The David B. Abernethy Emeriti/ae Lecture Series: Autobiographical Reflections features distinguished senior faculty members speaking about their lives, careers, and inspirations. Speakers reflect a wide range of teaching and research fields at Stanford, including the arts, humanities, social sciences, education, business, law, engineering, sciences, and medicine.
William Durham: Surprising Implications of Evolution
On April 20, with an introduction by Professor Emeritus David Abernethy, Professor Emeritus William
Durham presented a lively Abernethy Autobiographical Reflections lecture to Emeriti/ae at the Stanford
Faculty Club. Durham’s lecture highlighted three widely distinct aspects of evolution from the biological,
to the cultural, to the personal.
First, stemming from the blue-footed booby photo of Professor Emeritus Lubert Stryer’s recent
Abernethy lecture, Durham considered the origin of the iconic Blue-footed Boobies of Galapagos. Here
opportunistic mating and the elevated importance of blue feet evolved to an essential reproductive
strategy in both female and male blue-footed boobies. The seasonal shift in blue-footed booby foot
color to aqua is dependent on dietary carotenoids from sardines (in turn from phytoplankton) and
correlates with their ocular spectral sensitivity range and with cold mineral-rich marine upwellings
nearby. The foot-color shift to “sardine blue” points to a Galapagos origin for the species, counter to
orthodoxy in the field.
In the second, surprising example, Durham discussed a classic cultural anthropological study of the
Thongpa, a group of tax-paying serfs in traditional Tibet and Tibetan-speaking Nepal. Cultural
inheritance in this society resulted in an exceptional diversity of marriage practices tightly managed by
parents with the long-term goal of uniting all legal heirs of each generation into a single marriage with
inheritance, thus to hold on to the essential land. This cultural practice was maintained in the context of
extreme climate, low primary production in the steep agricultural valleys, and financial tolls exacted by
the local manorial landlords. Thongpa emigrants to India do not continue those diverse marriage
practices. There were clear adaptive advantages to the practice in the homeland, yet it’s a product of
cultural evolution—an important correction, says Durham, to the claims of sociobiology.
In keeping with the theme of Autobiographical Reflections, in his final example Durham credited his
childhood interest in finding fossils, from brachiopods to trilobites, during limestone treasure hunts near
his home in Northern Ohio. In his personal “evolution,” the enduring question remains: what are the
origins of the diversity of life?
Lubert Stryer: Light and Life
On Feb. 16, 2022, Lubert Stryer, the Winzer Professor of Cell Biology, Emeritus, delivered a lecture entitled “Light and Life.” Born in China in 1938, he shared memories of his childhood in Shanghai during WWII. US visas for his family came through a few months before Shanghai was taken over by Mao. After high school in New York, he graduated at the age of 19 from the University of Chicago, where he met his wife, Andrea. After receiving his MD at Harvard, he devoted himself to basic science research. As a postdoctoral fellow, he studied physics before going to the Medical Research Council in England. His mentors included Elkan Blout, Edward Purcell, and John Kendrew. In 1963, Dr. Stryer was recruited to the Biochemistry Department at Stanford as an assistant professor. in 1969 he was recruited to Yale as Professor of Molecular Physics and Biochemistry. He returned to Stanford in 1976 to serve as the founding chair of the new Structural Biology Department.
Long fascinated by “the interplay of light and life,” Stryer pioneered the application of fluorescence spectroscopy to explore the dynamics of biological macromolecules. Stryer and Haugland established that the efficiency of energy transfer is dependent on the inverse 6th power of the distance between two light absorbing groups, the donor and acceptor molecule. This led to the realization that energy transfer can be employed as a “spectroscopic ruler” as cited in over 12,000 scientific papers by now.
As a second theme of his reflections, Stryer focused on how light acts on photoreceptor cells to trigger a signaling pathway to initiate vision. Here he described the distinct lines of evidence converging to lead to his discovery of an amplifying protein. This protein in rods allows for incredible sensitivity to light and underlies how a single photon can trigger the activation of a neuron. This story is told in a way that the sequence of gaps and discoveries is revealed. Stryer shared a sense of gratitude for a rewarding life of research and teaching, and for the rich, collaborative environment at Stanford.
Throughout his life, and in appreciation of Life, Stryer is captivated by visual imagery and color. Retiring at the age of 65, though still mentoring students and younger colleagues, the “gift of time” is allowing new explorations in international travel with Andrea, and in art through his nature photography. His lecture was capped by a handful of stunning photographs, including gorgeous examples of color in the natural world.
Jerry Harris: My Mississippi
In a lecture on Nov. 17, 2021, Jerry Harris, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Geophysics, Emeritus, speaks about “My Mississippi,” his meandering path through segregation, opportunity, despair, and hope. He briefly discusses his research on novel applications of seismic waves for characterizing and monitoring subsurface resources such as oil and gas as well as in carbon sequestration. Focusing primarily on his youth, Harris tells a vivid and compelling personal story of growing up on a farm in rural Mississippi, one of 11 children, attending a “separate but unequal” two-room primary school, and being the only Black student in a white high school, where he experienced episodes of hostility, exclusion, and inequitable treatment from teachers and fellow students. Attending “Ole Miss” (the University of Mississippi) a few years after it was integrated by James Meredith under National Guard enforcement, he and other Black students organized equal rights protests, one of which caused them to be arrested and expelled, though his expulsion was “suspended” and he was able to graduate with an engineering degree. Noting that Jim Crow laws, freedom marches along local highways, and Ku Klux Klan terrorism were ever-present throughout his young life in Mississippi in the 1950s, Harris stresses that the opportunities he also experienced were possible only through integration and Federal law. After working in the petroleum industry and obtaining a PhD at California Institute of Technology, he joined the Stanford faculty in 1988. In addition to teaching and research, Harris was a founding member of the Earth School’s Office of Multicultural Affairs. He describes the creation and funding of the award-winning SURGE program (Summer Undergraduate Research in Geoscience and Engineering) to increase the pipeline of minority and women students into graduate studies at Stanford and elsewhere, with the goal of creating a broad “intercultural” experience.
Milbrey McLaughlin: Context and the Power of Opportunities
Milbrey McLauglin, the David Jacks Professor of Education and Public Policy at Stanford University, Emerita, spoke to an emeriti/ae audience on April 22, 2021. She traced her life trajectory through college and an “awakening” of sorts in Kansas City, Missouri, to policy analysis at the RAND Corporation focused on disadvantaged youth, and quite “unintentionally” to a faculty position at Stanford where she was the founding director of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities. Professor McLaughlin discussed several themes in her work helping to identify policies that can improve outcomes for vulnerable urban youth, including “mutual adaptation” by local educators and careful attention to the settings and contexts of both teachers and students. She highlighted the power of well-designed extra-curricular opportunities such as the CYCLE program in Chicago, that allowed youth to overcome hostile conditions in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing project and embark on positive life paths.
Eve Vivienne Clark: From French Literature to First Language Acquisition
Eve Vivienne Clark, Richard W. Lyman Professor in the Humanities and Professor Emerita of Linguistics presented a lecture via Zoom on Feb. 17, 2021 entitled “From French Literature to First Language Acquisition.” She discussed her early life and her education in France and Edinburgh, advice along the way from important mentors, and joining Stanford’s Department of Linguistics in 1974. She shared vivid examples of her extensive research on how children acquire language, the development of principles in language acquisition and use, and how new words are coined by children and adults. Clark described sabbaticals and summers doing research, teaching, and sailing in The Netherlands and multiple other European countries along with her husband, Stanford Psychology Professor Herbert Clark. She expressed gratitude for Stanford’s supportive environment and answered audience questions about her research and what it was like to be one of very few women faculty members and part of a rare couple with two faculty appointments at Stanford beginning in the 1970s.
Jim Gibbons: Tutored Video Instruction, Before and After Zoom
James Gibbons, Stanford Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, spoke in the Abernethy Emeriti/ae Lecture Series. In his talk he traces the origins and uses of the Tutored Video Instruction (TVI) process, which he developed in 1972 while serving on President Nixon’s Science Advisory Council. Originally designed to teach Stanford electrical engineering graduate courses to Silicon Valley engineers at off-campus locations, Gibbons outlines the positive learning outcomes achieved through TVI and DTVI (Distributed TVI) as well as the elements contributing to that success, including the importance of tutor selection and training. He describes subsequent uses of TVI in very different settings: teaching computer literacy to children of migrant farm workers and teaching emotional skills to youth in a variety of school and juvenile justice settings across the country. Gibbons mentions that the TVI methodology was also used in a Stanford poetry course and adopted by faculty at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara.