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When environmental scientist Easkey Britton was growing up on Ireland's northwestern coast, the sea crept into every corner of her life. To get to school every morning, she took a shortcut across a beach that could only be crossed at low tide, so she learned to read tide tables and the buoys' bob and weave. She knew what weather was coming by the feel of the air that rolled off the Atlantic Ocean's wild expanse.
And maybe most importantly, Britton surfed, which she says trained her to look for patterns in the natural world. “Part of becoming a surfer then was learning the weather systems and how they work, so from an early age I became a meteorologist,” she says. “I didn't realize then that it was all training, in a way, to become a scientist.”
Britton wended her way through different topics in environmental science, but she always had an eye toward the sea. Now, as a postdoctoral researcher at the National University of Ireland, she studies the ways that humans connect emotionally to water.
Britton's path to science is far from unique. For marine biologist David Gruber, the surf part of the equation came early, on a family vacation to Maui when he was twelve. He got hooked on the feeling of rushing water and clear ocean, enough that he kept surfing after he went home to the gritty, industrial beaches of central New Jersey.
He was “a horrendous student” in high school, he says, but he found his way to the University of Rhode Island, primarily because it was on Surfer Magazine's list of best surf schools in the country. He landed in the oceanography department, where he started down the whirlpool of ocean sciences.
“My first profound relationship with the ocean was as a surfer—just this visceral respect for it,” he said. “I would get tossed and tumbled, but mostly I saw its magnificence.”
But not all surfing scientists study the water under their boards. When physical chemist Sarah Gerhardt was in high school, she found surfing and chemistry at the same time. By graduate school, she was an expert in quantum mechanics, and in her spare time, she was charging the gigantic waves at Maverick's, a big-wave surf spot south of San Francisco. She was the only woman out in the water.
Gerhardt says that surfing informs her state of mind. “What big-wave surfing does is force me to challenge myself, which helps me to challenge myself in science,” she says.
“I was definitely an outsider in college science, being female and maybe not as prepared as other students. I was working a few jobs, and I had been really, really sick as a kid, so I wasn't up to speed on all the math I needed,” she adds. “But I would go out and surf these huge waves, alone, in the craziest, wildest conditions, and then I'd go back to school and feel like I was ready to take anything on.”