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.
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.”
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.”