Persis Drell ’77 P’16 Takes Office as Stanford University Provost

February 1, 2017
Persis Drell ’77 P’16 Takes Office as Stanford University Provost
Persis Drell. Photo by Saul Bromberg.

Physicist, professor, researcher, and Wellesley College Alumnae Achievement Award recipient Persis Drell ’77 P’16 is the middle link in three generations of Wellesley women. Today, she also becomes the 13th provost of Stanford University.

As one of a handful of international leaders in the field of particle physics, Drell is a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her numerous honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award, and she was a fellow of the American Physical Society. 

Drell’s experience with Stanford predates her career: Her father, eminent physicist Sidney Drell, became a professor at Stanford when she was six months old, and she grew up on campus. After teaching at Cornell University for 14 years, she joined the Stanford faculty herself in 2002. She was a professor and director of research at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory before becoming director of SLAC in 2007. She returned to research and teaching in 2012, and in 2014 she became the first woman to be named dean of the Stanford School of Engineering.

Drell graduated from Wellesley with a dual major in mathematics and physics, then earned her Ph.D. in atomic physics in 1983 from the University of California, Berkeley. At Berkeley, Drell met fellow graduate student Robbie Berg, now a professor of physics at Wellesley. “We were in adjacent labs, two floors under ground, with lots of time to talk during our long data collection runs,” Berg recalled. “Over the course of many conversations, she painted a vivid picture of Wellesley as a place where both teaching and research were deeply and equally valued. That had a deep impact on me, and it’s a big part of the reason I ended up here.”

In accepting an Alumnae Achievement Award at Wellesley in 2006, Drell said, “I am a physicist because I came to Wellesley. I am a physicist because in the second semester of my freshman year I walked into a class taught by Phyllis Fleming… Freshman mechanics did not particularly engage me. However a classmate recommended that I take a course from Miss Fleming and so I walked into Modern Physics in January of 1974 and fell in love… I had many other great teachers at Wellesley and I still cherish and draw on what I learned here.”

In the keynote address she delivered for Wellesley’s Parents Weekend in 2014, entitled “From Wellesley to the Big Bang,” Drell said of her liberal arts education, “Wellesley had trained me to be a student for a lifetime, think broadly, and take risks.”

In the same address, she spoke about studying among other women at Wellesley: “I grew up at Wellesley. I learned to respect other women for their intellectual capabilities in all fields, including science. I learned to form friendships with women that transcended any competition. I found role models. For four blissful years I did not see math and physics as male dominated activities. It was wonderful. I credit Wellesley with giving me the time and the environment to allow me to become comfortable and confident as both a physicist and a woman physicist. Great community changed my life.”