Humans of Stanford

a photographic census of the farm

A collaborative dance film between jazz singer/pianist Tyler Brooks (junior) and dancer Amelia Chen (freshman), entitled “Looking for a Villain”. Filmed by The Red Couch Project in the d.school.

  • Posted 6 months ago
  • October 24th, 2013

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Dropping in Sattely Lab @ Stanford

The last time I stepped into a Chemistry laboratory had been in high school, way back when I was 16 and still had most parts of the periodic table in my head. As Russ handed me transparent goggles and opened the door into the Sattely laboratory a familiar tableau came back into view: rows after rows of flasks, vials, pipettes, cylinders lined up in chaotic order, the gentle whirring of the centrifuge in the background, the strange air that confuses my olfactory receptors. Except this isn’t quite your ordinary chemistry laboratory. Here chemists double up as botanists, and part of their job is to make sure that the rack of arabidopsis are happy, light-drenched and well-watered. These plants are, after all, the chemists’ co-workers; while bespectacled researchers meticulous pipette away, they are prolifically and effortlessly harvesting CO2 to produce complex compounds that hold the secrets to human health.

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"Plants are the best chemists around here," said Andrew, a sprightly graduate student working in the lab, "they produce all the compounds we’re only trying to reverse engineer." There are more than 200,000 known independent compounds in plants (compared a couple thousands in human beings), and they hold the ingredients that help reduce incidence of obesity, cardio-vascular and cancer risks. So mommy’s right, after all. Apart from using science to support claims of certain eastern medicine benefits, or that veggies are good for you, they are asking hugely important questions that can transform the field of preventative health: how did plants produce such beneficial molecules? (In chem-jargon, that means figuring out the biosynthetic pathways - steps that plants take to produce compounds that are beneficial to health.) And what makes our body capable of absorbing these compounds?

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Chemical engineers have made great progress understanding how plants produce compounds ranging from human therapeutics to the building blocks of energy-rich lignocelluosic biomass. Drawing expertise from fields like chemistry, enzymology, genetics and metabolomics, chemical engineers have found new methods for engineering useful compounds plants produce. “Chemical engineers now have the ability to produce morphine and codeine in the labs,” Andrew remarked, “and so many other substances for which the synthetic pathways can be known”. In the future, morphine will come from laboratories rather than poppy fields. That, of course, comes with a whole baggage of ethical concerns - now what if it becomes incredibly cheap and easy to synthesize morphine and cocaine (Afghan opium lords might find it profitable to start learning organic chemistry, lol)?

The real debate lies more with genetically modified or engineered food - there is still a general aversion towards anything that is “engineered” rather than produced “naturally”, plus the costs and benefits of consuming chemically engineered compounds or genetically modified food aren’t a matter of simple calculation. As Andrew points out, “It has a lot to do with people’s cultural orientation, how receptive they are to such new technological processes, and part of this has to do with how much people know about these processes. Perhaps the more informed they are, the less paranoid they might be.”

Much of ongoing research at the labs in Y2E2 has been dedicated to figuring out metabolic pathways, genetic and regulatory processes within cells so that they may be optimized for a better yield. While controversial because of the use of genetic engineering techniques, the upside of applying metabolic engineering is tantalizing. As plants find it harder to adopt to the changing climates, figuring ways of producing beneficial compounds more efficiently will be increasingly important.

Beyond the search for biosynthetic pathways, scientists are also looking into what makes our body absorb compounds better. As it turns out, our bodies rely on a class of bacteria to break down beneficial compounds into absorbable constituents, and figuring out which bacteria are needed to improve uptake is key to making preventative treatment and medication work better. All these require a ton of bioengineering and much more research to understand interactions between bacteria in our guts and complex compounds.

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"And," as Russ said, "we’re only beginning to understand." Many puzzles remain to be solved, and picking the locks to better health and longevity is no mean feat (try being a chemical engineering major and you’ll see what I mean). Props to the peeps at Sattely lab for doing much of the heavy-lifting, and for lending scientific credence to mothers all around the world forcing broccoli down children’s throats. Their moms would be proud.

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Thanks to Russ Li and Andrew Klein for being super fun to hang out with, and for showing me all the fascinating research that’s ongoing beneath the quiet facades of Y2E2. 

Students advocate for Palestinians at White Plaza on Israeli independence day. “We are here to provide an alternative narrative.”

Students advocate for Palestinians at White Plaza on Israeli independence day. “We are here to provide an alternative narrative.”

  • Posted 1 year ago
  • April 17th, 2013

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Richard Kiy (Stanford class of 1984), President & CEO of the San Diego based International Community Foundation, a public foundation dedicated to expanding charitable giving internationally to Mexico and Latin America. “Borders has been the theme of my life.” A passionate advocate for the health and well-being of immigrants in the San Diego community, he now helps others cross borders - both imaginary and real. 

Richard Kiy (Stanford class of 1984), President & CEO of the San Diego based International Community Foundation, a public foundation dedicated to expanding charitable giving internationally to Mexico and Latin America. “Borders has been the theme of my life.” A passionate advocate for the health and well-being of immigrants in the San Diego community, he now helps others cross borders - both imaginary and real. 

  • Posted 1 year ago
  • April 12th, 2013

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THE STANFORD BAND RUN happening right now, headed for the West campus. Go catch’em!

THE STANFORD BAND RUN happening right now, headed for the West campus. Go catch’em!

  • Posted 1 year ago
  • April 4th, 2013

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"Schoenberg said it’s still possible to write music in C major, and that’s coming from Mister Experimental himself. That strikes a chord in me; I think with the novel, at a certain point you realize it’s still possible to write in C major and have some kind of narrative content. And meaningful characters that readers can, you know it’s an old-fashioned term, but people can fall in love with the characters and become caught up in their lives. If you don’t have that, you cease to have te kind of novel that can be compelling.” - Jeffrey Eugenides, who came visiting his alma mater with a story to tell.

"Schoenberg said it’s still possible to write music in C major, and that’s coming from Mister Experimental himself. That strikes a chord in me; I think with the novel, at a certain point you realize it’s still possible to write in C major and have some kind of narrative content. And meaningful characters that readers can, you know it’s an old-fashioned term, but people can fall in love with the characters and become caught up in their lives. If you don’t have that, you cease to have te kind of novel that can be compelling.” - Jeffrey Eugenides, who came visiting his alma mater with a story to tell.

  • Posted 1 year ago
  • April 1st, 2013

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The Fantastic Four from Stanford Wushu. Synonymous with speed, strength, gusto. Level 100 awesome.

The Fantastic Four from Stanford Wushu. Synonymous with speed, strength, gusto. Level 100 awesome.

  • Posted 1 year ago
  • April 1st, 2013

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Stanford’s Wing Chun Club - their effeminate appearance lie; don’t pick a fight with them!

Stanford’s Wing Chun Club - their effeminate appearance lie; don’t pick a fight with them!

  • Posted 1 year ago
  • March 10th, 2013

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