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Chemists take on extreme sports

by Bethany Halford
March 26, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 13


Sarah Gerhardt surfs a big wave.
Credit: Nikki Brooks
Hanging ten: Sarah Gerhardt tames the surf at Mavericks.

Surfing big waves and wave functions

For some chemists, seeing the results of their latest experiments brings sufficient excitement into their lives. But others, like Sarah Gerhardt, seek out more extreme thrills to bring balance to their intellectual pursuits. When she’s not teaching chemistry at Cabrillo College, Gerhardt manages to carve out some time surfing at the legendary—and dangerous—spot known as Mavericks in Northern California.

Mavericks is infamous for its frigid waters, jagged rocks, and great white sharks. If you watch the surfers from shore, Mavericks looks like an average surfing spot, but paddle out 3 km to where the waves are, and the swells can measure up to 18 meters high. Gerhardt describes the experience of surfing there as “kind of like jumping off a building and then having the building chase you.”

The first time Gerhardt attempted to surf Mavericks, she was a graduate student “in the throes of qualifying exams.” Surfing was a physical and emotional outlet for her during her doctoral studies of physical chemistry at the University of California, Santa Cruz. While she didn’t catch a wave that first time out, a few months later, in early 1999 while still a graduate student, she became the first woman to surf Mavericks.

For the past two years, Gerhardt has been invited to compete in the Mavericks Challenge big-wave surfing competition—the first time the contest has been open to women. However, last year’s contest was scuttled because of poor organization, and this year weather prevented the competition from taking place. Gerhardt has her fingers crossed for next year.

Gerhardt tells Newscripts that the things she loves about surfing are the same things she loves about chemistry—the challenge and “how the little pieces fit together to make a whole picture.” In chemistry, those pieces are data, but in surfing, Gerhardt says, the pieces are the tides, the direction and strength of the wind and the swells, which surfboard to use, and what her body can do. “Can I paddle really hard and make it through all these waves and jump to my feet and successfully ride a wave?” she wonders each time she surfs. “All these little pieces have to come together for a successful ride.”

The feeling of anxiety and fear Gerhardt gets when she’s driving up to Mavericks she says is the same feeling she experiences before giving an exam to her students. “I get so nervous. I just want them to do well.”

Backside attack on wheels

Several women on roller skates bumping into one another.
Credit: Joe Medolo
Pyrophoric player: Cristin Juda rolls into action as Brutyl Lithium (#53).

Not every thrill-seeking graduate student gets to go to school near one of the best big-wave surfing spots in the world. Surfing’s not an option for Cristin Juda, a fifth-year chemistry graduate student at Harvard University. So, Juda has managed to find her extracurricular excitement in the fast-paced world of roller derby—a sport where competitors skate round a track and try to score points by lapping members of the opposing team.


“Graduate school is very stressful, and this is a sport where you can really get out your frustration,” Juda, who rolls with Boston Roller Derby’s Cosmonaughties, told Harvard Magazine earlier this month. “Roller derby does build confidence—knowing you can play a contact sport.” She added that “people are very open-minded and tolerant. It’s a sport where you can be whoever you want to be.”

Roller derby is known for its chaotic action, with accompanying bumps and bruises, and also for its fun and campy names. Juda’s roller-derby moniker is Brutyl Lithium, a play on tert-butyl lithium, a dangerous reagent known to catch fire in air. This got the Newscripts gang thinking about other chemistry-related roller-derby names. We came up with Marie Fury, Backside Attack, Elimination Reaction, and BorosilicHate Glass. Got any other suggestions? Send them our way.

Bethany Halford wrote this week’s column with reporting by Sam Lemonick. Please send comments and suggestions to


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