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Dr. Persis Drell: A Life-long Education and Contributor to the Field of Physics

This profile on Dr. Persis S. Drell is the seventh post in a month-long series of profiles about female STEM innovators in honor of Women’s History Month. Check back each weekday to read a new profile. 

Dr. Persis Drell’s future was foreshadowed during her childhood where she was raised by her father, a physicist, on Stanford’s campus in a dwelling build for faculty1. Other physicists would regularly visit her father where Dr. Drell’s fascination with the people, not the subject, grew1

“I wasn’t interested in the physics, but the people were fascinating,” she said in a 2008 interview according to Sigma Pi Sigma. “I would sit in the corner and just hope that no one would see me and send me to bed1.” 

Being surrounded by experts in physics did not translate to an aptitude in math and related fields for Dr. Drell, instead, the passion of one of her professors at Wellesley College inspired her to pursue physics1,2.  

This professor’s passion soon became Dr. Drell’s passion, which propelled her to complete her undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics from Wellesley College in 1977, followed by a PhD in atomic physics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 19831,2. Following her doctoral degree, Dr. Drell decided to switch focus from her doctoral concentration to high-energy experimental physics while she worked at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory as a post-doctoral scientist before accepted a position in Cornell University’s department of physics1,2.  

Dr. Drell spent 14 years working at Cornell, before she returned to her home at Stanford University, this time not as a resident, but as a faculty member in the physics department and director of research of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), a national accelerator laboratory overseen by Stanford University and the Department of Energy1,2,3. Over five years, Dr. Drell worked her way into leadership positions at SLAC, becoming the deputy director then the director of the lab and its 1,600 employees1,2.  

As the director of SLAC, she helped the lab transition from a physics-focused research laboratory into a multi-disciplined operation. Under Dr. Drell’s direction the SLAC produced major scientific inventions including the Linac Coherent Light Source, the world’s first X-ray free-electron laser, which scientist use for multiple purposes such as studying the atomic and molecular world1.  

After over a decade of directing the SLAC, Dr. Drell returned to Stanford’s faculty as a member of the physics department, was named Frederick Emmons Terman Dean of the Stanford School of Engineering in 2014, and became the University’s Provost in 20171,2

As a testament to Dr. Drell’s important contributions to the field of physics, she has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award1,2. Dr. Drell is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences1,2.  

For more information on Dr. Drell, watch this interview



  1. Sigma Pi Sigma. (2016). Persis Drell Keeps Asking the Big Questions. Retrieved from

  1. Stanford University. Persis Drell. Retrieved from

  1. Stanford University. Persis S. Drell. Retrieved from