Stanford University
SURGE class of 2016

Six Years of SURGE

BY Lupe Carrillo
ClockOctober 24, 2016

Many college students across the United States are more familiar with disciplines such as engineering, physics, and computer science than with the Earth sciences. Gabriel Nava was one of these students until he arrived at Stanford University this summer to work with geophysics professor Eric Dunham on analyzing tsunami formation using computer models.

“We analyzed NASA’s claims about tsunami genesis and also tested claims made about the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 using Stanford’s full physics model,” said Nava, a junior at the University of California, Berkeley. “Eric’s model is rigorous since it simulates a tsunami by taking into account factors such as water dispersion and the compressibility of the ocean.”

Nava explored this intersection of computer science and geophysics as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research in Geoscience and Engineering (SURGE) program at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. Since 2011, SURGE has been opening the path for underrepresented minority undergraduates from across the country to pursue graduate studies and careers in the Earth sciences by offering an 8-week research opportunity with Stanford Earth faculty. In addition to working with a research mentor, SURGE scholars attend workshops on graduate school preparation and take a GRE (Graduate Record Examination) prep course that has historically improved quantitative scores by 25 percent.

Gabriel Nava

Gabriel Nava. Credit: Jerry Wang

Now in its sixth year, SURGE boasts 87 alumni. Over a third of the alumni are in Earth sciences PhD and master’s programs at institutions such as the University of Texas at Austin, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and MIT, while others are working in industry and government. Six SURGE alumni have enrolled in Stanford Earth.

Nava could not have predicted that he would end up joining SURGE’s sixth cohort and helping to develop a tsunami formation model. Originally from the state of Guerrero, Mexico, he immigrated to Atlanta, Georgia, with his family when he was 9. Although he had the top grades for college, Nava had to put his dream on hold because of financial constraints. After working full time at a tax office to save up money, he enrolled at Allan Hancock College, a two-year college in Santa Maria, California. It was there he learned about SURGE from his physics professor.

Soon after, Nava earned admission to UC Berkeley and also a spot in Professor Dunham’s research group as a SURGE scholar. “This was the first time I did research and I liked it,” Nava said. “Trying to figure out a solution to a problem, having those moments of ‘wow, I solved this’ after a really long day, and the sense of accomplishment you feel after — all of that makes research worthwhile.”

“This was part of my interest with creating SURGE,” said geophysics professor Jerry Harris, who founded the program and Stanford Earth’s Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) as a way to address the lack of diversity in his field. “I wanted to include a broader group of engineering and science students and just expose them to the Earth sciences.”

Harris, who has a PhD in electrical engineering from Caltech, came of age in 1960s Mississippi during a time when schools were becoming integrated and when the only other black university students he met were in engineering. It wasn’t until after working in the satellite industry that his research track changed from engineering toward geophysics.

“It’s important to have a program like SURGE in order to get to the point where race, ethnicity, and class don’t impact students, but the reality is that these factors still do,” Harris said. “Unfortunately, people have equated the push for diversity as reducing the call for excellence. With SURGE you see that we are drawing from a high-performing pool — these are excellent students.”

One reason why students such as Nava are less exposed to the Earth sciences: There are simply fewer majors in the field. According to a 2015 National Science Foundation report, in 2012 there were 5,865 students graduating with their bachelor’s degree in Earth and atmospheric sciences, while there were 99,900 bachelor’s degrees conferred in the biological sciences, and 83,263 in engineering. The number of Latinos, African Americans and Native Americans graduating with a bachelor’s in Earth sciences is even lower — a total of 489 students.

However, if the SURGE 2016 cohort serves as any indication, the future of the Earth sciences community will be more reflective of this country’s diverse population. This year Stanford Earth welcomed 14 scholars from a wide range of institutions, including the University of Florida, Texas A&M, Harvard University, and San Jose State, who conducted research on a variety of topics, such as the seasonal impact on the Archaea population in Monterey Bay and the monitoring of crop yields in Tanzania. The majority of the scholars are underrepresented minorities and 43 percent of them identified as first-generation college students.

As a sophomore majoring in physics at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Samori Roberts initially envisioned himself pursuing a career in aeronautical engineering. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to apply to SURGE to find out how he could apply his love of physics to a field that grapples with global problems.

“I’m a completely different person after SURGE,” he said. “I’m now interested in looking into alternative energies for my master’s and possibly for my PhD.”

Samori Roberts
Samori Roberts. Credit: Jerry Wang

Roberts’ transformation was complete after working with energy resources engineering professor Adam Brandt and his group on the life cycle assessment of oil refineries; that is, the tracking of greenhouse gases emitted in each stage of oil production. “Measuring the level of greenhouse gases produced within each phase — from extraction, refinement, and consumption — will allow people to identify which refinery produces less and why,” Roberts said. “Even though oil production creates greenhouse gases for the environment, we want to use the refineries that are least harmful first since oil consumption will be around for a while.”

Roberts was given the task of creating a database using SQL for the 7,500 oil refineries that exist in the world. “Now the user interface can pull up refinery data from many different locations around the world,” he said. “You can also save new data, update old data, and delete data for refineries that shut down.”

Although he hadn’t taken computer programming classes before, Roberts was determined to teach himself the programming language. “I was intent on capitalizing on the opportunity that SURGE gave me,” he said. “So I did a lot of reading and watched YouTube videos to get enough information to finish my project.”

Stephanie Plaza-Torres arrived to Stanford already familiar with the geosciences since she had investigated topics in paleontology as a geology major at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez. However, working with Stanford geological sciences professor Erik Sperling and his lab on the oceanic environmental conditions that existed during the Silurian period — around 440 million years ago — introduced her to the field of geochemistry.

“I learned that building a picture of the environment back then — how organisms responded to change in oxygen levels — is a multi-person, multi-year process,” Plaza-Torres said.

To analyze and measure the presence of oxygen in the Silurian period, Plaza-Torres had to extract different iron phases from sedimentary rocks collected at the Peel River in Yukon, Canada.

Stephanie Plaza-Torres
Stephanie Plaza-Torres. Credit: Jerry Wang

“There’s an idea that we had less oxygen in the oceans back then and that organism body-size might have been impacted,” she said. “But, we don’t yet have a clear picture of how much oxygen existed or the relationship between this element and body-size trends.

“Knowing more about the Silurian period could tell us something about how environmental shifts can impact us and other organisms in the future.”

In terms of Plaza-Torres’ future, she’s set on becoming a geoscientist. “This research opened my eyes to many things that I can do in the geosciences in general, and it increased my interest in geochemistry, which I didn’t really consider that much before,” she said.

“SURGE allows students to recognize that they can succeed in this field,” said Pamela Matson, the Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. “Think about how students learn about research and academia as career potentials and possibilities in their lives. They either have to experience it or somebody has to say, ‘Look, you can actually do these things.’”

As for Nava, who started UC Berkeley this August with a scholarship from Google in hand, he is thinking about a more immediate goal — to be the first one in his family to graduate from college.

“I want to learn more — it just so happens that computer science put me on this track,” Nava said. “I want to finish my degree, solve problems, and understand more about the world.”

For more information on how to apply for SURGE 2017, visit

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