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Stacey Bent: I’m interested in fundamentals, motivated by applications

The Vice Provost for Graduate Education & Postdoctoral Affairs shares her enduring love of chemistry, the impact of a terrible loss, and awe at the resilience of Stanford students.
Stacey Bent
Stacey Bent in her home, with a molecular model at her side. | Bruce Clemens

Stacey Bent is a professor of Chemical Engineering and Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs. In this interview, she shares a deeper look at her research focus – the chemistry of surfaces – plus thoughtful perspective on how loss, family, and work has shaped her outlook. Here are excerpts:

Encouraged to be an engineer

I grew up in Orange County, where my dad was an accountant and my mom was a teacher and a librarian. My dad had grown up in a family of modest means and really wanted his children to be employed upon graduation from college. I was always good at math and science – and he drilled into us that it was really hard to switch into engineering from another major but relatively easy to go the other way if you changed your mind.

It’s in large part because of his influence that my brothers and I all went into engineering. And both my parents were so supportive of my career. In fact, often when I gave a talk as an assistant professor, my mom would ask me to repeat the title slowly so she could write it down; she was so proud to share it with her friends.

I majored in chemical engineering at Berkeley but chemistry was always a significant focus. I credit my freshman chemistry TA, who asked me if I would consider doing research with her in her advisor’s lab, because that one question really started my whole career. Of course, it didn’t hurt that my advisor – Dr. Y. T. Lee – won the Nobel Prize in chemistry while I was working in his lab. He was famous for his work in molecular beams; by examining the way they collide and interact, you could learn fundamental things about molecular dynamics. I vividly remember him trying to explain some of this to me and, at the time, it went way over my head. Now, I hearken back to this experience when I talk to students (“You may not understand this fully now but you will over time”).

Chemistry is true love

Chemistry was always compelling for the simple reason that the molecular world is fascinating. I know it’s not everyone’s favorite subject (I’m vividly recalling running the Bay to Breakers race with a group of fellow students tethered together as a benzene molecule and people shouting, “I WAS TERRIBLE AT CHEMISTRY!”). To me, though, chemistry – particularly the physical side of chemistry – was such a draw that I ended up switching to it from chemical engineering when I went to graduate school at Stanford.

Choosing Stanford for my PhD work was a very deliberate process; I knew I wanted to focus on the chemistry of surfaces, which has really been a constant throughout my research career. How do molecules and surfaces interact? You can imagine how important understanding surfaces at a molecular level becomes in the world of sub-nanometer devices, in which the surface-to-volume ratio becomes very high. There’s still so much to learn.

Today my lab is focused on understanding and controlling surface and interfacial chemistry. We’re working on applying this knowledge to a range of problems in semiconductor processing, microelectronics, nanotechnology, and sustainable and renewable energy. For example, the inner workings of many energy conversion devices – such as solar cells or fuel cells – require components at the nanometer-length scale. These materials could help create the next best battery or catalyst to produce fuels in an environmentally sustainable way.

I’m interested in fundamentals and motivated by applications. While one might aspire to have innovations adopted by industry, adding to foundational knowledge matters, because it can be used to improve technology over a long time horizon.

A wrenching loss and another beginning

At the time I was starting my career, common advice for women in academia was to wait on creating a family until you got tenure – which I totally ignored. I met my first husband, Brian, when he was a postdoc at Bell Labs and I was a research intern. We were long distance during graduate school while he took a faculty position at Columbia. When I finished my PhD and after a postdoc at Bell, I joined the faculty as an assistant professor in chemistry at NYU and we had two children: Rachel, our daughter, and Andrew, our son.

When Rachel was 3 and Andrew was 8 months old, we were on a family vacation and my husband died very suddenly. It was a very hard time. That whole first year, I was almost never alone – my parents, Brian’s parents, my brothers and my sister-in-law all stepped in to help and I am so grateful. But the reality remained that I was a single parent to my very young children and I had to figure out where we were going to go next. After about two years, it was clear that staying in Manhattan wasn’t for us; the situation was just too hard. I started looking for a new faculty position with the goal to move closer to our California family – and Stanford was the perfect place for that reason and from a research perspective.

I was so fortunate to have great colleagues here and amazing help from our parents. But it was still a challenge. For many years, if someone invited me to speak at a conference, for example, I couldn’t simply say yes. I first had to figure out if a family member could come and stay at our home to watch my children – and all the logistics associated with it. But we did it. I can only speak to my own experience but I believe most people can rise to the challenges they face.

My kids and I are very close – it’s hard to have just one parent but it was good for them to see me in a professional position and they’re my biggest fans. We’ve expanded our family, too. After I was widowed for about 10 years, I remarried to a professor of materials science and engineering here at Stanford. I gained two stepsons and two granddaughters in the process, which has been lovely.

Becoming vice provost

It was really a series of steps that led me to my role of Vice Provost for Graduate Education & Postdoctoral Affairs. I was the co-director of a research center and then director of the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy. I served as chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering and then senior associate dean in the School of Engineering. It was a case where every opportunity very clearly led to the next one – and becoming vice provost has allowed me to have a broader impact beyond my own teaching and research program. In this role, I can help the nearly 9,400 graduate students and 2,400 postdocs at Stanford in addition to those in my own lab.

Much of my effort has been dealing with the pandemic and shaping our response – and working on diversity, equity, inclusion and access issues and pursuing other opportunities for our students and postdocs. My day is so varied – I might meet with the co-chairs of the Graduate Student Council, connect with deans of different schools within Stanford, interact with my 15 graduate students and postdocs, and troubleshoot issues in the lab.

But being able to focus on both academic and administrative work is great; there are so many different ways to make an impact, so it works well for me. And it’s been a privilege to see how the students have really partnered with the university to keep the entire community safe during the pandemic. Thousands have lived on campus, they’ve continued teaching, kept up with their research and demonstrated tremendous resilience this whole time.

What I tell students

I always advise students and young faculty to find mentors. They don’t have to be formal relationships and you don’t have to limit yourself to a small number of helpful people. Most people love to be asked for their advice and they’re usually happy to give it. You can develop the relationship from there.

When students try to decide if research is for them, my perspective is always the same: Do it if you love it and think it’s interesting. Research has its ups and downs; it’s a hard path if you’re doing it just to get a degree or to satisfy family expectations. But if you find something you’re genuinely interested in, it’s an immensely satisfying career path.

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