stefanos Zenios and alumnus Joel Goh.
  • Latinos are one of the country’s fastest growing minority groups, yet Latino-owned businesses are falling behind, according to research by business professor Jerry Porras and political scientist Douglas Rivers.
  • Finance professor Ilya Strebulaev co-authors a study that measures the economic impact of VC-funded companies.
VC Funding infographic

Venture Capital and the economy


  • U.S. students' purportedly dismal performance on international tests is much better than thought, according to education professor Martin Carnoy.
  • Education professor Thomas Dee analyzed data from more than 30,000 children, revealing that delaying kindergarten a year appears to benefit children's mental health and academic performance later in life.
  • Culminating more than a decade of research, education lecturer Denise Pope and colleagues publish measures that parents, teachers and school administrators can adopt to reduce stress in teenagers and improve learning.
  • Two studies by education professor Amado Padilla show that English-speaking students in elementary school dual-language programs become proficient in Mandarin while doing just as well in other subjects as peers in English-only classes.
Martin Carnoy video

Martin Carnoy

U.S. education policy and testing


  • Chemistry professor Hongjie Dai and his colleagues invent the first high-performance aluminum battery that's fast-charging, long-lasting and inexpensive.
  • A study by environmental scientist Chris Field and his colleagues finds that the amount of energy that could be generated from solar equipment constructed on and around existing infrastructure in California would exceed the state’s demand by up to five times.
  • Materials scientist Yi Cui and his colleagues develop a cheap and efficient way to extract clean-burning hydrogen fuel from water 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • The recent spike in triggered earthquakes in Oklahoma is primarily due to the injection of wastewater produced during oil production, according to geophysicist Mark Zoback of the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences.
Adam Brandt video

Hongjie Dai

Aluminum-ion battery


  • Mechanical engineering professor Chris Gerdes and his students transform a vintage 1981 DeLorean into a high-performance test bed for researching the limits of autonomous driving.
  • It typically takes a year to produce hydrocodone from plants, but bioengineer Christina Smolke and her colleagues have genetically modified yeast to make it in just a few days.
  • A puzzling observation, pursued through hundreds of experiments, has drawn engineers led by bioengineer Manu Prakash to a simple yet profound discovery: Under certain circumstances, droplets of fluid will move like performers in a dance choreographed by molecular physics.
  • Chemical engineers led by Zhenan Bao create a plastic skin-like material that can detect pressure and deliver a Morse code-like signal directly to a living brain cell, taking a step toward adding a sense of touch to prosthetic limbs.
Ada Poon video

Chris Gerdes

Autonomous driving


  • Marshall Burke of the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences finds that—without climate change mitigation—even wealthy countries will see an economic downturn by 2100.
  • People who walk for 90 minutes in a natural area as opposed to an urban setting showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with depression, according to environmental scientist Gretchen Daily.
  • In California, dry years coupled with warm conditions are more likely to lead to severe drought than dry, cool years, according to Noah Diffenbaugh, who heads the Climate and Earth System Dynamics research group.
  • An ongoing study by engineers at Stanford, including Wei-Min Wu, and in China shows that common mealworms can safely biodegrade Styrofoam.
Gregory Bratman video

Gregory Bratman

Benefits of walking in nature


  • A century and a half after Chinese migrants toiled on the Transcontinental Railroad, historian Gordon Chang and English professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin are shedding light on a key chapter of the intertwined relationship between China and the United States.
  • Through a study of the history of the French colonial Congo-Océan Railway, historian JP Daughton discovers how modern humanitarianism arose from the brutality of European colonialism.
  • English professor Michele Elam addresses James Baldwin's legacy with an edited collection of essays that delve into his relationship to celebrity, jazz, religion, theater, humor and the dossier that the FBI maintained on him over his lifetime.
  • Classics professor Josiah Ober’s innovative digital research project shows that long-held ideas scholars had about the ancient Greek world are wrong.
Josiah Ober

Josiah Ober

Ancient Greek economy


  • Joseph Bankman, professor of law and business, proposes a redesign of tax forms and the online tax filing process based on social psychological insights in order to elicit more truthful responses from taxpayers.
  • Law professor Nora Freeman Engstrom analyzes the failure of the federal program for vaccine-injured children due to a years-long claim process and antagonistic adjudication system.
  • Law professor Robert MacCoun and his co-author call for the use of "blind analysis" in the biological, psychological and social sciences to counteract research bias—meaning that the investigator does not know the results of the research until completing the analysis, thereby making analytic decisions without the risk of confirmation bias.
  • Michelle Mello and David Studdert, professors in both Stanford’s law and medical schools, consider California's controversial new vaccination law as a potential model for other states trying to disallow vaccination exemptions on philosophical and religious grounds.
  • Law professor Deborah Rhode suggests a reform strategy for curbing the obesity epidemic in the United States through campaigns for awareness, taxes on sugary products, enhanced zoning regulations and rules for packaging and advertising.
Michelle Wilde Anderson

Michelle Mello

Vaccination laws


  • Purvesh Khatri, assistant professor of biomedical informatics research, finds a genetic signature that enables early, accurate sepsis diagnosis.
  • A data-mining study by scientists led by Nigam Shah, assistant professor of biomedical informatics, shows some heartburn drugs may boost risk of heart attack.
  • A bacterial community in pregnant women is linked to preterm birth in a study by David Relman, professor of medicine and of microbiology and immunology.
  • Research by psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor Natalie Rasgon shows an insulin-sensitizing drug relieves symptoms of chronic depression in some people.
  • Using high-field MRI technology and staining techniques, scientists led by neuroradiologist Michael Zeineh locate inflamed, iron-contained scavenger cells in a memory-formation structure in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients who died.
  • A hormone that decreases insulin production during starvation has been identified in fruit flies and humans by a team led by developmental biologist Seung Kim, with hopes that the discovery could lead to new treatments for diabetes.
Allison Kurian and Scarlett Gomez

Seung Kim

Insulin-decreasing hormone

Physical Sciences

  • Though scientists do not completely understand what triggers solar flares, physicists Monica Bobra and Sebastien Couvidat have automated the analysis of those gigantic explosions, which could someday provide advance warning to protect power grids and communication satellites.
  • Astronomers, including postdoctoral researcher Kate Follette, observed the birth of a newly found protoplanet 450 lights years away, studying how it collects matter and grows.
solar flares

Predicting solar flares

Social Sciences

  • Understanding the nature of violent conflict in the world's most dangerous flashpoints may help find ways to peace and stability, according to Joe Felter at the Center for International Security and Cooperation.
  • Psychologists Jennifer Eberhardt and Jason Okonofua experimentally examine the psychological processes involved when teachers discipline black students more harshly than white students.
  • When scientists falsify data, they try to cover it up by writing differently in their published works, which has allowed communications professor Jeff Hancock and graduate student David Markowitz to identify these written clues.
  • Researchers led by computer scientist Michal Kosinski find that computers are better judges of personality than friends and family.
Fred Turner video

Joe Felter

The nature of violent conflict