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Students in a Human Biology class

A lecture in the Human Biology core series, circa 1973. Stanford's most popular major won new support during The Stanford Challenge. PHOTO: Jose Mercado /Stanford News Service

40 Years of HumBio

Spring 2012

HumBio 40th anniversary birthday cakeThe wild three-tiered birthday cake said it all: Decorated with cell organelles, primates swinging from jungle trees, dairy farmers, and Charles Darwin, the confection composed a biological, social, and behavioral perspective on the human experience. The honoree was the Human Biology Program, offering one of the first interdisciplinary degrees at Stanford, which celebrated its 40th birthday in 2011 in the same unconventional style in which it was launched.

"HumBio" graduated its first class in 1971. Having broken away from academic divisions dating back to Aristotle, the program offered a new approach to learning not only about the human body, but also about larger issues related to the human condition. Majors take a rigorous "core" course sequence, then team up with advisors to focus on issues of their choosing, from obesity in America to conservation biology.

As the single most popular major at Stanford, HumBio drew more than 400 students, alumni, friends, and faculty to mark the birthday milestone. That included thanking early donors who "saved the program from infant mortality," according to Carol Boggs, the Bing Director of Human Biology and the Stanford Friends University Fellow in Undergraduate Education.

During The Stanford Challenge, a wide range of supporters gave to the program. Three gifts provide examples of how the campaign sustained one of Stanford's most celebrated academic experiences.

Richard Hoffman, '71

A perfect match for public health

The Human Biology Program was just taking flight when Richard Hoffman, '71, MD/MPH, earned his Stanford diploma in biology—the traditional kind. Hoffman intended to be a physician, but after medical school and his internship, he joined the U.S. Public Health Service. Through a chance assignment as head of infection control in tiny Saguache, Colorado, he discovered the medical detective work of epidemiology. The experience launched his 35-year career in public health.

Hoffman has provided $1.5 million to endow an introductory course in epidemiology so current HumBio students can be exposed to the field much earlier in their educations.

"I thought Stanford should offer undergraduates an introduction to public health and epidemiology, but that was missing from the curriculum," says Hoffman, who met his wife, Molly Bush- Hoffman, at the Colorado Department of Public Health. Effective public health programs by definition tend to be invisible to the public, he explains. These are the unseen efforts that keep outbreaks of measles, polio, and pertussis at bay. As a result, the field is often misunderstood or overlooked. With the class, he aims to change that.

In 2009, Hoffman proposed funding a pilot class and found an enthusiastic recipient in HumBio. "The 'demi' part of epidemiology is people, it's humans," he says. "So it's a perfect match for the Human Biology Program." After three years of positive reviews and high enrollment for the pilot HUMBIO 151: Introduction to Epidemiology, he established the endowment last year.

"We couldn't maintain this course without the endowment," says Boggs. "It also gives us the flexibility to really make it into an interesting course. We've had a number of students decide they want to go on to get an MPH degree as a result of this course." Hoffman says the aging public health workforce will also benefit from recruiting the promising minds of "the greatest university in the world."

Wende Hutton and Tom Hutton

Unrestricted funding, unlimited horizons

The rigors of HumBio don't just sharpen minds, they also forge lifelong friendships, says Wende Hutton, '81. Over Reunion Homecoming Weekend, her houseguests were her HumBio study partners from three decades prior.

"What makes Human Bio so special is the core with that faculty group and the bonding that occurs," she says. "It becomes an intellectual way of thinking... looking at all facets of a process, considering the psycho, social, cultural aspects, not just the purely scientific side."

Wende and husband Tom Hutton, '77, MS '78 (Parents '14), included $125,000 for the Human Biology Program in the gifts they made in honor of their 30th and 35th reunions. The funds are unrestricted, one of the strongest votes of confidence philanthropists can make.

Director Carol Boggs says the fluidity of the Huttons' gift "gives us the opportunity to think broadly." Their support could fund field trips associated with the core, or a coordinator position to help students leverage the internship required in the major.

Wende, who fondly recalls her classes with many of the HumBio greats—professors Hastorf, Dornbusch, Durham, and Kennedy—says she hopes the gift can buoy the program and attract the next wave of leaders.

(The Huttons also provided $170,000 for the Product Realization Lab—where Tom was one of the first to build a bicycle from scratch—and $125,000 to support an expendable Stanford Fund Scholarship.)

To remember those formative college years, the Huttons need look no further than their children, Cam, a Stanford sophomore, and Rachel, who graduates from high school next year. Looking back on her own undergraduate degree, Wende says HumBio was a foundation of her job as a biotechnology venture capitalist. Although she later earned an MBA from Harvard, she calls HumBio "the most outstanding academic experience I ever had."

Jeannette and Grant Heidrich

'Lifetime human biologist'

Philanthropy came into vivid relief for Grant Heidrich, '74, years ago as he stepped off a plane in Tanzania and eventually boarded a water taxi bound for the Gombe Stream Research Center. As a Stanford senior and human biology major, he was about to spend eight months as a field research assistant for Dr. Jane Goodall through a program underwritten by donors.

Decades later, he calls the experience transformational and says it motivated him and wife Jeannette, '73, MBA '75, to act in kind. "Our aspiration was to make those kinds of analogous opportunities available to young students."

They began in the 1980s with an endowed gift to provide grants to undergraduate students from departments all over campus to pursue individual research projects, periodically hosting dinners for the students in their Woodside, Calif., home. Learning about the student projects over the years has been a delight, but Grant and Jeannette say they are especially keen to promote research by HumBio majors.

At the program's 40th anniversary, the Heidrichs decided the time was ripe. They had previously established a charitable remainder trust at Stanford, and recently designated a portion to benefit the Human Biology Program, a gift that has earned matching funds from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

"Getting permanent funding is really critical. Those kinds of gifts allow programs to take a different level of risk in their evolution and development," Grant says.

The hope is that more HumBio students will adopt the program’s distinctly interdisciplinary approach—a skill that may serve them long after graduation.

"I consider myself a lifetime human biologist," says Grant. From the books on his bed stand to his career in venture capital for biopharmaceuticals and medical devices, "it's tightly woven into what I do every day."

He likens the skills acquired through HumBio to those of a symphony conductor. "You don't have to be first violin. You don't have to write the music. But you have got to able to understand what it means, to listen to it, and balance it altogether so that it works effectively," he says. "That's really one of the great gifts of Human Biology."