Article

William Gilly is a marine biologist.

Photograph by Stuart Thornton

Squids 4 Kids
Dr. William Gilly directs an outreach program called Squids 4 Kids that sends Humboldt squids by FedEx to classrooms around the country to be dissected and studied.

By Stuart Thornton

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

William is a biology professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. He usually works at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California, where he is doing research to discover more about Humboldt squid.

EARLY WORK

William grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Though he visited the ocean in Maine and New Jersey a few times during his childhood, he admits that he didn’t become enthusiastic about marine biology until he was an adult.

“But I did have a lot of interest in nature in general,” he said. “Fishing, bug collecting, rock collecting, and fossils.”

As an electrical engineering major at Princeton University in New Jersey, William took a physics class on air pollution that got him into a biology laboratory for the first time. “I just got hooked on it that way just by the chance of being intrigued about a problem and stumbling into a world that I never knew existed before,” he said.

Though he graduated from Princeton with an electrical engineering degree, William began taking biology courses there during his junior year. Then, at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, William received his PhD in physiology and biophysics.

William’s father worked as a technician for Bell Laboratories, the research and development arm of AT&T. “That was really the only science in my family,” he says. “Everybody else was just carpenters, bricklayers, or whatever.”

MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

“Every day there is a chance of seeing some thing that you didn’t expect to see in some place that you didn’t expect to find it.”

MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

“To be good at it, you need to devote your life to it,” William says. “I think you have to make it at least at times more important than anything else. That’s always a challenge to balance. I wouldn’t say you have to be OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] about it, but probably something approaching it.”

HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

“I guess geography is just looking at the way the Earth is put together three-dimensionally.”

GEO-CONNECTION

William says that he uses geography and geographic information system (GIS) technology to create maps that illustrate where Humboldt squid are in relation to oceanic conditions.

“The animals are moving in this environment, and the environment is changing,” he says. “The map is a platform to visualize and interpret it.”

William also uses geography to study ocean currents that define the squid’s habitats. “I think trying to understand why oxygen at 300 meters [984 feet] deep in Monterey Bay [California] is changing . . . involves things that are going on in the central Pacific [Ocean] and the Gulf of Alaska and distant parts of the globe,” he says. “And we don’t understand what all the connections are yet, but obviously there is geography connecting these places because the water is moving between these different places.”

SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . MARINE BIOLOGIST

William says it’s important to first learn the basics of math, chemistry, physics, and statistics. “Their value is getting you to think in a problem-oriented way rather than a facts-oriented way,” he says. “I think that’s the key to doing science. You could be an encyclopedia of knowledge, but if you don’t know how to formulate a hypothesis and ask a question and recognize what question might be tractable and what isn’t, you are not going to succeed in science.”

William says that participating in team sports can also be helpful to aspiring research scientists. “Sports are good, because they teach you how to fail,” he says. “Any kind of competitive sport where you have to get psyched up and get disappointed is a valuable thing. You can’t go through life winning all the time. It’s just not going to happen.”

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

air pollution

Noun

harmful chemicals in the atmosphere.

Encyclopedic Entry: air pollution

biology

Noun

study of living things.

chemistry

Noun

study of the atoms and molecules that make up different substances.

current

Noun

steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.

Encyclopedic Entry: current

electrical engineer

Noun

person who analyzes, designs, and constructs systems to conduct electricity.

enthusiastic

Adjective

excited.

environment

Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

formulate

Verb

to develop or create.

fossil

Noun

remnant, impression, or trace of an ancient organism.

Encyclopedic Entry: fossil

geographic information system (GIS)

Noun

any system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on the Earth's surface.

Encyclopedic Entry: GIS (geographic information system)

habitat

Noun

environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

Encyclopedic Entry: habitat

Humboldt squid

Noun

large marine animal (cephalopod) that lives in the deep Pacific Ocean.

hypothesis

Noun

statement or suggestion that explains certain questions about certain facts. A hypothesis is tested to determine if it is accurate.

intrigue

Verb

to inspire interest or curiosity.

laboratory

Noun

place where scientific experiments are performed. Also called a lab.

marine biology

Noun

study of life in the ocean.

math

Noun

(mathematics) study of the relationship and measurements of quantities using numbers and symbols.

mentor

Verb

to advise and influence.

obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Noun

mental illness where the patient repeats the same acts over and over, often in a specific order or at a specific time.

ocean

Noun

large body of salt water that covers most of the Earth.

Encyclopedic Entry: ocean

oxygen

Noun

chemical element with the symbol O, whose gas form is 21% of the Earth's atmosphere.

PhD

Noun

(doctor of philosophy) highest degree offered by most graduate schools.

physics

Noun

study of the physical processes of the universe, especially the interaction of matter and energy.

physiology

Noun

study of activity in living organisms, including physical and chemical processes.

professor

Noun

highest-ranking teacher at a college or university.

research

Noun

scientific observations and investigation into a subject, usually following the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, prediction, experimentation, analysis, and conclusion.

research and development (R&D)

Noun

work done to develop new products and ideas.

science

Noun

knowledge focused on facts based on observation, identification, description, investigation, and explanation.

statistics

Noun

the collection and analysis of sets of numbers.

technician

Noun

person who does practical work in a laboratory or medical facility.

technology

Noun

the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

three-dimensional

Adjective

having the appearance of width, height, and depth.

tractable

Adjective

manageable or able to be controlled.

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Writer

Stuart Thornton

Editors

Jeannie Evers
Kara West

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

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