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After Class

Five Stanford professors talk about their off-campus talents.

Photo: Toni Gauthier

Assistant professor of radiology Parag Mallick.

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By Mike Antonucci

The life of an academic often goes by in the depths of the library stacks. Professors teach, advise and research. They hypothesize. They footnote. Oh, sure, some of them know their way around the planet's jungles, oceans and mountains. But it is the faculty meeting or peer-reviewed manuscript that sweats them hardest. When they're not on campus, all they're doing is doodling equations, running a database application or translating something on parchment. Right?

Of course not. Professors are people, too, and among Stanford's scholars are adventurers, entertainers and digital photo-collagist printmakers. We couldn't corral everyone who is doing something outside the classroom box, but we pinned down five, in between their latest exploits and endeavors. Travel with us now, into the worlds of professors without lecture notes.

Parag Mallick

In the same way that Parag Mallick is both a computer scientist and a biochemist, he is both a dedicated researcher and a devoted magician. An assistant professor of radiology, Mallick has a lab within the Canary Center at Stanford for cancer early detection. In any given week, the vigor he brings to computational biology is paralleled by his discipline for perfecting card tricks and fire juggling. What he says once felt like "two completely distinct lives" now has resonance in both directions. Whether in a lab coat or a magician's crepe vest, he is one person balancing two challenging and creative callings.

"I see a lot of commonalities," says Mallick, who's a member of The Mums, a Los Angeles-based professional performance troupe. "Both involve passion, hard work, and being meticulous and incredibly organized. They're both about pushing boundaries."

The two vocations, he says, required him to develop an abiding confidence in abilities he once questioned. On his scholarly side, that included his skill at math. On his entertainer's side, he needed showmanship, which led him to improv and dance classes. The upshot? In one way or another, his work always has to stand up to reviews.

Mallick, who earned his doctorate at UCLA after graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, was born at Stanford Hospital and grew up in San Mateo. His interest in magic and related feats goes back to childhood; his résumé now ranges from stilt-walking to mentalism. Oh, and machete juggling—but he's not sure his mom knows about that.

Terry Castle

Castle #1
Photo: Nicolo Sertorio

English professor Terry Castle keeps herself inspirationally surrounded, and not just by books. There are stockpiles of vintage postcards and "anonymous photographs," their creators unknown. There's also old currency, World War I cap badges and various "bedraggled" objects, such as a couple of slightly spooky antique puppets. Basically, there's stuff everywhere that stokes her aesthetic ingenuity, evident in the creative process behind much of her artwork, which she displays online.

Castle #2
Photo: Courtesy Terry Castle
COLOR HER INSPIRED: Castle surrounds herself with pieces that spark her creativity.

Consider, for example, The Recruiting Officer (right). In her words: "Started on a physical piece of paper with dark blue acrylic ground. Pattern elements cut from a magazine ad, collaged on. Result scanned (at high resolution). Eyes, body, etc., drawn on resulting digital file, using iPad. Final run through an Instagramtype photo filter, to add 'distressing.' Image can be printed . . . at various sizes on archival pigment ink paper."

Castle, an expert on the history of the novel, says her interest in making art began to mature during a fellowship at Harvard in her late 20s. "The huge breakthrough," she adds, "came for me in my 30s at Stanford and learning to use a computer." Paintings are among the nontechy work she has done, but manipulated photos and digitally formed imagery shape many of her pieces.

Her recurring theme is the face—"usually grotesque," Castle says. She cites a variety of influences, including a sometimes "tragic sense of life" (together with "a matching comic" one).

Mitch Polinsky

Polinsky #1
Photo: James Adams
UP AND AWAY: Polinsky has been fascinated with flying since he was a child; his father was a flight instructor in World War II.

Beauty, exhilaration and a sense of accomplishment combine to create the lure of flying a personal-sized aircraft on nothing but thermal currents for more than 600 miles above breathtaking terrain. But there's risk, as well, which led law school professor and glider pilot Mitch Polinsky to take a hiatus for nine years in the 1990s after a close call crossing a mountain ridge. But he says he thought about what he was missing—"soaring," as glider pilots say so eloquently—"at least once a week." Back he went, more determined to improve his technique and maximize his performance.

Polinksy #2
Photo: Hugh Milne

The results include 16 U.S. speed and distance records established over the past two summers, including a 685-mile flight from Nevada to Nebraska. Polinsky, 67, competes in the single-seat motorglider category, meaning his 69-foot-wingspan flying machine has an engine with a retractable propeller. That's what gets him up in the air, but then he does without it for, oh, six to eight hours at a stretch. And if he needs the engine in a pinch, "you hope it starts," he says with a wink.

Polinsky, an economist noted for his insight on legal issues, is a veteran of other adventurous endeavors, including rock climbing. But the commitment that goes into gliding—in both cost and the time he spends in prime flying territory, such as Nevada, in the summer—reflects how powerful the experience is at thousands of feet above sea level at 85 miles per hour. "It's truly magical," he says.

Ralph Greco

Greco #1
Photo: Nicolo Sertorio
FORM AND FIGURE: Greco with Hot Fudge Sundae (2014), in chocolate onyx.

There's more tenderness in Ralph Greco's work than seems possible, given that it came from brittle rock. Marble, travertine or alabaster—he's the kind of sculptor who gets lifeblood from a stone.

Maybe there's a connection to his vocations as a surgeon and professor. Maybe it's because he's driven purely by his own vision. "I do sculpture for me," he says. "I don't try to figure out what somebody else is going to like."

Greco #2
Photo: Nicolo Sertorio
Greco sculpted Charlie (1997) from white alabaster, in memory of his father.

Regardless, many others do like his work. One yardstick would be the buyers he attracts—his pieces have sold for as much as $8,500—but there are sweeter benchmarks. Greco is the former director of the general surgery residency program, leading to a gift he received in 2009 at a graduation dinner for the chief residents: a 400-pound marble boulder. The abstract "S" he created from it resides at the department of surgery.

Greco's sculptures, including a powerful remembrance of his father, are conspicuous throughout his home. But he says the activity can be "too self-centered," and he does maintain other interests. No wonder, then, that he's an outspoken advocate for surgeons leading balanced lives and directs a support program that he helped establish because of the suicide of a former surgical resident.

Shelley Correll

Correll #1
Photo: Nicolo Sertorio
GLORY DAYS: Tokens of Correll's love of the game include a San Francisco Giants Rosie the Riveter bobblehead (bottom left) that her Stanford colleagues gave her.

"Panic." That's sociology professor Shelley Correll's word for what she felt when she realized there were only a couple of big-league ballparks she hadn't been to in the United States. Then she was struck by a thought offering more comfort than it would for those more reasonably deterred: "You know, Japan has a lot of ballparks."

Off she went, a baseball devotee on nothing less than a pilgrimage, inhaling the culture of Japan's 12 Nippon Professional Baseball stadiums with the energy of a fan and the discernment of a scholar. Did you know that home crowds in Japan watch silently when the visiting team is batting? Correll soaked it all in, knowing that another "What next?" was approaching.

Correll #2
Photo: Nicolo Sertorio

There's Cuba, she points out, especially now that it's going to be easier for Americans to travel there. And the Dominican Republic, she adds. The U.S. minor-league ballyards aren't really on her radar. Yet.

Correll, director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, grew up going to Houston Astros games with her family in the onetime "Eighth Wonder of the World," the Astrodome. She hadn't seen a game in an outdoor stadium until she went to Candlestick Park while she was a Stanford graduate student. The Giants became her favorite team and sampling ballparks her happy addiction. From her connoisseur's perspective—which is always a seat on the first-base side, if she can get it—her favorite stadium is Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

On her office shelves are memorabilia that reflect her immersion in every aspect of the fan experience. It's not the collectibles that matter so much; it's the way they celebrate her presence at a game. She even gave up a coveted weekend Giants-Dodgers ticket in return for a ticket to a game with a particularly attractive promo: a replica 1954 World Series ring. "I love freebies," she says.

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