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Letter from the Dean

Letter from the Dean

Stanford engineers have always tackled the biggest challenges, and the past academic year was no exception.
December 17, 2013
Jim Palmer, Dean

Stanford faculty and students blazed new trails in energy, nanotechnology, bioengineering, education and many other fields. That is why we chose New Directions in Engineering as the theme for this report. One new direction involves studies of the brain. Stanford is at the forefront of a national research initiative to reverse engineer the human CPU. As part of this effort, our faculty and students invented a process to render the brain transparent for research purposes, an advance that could transform our understanding of this important organ. Faculty and students have found ways to harness thoughts to control a computer cursor. And they have gained insights into the causes of football concussions with the ultimate the goal of prevention.

In another direction, our researchers are applying the principles and practices of engineering to the molecular machinery of life. One team developed computer-like processes to control DNA in living cells. Another group engineered a skin-like polymer that can sense subtle pressure, conduct electricity and heal itself when cut. A third group studied how sunburn breaks down the lipids that hold together the outermost skin cells.

Designing instruments and tools is a core engineering skill. Our researchers have developed ways to visualize and manipulate materials at the scale of nanotechnology. These tools include an endoscope as thin as a human hair, a probe that can peer inside a cell and optical tweezers that can grasp the smallest bits of matter.

Stepping back to take a global view, Stanford engineers continue to lead the search for new sources of sustainable energy and more efficient ways to decrease energy demand. Three developments stand out: a peel-and-stick solar decal that can be applied to virtually any surface, a solar panel of record-setting thinness and a passive solar technique that cools without air conditioning.

A common thread in everything we do at Stanford Engineering is the pursuit of innovation. That extends to teaching. Our faculty is transforming the learning experience. Our design programs, which predate the “maker” trend in society, have proven enormously popular with students. At the same time, we are offering classes over the Internet, including massive open online courses, or MOOCs, to find better ways to blend classroom instruction and online learning to improve the education of Stanford Engineering students.

On a personal note, I recently announced plans to step down as Dean in the summer of 2014. By then I will have served in this post for 15 years. I plan to return to research and teaching after I take a sabbatical. It has been a privilege to serve with this great faculty, students, staff and alumni community. Let us work together with the next Dean to make Stanford Engineering an even better place to educate the students who will change the world.