Drell is a physicist who has served on the Stanford faculty since 2002. She is the James and Anna Marie Spilker Professor in the School of Engineering, a professor of materials science and engineering, and a professor of physics. She is the former dean of the Stanford School of Engineering and the former director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford.
Persis S. Drell became provost on February 1, 2017. Soon after, she and President Marc Tessier-Lavigne launched a long-range planning process to develop a path for Stanford’s future. Unveiled in May 2018, the new vision includes initiatives to support the campus community and to advance teaching and research over the next decade and beyond. The initiatives were developed from the thousands of ideas submitted by the campus community, followed by months of discussion and synthesis.
In her role as provost, Drell has focused on a range of key campus issues, including advancing diversity and inclusion; promoting the open exchange of diverse ideas; enhancing support for student communities; expanding support for efforts to eliminate sexual assault and sexual harassment; and providing new avenues for communication between university leadership and the campus community.
Academic and administrative background
Drell received her bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics from Wellesley College in 1977, followed by a PhD in atomic physics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1983. She then switched to high-energy experimental physics and worked as a postdoctoral scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She joined the physics faculty at Cornell University in 1988.
In 2002, Drell joined the Stanford faculty as a professor and director of research at SLAC. In her early years at SLAC, she worked on the construction of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. In 2005, she became SLAC’s deputy director and was named director two years later. She led the 1,600-employee SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory until 2012. Drell is credited with helping broaden the focus of the laboratory, increasing collaborations between SLAC and the main Stanford campus, and overseeing transformational projects.
During Drell’s tenure as director, SLAC transitioned from being a laboratory dedicated primarily to research in high-energy physics to one that is now seen as a leader in a number of scientific disciplines. In 2010, the laboratory began operations of the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS). LCLS is the world’s most powerful X-ray free electron laser, which is revolutionizing study of the atomic and molecular world. LCLS is used to conduct scientific research and drive applications in energy and environmental sciences, drug development, and materials engineering.
After serving as the director of SLAC, Drell returned to the Stanford faculty, focusing her research on technology development for free electron lasers and particle astrophysics. Drell was named the dean of the Stanford School of Engineering in 2014.
As dean of the School of Engineering, Drell catalyzed a collaborative school-wide process, known as the SoE-Future process, to explore the realms of possibility for the future of the School of Engineering and engineering education and research. The process engaged a broad group of stakeholders to ask in what areas the School of Engineering could make significant world-changing impact, and how the school should be configured to address the major opportunities and challenges of the future.
The process resulted in a set of 10 broad aspirational questions to inspire thought on the school’s potential impact in the next 20 years. The process also resulted in a series of actionable recommendations across three areas – research, education, and culture. Drell’s approach to leading change emphasized the importance of creating conditions to optimize the probability of success.
As dean, Drell placed an emphasis on diversity and inclusion. She focused on increasing the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in engineering. She also sought to ensure a welcoming and inclusive environment for students of all backgrounds in the school.
In addition to her administrative responsibilities, Drell teaches a winter-quarter companion course to introductory physics each year for undergraduate students who had limited exposure to the subject in high school.
Drell is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is a fellow of the American Physical Society. She has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award.
Drell is married to SLAC accelerator physicist Jim Welch. They have three children. Drell’s father, the late Sidney Drell, was a celebrated physicist and Stanford professor.