Professor William Gilly holds a model Humboldt squid. Gilly and other marine biologists have had difficulty studying the Humboldt squid, which is aggressive and lives in the very deep ocean. National Geographic's Crittercam allowed Gilly and other researchers to understand the habits and living conditions of these creatures by putting cameras right on their bodies.

Photograph by Stuart Thornton

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  • 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.”


    “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.”


    “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.”


    “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.”


    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.”

    Marine Biologist Dr. William Gilly
    William Gilly is a marine biologist.

    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.

  • 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


    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.