Interdisciplinary approach helps graduate fellows tackle social, environmental issues

Cecilia Mo, a doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Business, is research
Cecilia Mo, a doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Business, is researching child trafficking in Nepal. With the help of a Nepalese team, she interviewed 1,000 families in rural Nepal.

From human trafficking to endangered coral reefs: Graduate fellows take interdisciplinary approach to solving social and environmental issues

The Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship program has become one of the top priorities for The Stanford Challenge, which hopes to establish a $100 million endowment to support the cutting-edge research of 100 rising scholars.


To interview farmers in Nepal, Cecilia Mo traveled along roads carved into the sides of mountains and often walked for hours to get from one terraced field to another.

Hoping to uncover the factors that make children in some villages more vulnerable to human trafficking than children in neighboring villages, Mo, a doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Business , interviewed more than 1,000 families in rural Nepal for the fieldwork phase of her studies.

The families invited Mo into their homes, often welcoming her with dudh chia – spicy black tea made with milk instead of water – and patiently answered more than 100 questions. During one interview inside a mud-and-wood farmhouse, she sat next to the family’s most valued asset – a large draft bullock.

"Because of the value of their bullock – a young bull with curved horns used in plowing fields – it was kept in the home," said Mo, who chose winter to visit 32 villages south of Kathmandu Valley because farmers would have more time to talk.

For Jamie Fleischfresser Dunckley, fieldwork required a wet suit, an aluminum scuba tank, a human "dive buddy" and a 3-foot-tall instrument – its delicate glass sensors protected from curious sea creatures by a metal cage – known as a SCAMP.

Dunckley, a doctoral candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering , sat on the ocean floor in a coral reef in the Florida Keys, patiently releasing and retrieving – and releasing and retrieving – the "Self-Contained Autonomous Microstructure Profiler," hoping to better understand how corals obtain nutrients.

"The fish forgot I was there," she said. "An angel fish came by almost every day to circle above me and eat my bubbles. An eel swam across my lap. Dolphins came through. One day a goliath grouper – a 300-pound fish – took an interest in SCAMP and started following it up. The sensors would cost $3,000 each to replace if he bit them. I was silently pleading – please don’t touch it, please don’t touch it. Luckily, the grouper lost interest as SCAMP got closer to the surface."

An ’exceptional place’ to do interdisciplinary research

Mo and Dunckley are among the 41 doctoral students whose research is supported by Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowships (SIGF). Students compete for the three-year fellowships, which enable rising scholars to move freely across traditional academic boundaries to pursue vital and cutting-edge research questions and collaborate with faculty in different departments.

"Over the last three years, we have received close to 500 applications from students enrolled in doctoral programs in 50 different departments and all seven schools," said Patricia Gumport, vice provost for graduate education at Stanford. "The competition for the fellowships has been fierce."

She said Stanford is a uniquely ideal university to pursue interdisciplinary research given the close proximity of all seven schools on campus and the vibrancy of the graduate community. Also, more than half of the university’s 8,700 graduate students live on campus.

Stanford’s focus on interdisciplinary initiatives has solidified the culture as a highly collaborative research community.

"Students can talk to faculty in any school and take courses throughout the university," Gumport said. "When it comes to interdisciplinary work, these fellows are a key to sustaining this culture among students, in addition to serving as intellectual magnets for faculty from very different disciplines."

Mo, for instance, took courses in political science and economics, sat in on education and sociology classes, attended psychology seminars, joined Stanford’s Political Psychology Research Group and took a course in survey research methods taught by the Department of Communication.

"I wanted to learn how to do research in a really rigorous way, but about something I really cared about," Mo said. "When you approach your research with a problem like human trafficking vulnerability, you quickly realize that analytical tools and modeling techniques from one field are not enough. You don’t want to be constrained to one discipline when thinking about a problem that doesn’t fit neatly into one discipline. That’s why the interdisciplinary fellowship made a lot of sense for me."

The program has become one of the top priorities for The Stanford Challenge , a five-year fundraising campaign now in its final year. Stanford hopes to establish a $100 million endowment for the fellowship program. When President John Hennessy unveiled the program in 2007, he announced that an anonymous donor had pledged $25 million in matching funs to support the fellowships. The first cohort of fellows was chosen in 2008.

Stanford matches gifts of $500,000 to create an endowed fund of $1 million, which typically generates enough money to support one student for one year.

Some of the Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowships bear the names of donors: Remy Durand, bioengineering, and Limor Bursztyn, electrical engineering, are Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Fellows; Rachelle Gould, Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, is the James and Nancy Kelso Fellow; and Aaron Wenger, computer science, is the Morgridge Family Fellow.

Profiles of current fellows show they are conducting research on a wide array of issues, including restoring native forests in Hawaii; designing new ways to teach kids science, engineering and math; reducing diarrheal and respiratory diseases in Tanzania; and exploring the link between voltage-gated sodium channels – proteins found in nerve and muscle cells – and pain.

In a Stanford Challenge video , Melinda Cromie, mechanical engineering, describes her research on human muscle sarcomeres – the tiniest contractile elements of the skeletal muscle. She is studying how sarcomeres contract and extend – insights that will help guide treatment of motor control diseases, such as cerebral palsy.

Human traffickers use subtle psychological ploys

What would motivate parents in rural Nepal to agree or even offer to send a 9-year-old child abroad, often to India, to work in a factory or as a domestic servant, given the possibility that the child could fall into the hands of traffickers?

It’s a sobering question, but one that must be answered in order to better understand what makes some parents succumb to the wiles of human traffickers – and ultimately, to protect children from such tragic fates, said doctoral candidate Cecilia Mo, who won an SIGF fellowship in 2009.

Mo traced her interest in fighting child trafficking to the summer she spent working as an intern at an international human rights organization in Nepal, where she met women who had been enslaved as children by traffickers, cast aside when they contracted AIDS and ostracized by their villages when they returned home.

"It was tragedy layered upon tragedy layered upon tragedy," she said. "I was left with the question: Why does trafficking even happen?"

It was a question that eventually led Mo back to Nepal to conduct a survey of families living in two adjoining districts in its central region, including one district that shared a border with India. It took an hour to administer each survey – responses were written down on each form – a feat she accomplished with the help of a translator and a team of Nepalese assistants.

"I have three large suitcases full of completed surveys sitting in my office," Mo said. "Because they were so heavy, I had them ’exported’ to the United States. I picked them up at the Cathay Pacific Cargo office at San Francisco International Airport."

Her preliminary research suggests that families living in areas with wide income disparities would be more likely to choose labor opportunities that have higher risks of exploitation for themselves and their children than families living in areas where everyone is equally poor. That confirmed one of her early hypotheses – that relative poverty, not absolute poverty, was a key factor.

"If you compare a map of trafficking incidents with a map of poverty in Nepal, you will see very little overlap," Mo said. "If you compare a map of trafficking incidents with a map of inequality levels, you will see a much closer relationship. That empirical regularity led me to ask: Why would that be?"

Mo said one psychological ploy traffickers use when talking to parents is to point out how much more other families in their community have – more cows, for instance – hoping to manipulate them into wanting such things for themselves.

If a trafficker emphasizes a family’s relative poverty, the parents are more likely to take large economic risks to improve their economic situation, such as sending a child abroad, or going abroad themselves to provide money for the family, Mo said.

"However, if a family feels relatively well off, even if they’re not rich, they will be more cautious with such job opportunities and take fewer risks," she said.

Mo said her research illustrates the limitations of current campaigns designed to thwart trafficking in Nepal – billboards, radio shows, pamphlets – that emphasize the dangers of accepting jobs abroad, since such subtle psychological ploys could lead families to take more risks.

She is drawing on "prospect theory" for insights into their decision-making. The theory, which integrates psychological research into economic theory, allows researchers to describe how people manage risk and uncertainty.

"There are many people willing to devote time and resources into solving the problem of child trafficking, but it’s not clear where those resources should go," Mo said. "What can you tug at to address some of the problems? It’s with that frame of mind I’m trying to think through my research questions. Where should we be devoting our money and time – on immense absolute poverty, on income inequality or gender inequality? What are the issues at play? What programs make the most sense? This is a research agenda I want to keep exploring as an academic."

Coral reefs – teeming with life, threatened with extinction

In designing her dissertation research project, Jamie Dunckley decided it had to include three components: the ocean, mathematics and helping the world.

Dunckley, who won an SIGF fellowship in 2009, attributed her interest in the sea to growing up on Bainbridge Island, west of Seattle, in a family that loved sailing and camping. Mathematics? She doesn’t remember a time when she didn’t love it. Helping the world? Dunckley, who earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering from MIT, said that goal is the "big driver" behind all of her studies.

So she turned her attention to coral reefs, which support 25 percent of ocean life, from the tiny clown fish immortalized in Finding Nemo to the mammoth grouper that visited Dunckley during a 2009 research dive in the Florida Keys.

Her research project is focused on the hydrodynamics of coral reefs, which she admiringly described as "stationary, super-efficient mixing machines."

In this Stanford Challenge video , Dunckley presented a demonstration of ’mixing’ over coral reefs, by releasing blue dye in the water column over a makeshift coral reef in a 40-foot-long flume tank. The glass-and-steel tank is located in the Environmental Fluid Mechanics Lab in the Wells Family Laboratory Suite of the Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building – Y2E2.

"What we’re trying to quantify is how much corals ’mix’ the ocean waters flowing above them," she said, adding that the shapes of corals – stars, horns and pillars, fans, whips and rods – contribute to the interplay between water and reef.

"How does that mixing influence the ability of corals to get the nutrients they need from the water column?"

As the surface temperature and the acidity of the ocean increase from climate change, coral reefs – already threatened with extinction from overfishing, coastal development and pollution – will be stressed to a far greater degree than they are now. How they will respond is unclear, which is precisely why Dunckley and her colleagues are studying the interaction between reefs and the physical environment.

"With climate change, surface waters may become increasingly warmer, creating a more stable water column, where the surface nutrients may not be mixed effectively down to the corals," Dunckley said. "Like oil and vinegar, the surface and bottom layers will be reluctant to mix. If corals are not able to ’sample’ that upper layer of water column as effectively for nutrients, how are they going to cope?"

She is using new measurement techniques, and a combination of fluid dynamics and biogeochemistry, to pursue answers to those questions. Her diving sidekick, SCAMP, helps on the fluid dynamics side of the research by measuring the water’s temperature and conductivity every millimeter from ocean floor to surface.

Dunckley hopes that her research will provide a better understanding of how reef nutrient systems work and help predict how projected climate changes may alter the health of future corals.

In the coming months, she will pack her underwater research gear for dives in Palau, an island nation located about 500 miles east of the Philippines, and at Eilat in the northern reaches of the Gulf of Aqaba, located along the southeastern edge of the Sinai Peninsula.

Protecting reefs is critical to protecting human communities, she said.

"Corals are often located in equatorial island communities that depend on the reefs for subsistence fishing and ecotourism," Dunckley said. "If those communities lose their reefs, they’ll lose much of their economy and food supply. Those communities also depend on reefs to help protect them from the effects of hurricanes. When those coral reefs disappear, they won’t have any barriers against big surf."

Media Contact

Kathleen J. Sullivan, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-5708, kathleenjsullivan [a] stanford (p) edu