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From Zero to 100 in Seven Years
Donors have partnered with the president to reach a goal for Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowships
Many of the world's biggest problems are so complex that no single field of study has the answers. As up-and-coming researchers, graduate students are crucial to finding solutions—yet in order to qualify for funding, they usually tie their research to a specific professor, department, or grant. When problem-solving cuts across disciplines, students run into walls.
In 2008, Stanford President John Hennessy announced a new way forward: the Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowships (SIGF) program. Now that initiative has reached its goal, with more than 60 donors having stepped forward to reach the target of raising 100 interdisciplinary fellowships. These gifts free graduate students to pursue research interests across boundaries, with the added benefit of reducing dependence on federal research grants.
"The SIGF program has created a new model for interdisciplinary graduate study at Stanford," says Hennessy. "By focusing the funding on individual PhD students whose work combines disciplines—rather than on departments, schools, or projects—we have empowered them to explore whole new fields of study."
The program was launched with generous early support from Board of Trustees member Angela, '93, and David Filo, '90. Their gift provided critical matching funds and served as an inspiration and important catalyst for dozens of additional donors to support the campaign. Ultimately the Filos were joined by 65 donors to make President Hennessy's vision for SIGFs a reality (see list of funds below).
"It's been a privilege to help advance the work that graduate students are doing through the SIGF program," says Angela. "We were honored to join President Hennessy in getting the program off the ground, and have been inspired to see the way the fellows are pushing the boundaries of their disciplines and working to solve complex problems."
The concept of flexible funding for PhD students started with the Stanford Graduate Fellowships in Science and Engineering (SGFs), launched in 1997. That program set Stanford apart from its peers, enabling students to pursue coursework and research in multiple fields in the sciences and engineering. The prestige of the fellowships attracted talented students from around the world.
The SIGF program brought this commitment to the next level, selecting outstanding doctoral students whose interests led them to work across all disciplines, including the social sciences, business, education, law, and the arts and humanities.
While government funding is critical to innovation, it is not predictable, stable, or sufficient. Budget deficits and shifting priorities can have a real impact on the flow of funds—and the greatest impact is often felt by graduate students, who rely on steady funding to complete their dissertations and degrees. Even when federal support is available, and more so when it is scarce, agencies often favor traditional disciplines; unconventional work that blends different fields can be considered too risky to be funded.
SIGFs remove those limitations by allowing doctoral students the autonomy to do research with mentors in several different disciplines, bringing together ideas and advisors in creative ways.
The focus on interdisciplinary work became a hallmark of The Stanford Challenge. Launched in 2006, this university-wide campaign focused on finding solutions to a wide range of real-world problems. SIGFs were a key part of this strategy and continued to be a top priority after the campaign's conclusion.
"We are thrilled to support cutting-edge research, and it's wonderful to have the opportunity to engage with the graduate students and learn about their projects," says Bridget Barket, '91, who established an SIGF with her husband, Tom, '91. The Connecticut couple created the Thomas A. and Bridget R. Barket Graduate Fellowship in 2015 for students focusing on neuroscience-related fields.
Since the SIGF program launched in 2008, the university has received 1,163 applications from students in 59 departments in all 7 schools. Thus far, 142 fellowships have been awarded, and 63 students have already completed their PhDs, obtaining prominent positions in academia and industry, in the United States and around the world.
SIGFs are affiliated with innovative institutes such as Stanford Bio-X, which focuses on the interdisciplinary biosciences in benefit of human health, as well as the Stanford Neurosciences Institute and ChEM-H, a new institute that is leveraging chemistry, engineering, and medicine to improve human health. Some fellowships are affiliated with the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy. Other SIGFs are focused on problems in education, law, and the humanities.
The types of graduate students supported by SIGFs are highly motivated by complex questions. "SIGFs are intellectual pioneers," says program director Patricia J. Gumport, the vice provost for graduate education and professor of education. "The fellowship provides a passport to cross disciplinary boundaries, and the fellows are leading us to entirely new lines of inquiry and fields of study in uncharted terrain. They also serve as magnets for faculty and inspire their peers, and they are catalysts for new collaborations that are transforming how we work in universities."
Community of Students
For those students who have been awarded an SIGF, the benefits are more than financial. Students become part of a community of interdisciplinary scholars working to create successful cross-disciplinary collaboration. They participate in SIGF events that foster connections with other PhD candidates and faculty from across all seven schools.
René Kizilcec, MS '15, PhD '17, is doing research into online learning and potential interventions to help narrow gaps in academic achievement. For him, that has meant bridging four different fields.
"I work with people in psychology, computer science, education, and communication," he says. "The SIGF provides a framework for collaboration, by really encouraging it and supporting it."
SIGF alumni have entered leadership roles in academia, NGOs, and industry. For example, Viviana Gradinaru completed her PhD in 2010 as the Stanford Bio-X Colella Family Fellow. As a doctoral student she played an instrumental role in the development of optogenetics, a technique that enables neuroscience researchers to control brain structures using light. Today, she runs her own lab as an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology, exploring new approaches to Parkinson's and depression.
"The SIGF program gave me the unique opportunity to be co-mentored by two outstanding scientists: Karl Deisseroth in bioengineering and psychiatry, and Jaimie Henderson in neurosurgery," Gradinaru says. "Only by learning from both could I cross boundaries and advance my research."
We gratefully acknowledge the alumni and friends who established the following named funds, as well as those who have asked to remain anonymous. Matching funds from Angela and David Filo were critical to launching the program and helping the university reach its target of 100 fellowship funds.
The Rosenberg Ach Family Fellowship Fund
The Affymetrix Bio-X Fellowship Fund
Affymetrix–Paul Berg Bio-X Interdisciplinary Biomedical Graduate Fellowship
Affymetrix–Lubert Stryer Bio-X Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship
The Felix and Heather Baker Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Matthew and Janice Barger Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Thomas A. and Bridget R. Barket Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Robert and Lisa Bertelson Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Mona M. Burgess Fellowship Fund
The City Hill Foundation Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Colella Family Fellowship Fund
The Michelle and Kevin Douglas Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Coleman F. Fung Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Geballe Graduate Fellowship Fund
The John Evans Gessford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund in K-12 Education
The Richard and Dixie Grossman Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Gustavus and Louise Pfeiffer Research Foundation Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Hamamoto Family Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Gordon Hatogensis and Grace Chao Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Hsieh Family Fellowship Fund
The Leslie Parker Hume Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Illich-Sadowsky Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Jacobsson Family Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Marvin A. Karasek Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Karr Family Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Lavidge and McKinley Interdisciplinary Fellowship Fund
The MacKenzie Larson Price Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Mirror Spring SIGF Fund
The Morgridge Family SIGF Fund
The Naidu Family Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Thomas C. Nelson Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Neukermans Family Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Pierce Family Goldman Sachs Fellowship Fund
The Jim and Gaye Pigott Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Popa Family Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Ruth M. Porat and Anthony Paduano Graduate Fellowship Fund
The William and Eva Price Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Seth A. Ritch Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Rogers Family Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Jack and Anita Saltz Fellowship Fund
The Satre Family Fellowship Fund
The Schroeder Family Goldman Sachs Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Donna Schweers and Thomas Geiser Fellowship Fund
The Shaper Family Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Christiana Shi Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship in International Studies
The William and Lynda Steere Fellowship Fund
The Mark & Mary Stevens Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund I
The Mark & Mary Stevens Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund II
The Rich and Sue Sugden Family Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Tchang and Mo Family Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Tusher Family Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Weisberg/Feng Graduate Fellowship Fund
The Yu-Ly Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship Fund