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From SURGE to PhD

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Will Gearty
William Gearty displays a dolphin skull in the lab. (Photo credit: Steve Castillo)

William Gearty

PhD ‘19
Geological Sciences

June 7, 2019

Many ocean dwellers are much larger than their terrestrial relatives. But why? Research by William Gearty, PhD ‘19, has identified that in many cases, the larger the mammal, the more likely they can survive in frigid water. The same goes for many ancient reptiles, despite being cold-blooded.

“I’ve always been interested in big transitions,” he said. “For example, the ancestors of what we now know as whales once lived on land for millions of years before returning to the ocean. And when they did return, they got huge. I study how invasions of new habitats like this have impacted biodiversity through time and work to identify and model physiological mechanisms for these changes.”

While doing his undergraduate degree at Yale University, Gearty was part of the second-ever cohort of students in Stanford Earth’s Summer Undergraduate Research in Geoscience and Engineering Program (SURGE), a program for students at other U.S. institutions to gain mentored research experience at Stanford. As a PhD student, he worked on publishing the SURGE project he started in 2012 – an analysis of why some things tend to go missing in the fossil record and others do not – alongside his advisor, Jonathan Payne.

“I don’t think I ever would’ve known about Jon without the SURGE program,” said Gearty, who is the first SURGE alumni to graduate from Stanford. “I’m so grateful I met him – he’s the reason I chose to do my graduate education here at Stanford.”

Following his graduation in 2019, Gearty will begin a postdoctoral research position at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, where he will continue to build on his current research. “I hope to spend more time thinking about optimal body size, but particularly what drives evolution away from these optima. And would we still see the same patterns and drivers of body size if humans had never existed?”