125 Stanford Stories

NO. 27
Stanford Today

Hopkins: Hands on the ocean

The Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, Calif., hugs protected tidal areas where data has been collected for more than a century.
Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service
Hopkins Seaside Laboratory, as it was known when this shot was taken in 1892, was coeducational from the start.
Stanford University Archives
barbara block tuna
Marine sciences Professor Barbara Block of Stanford and Charles Farwell of the Monterey Bay Aquarium tag a Pacific bluefin tuna.
Photo courtesy Barbara Block

Hopkins Marine Station offers rich field study close to home

Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station was the first marine research facility on the Pacific Coast and the second in the United States. Important findings on the state of our oceans, and therefore of our planet, have emanated from Hopkins’ Monterey Bay laboratories for nearly 125 years. Early benefactor Timothy Hopkins provided the funding and arranged for the center’s original land in 1892, enabling Stanford biologists to further the university’s goals of global impact and experiential education from the start.

Today, director Stephen Palumbi uses molecular genetics to understand the evolution, population biology and conservation of marine species and ecosystems throughout the globe. His work ranges from genetic identification of whale and dolphin products in commercial markets to how coral reefs can adapt to climate change.

Professor Barbara Block uses thermal metabolic data to study the feeding patterns of Pacific bluefin tuna. Her study of migratory fish led to the characterization of an animal-rich current off California now dubbed the “blue Serengeti.” Her findings could inform better conservation policies to help species in steep decline.

Despite the magnitude of Hopkins’ contributions, the center is intimate in scale. Students benefit from outside-the-classroom proximity to top scientists as well as to study areas just steps from their classroom door. Undergraduates can take part in research design, then carry out their own projects with university funding on a shore made famous by Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck, less than two hours from the Stanford Quad.

Undergrads typically take classes at Hopkins for a quarter, usually winter or spring, and often stay for a spring or summer of research or independent study. They live in small groups in Stanford-owned houses nearby. In that brief stay, students can fulfill most of the requirements for some biology majors, or all the requirements for a minor. Some prepare for Stanford@SEA, a biennial 16-unit oceanography program held partly at Hopkins and partly aboard the tall ship R/V Robert C. Seamans as it sails the Pacific.

With exposure to field studies comes a taste of its discipline and rigor.

“The tides don’t wait for us,” said lecturer Jim Watanabe, a recipient of the Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching. “Biology doesn’t work like that.”

The continuity of Hopkins Marine Station’s data yields some of its most impactful discoveries.

In 1993, two Stanford undergraduates, Rafe Sagarin and Sarah Gilman, revisited a biological inventory of a narrow swath of tide pool outside Hopkins’ back door that had been conducted by another researcher 60 years earlier. Carefully counting every organism they found inside, they saw southerly species had moved into the Northern California ecosystem as the water got warmer. They knew the water was getting warmer because a chief duty of the graduate students who have lived in Hopkins’ caretaker cottage over nearly a century has been to take the daily temperature at the shore just steps away.

The journal Science published Sagarin’s and Gilman’s findings two years later to international acclaim. Their work became early evidence of climate change affecting a regional ecosystem.


In this TEDx Stanford video, Hopkins Director Stephen Palumbi introduces listeners to The Extreme Life of the Sea.