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by Cathy Shufro
If you're a serious surfer—and Steven F. Dowdy qualifies—you act nonchalant as you bob on your board, chatting with other surfers. You don't let them see you scanning the ocean.
“You're just looking for the dark little sliver on the horizon and wondering if anyone else has noticed,” says Dowdy, an HHMI investigator at the University of California, San Diego. “You want to get that wave.”
You paddle on your stomach toward the incoming set of swells and choose your wave. As it rises in front of you, you turn toward shore. The water stacks up beneath your board as the belly of the swell meets the reef. When the swell begins to go vertical, you stroke once, maybe twice, to stay with it. The wave crests, then rolls, and you feel your board accelerate.
“It's an entirely different way of
applying my brain,” says Dowdy,
who largely devotes his intellect to
inventing ways to transport cancer-fighting macromolecules across cell
membranes. “You're really focused.
You do not want to get slammed on
a coral reef or get hit on the head
by a 20-foot wave.”
As your surfboard drops over the lip of the breaking wave, you stand. At the bottom of the wave, you turn your board parallel to the wall of water. The moving water grabs the surfboard fins and shoots you forward through the liquid tube. It's like getting shot out of a rocket. Once you know you are free and clear, you're just screaming with joy.
Dowdy has sought out that adrenaline rush all over the world—as far as New Zealand, Indonesia, and Europe. On a trip to Portugal, when his family hit a beach with lackluster waves, a local surfer, who turned out to be a chemist, showed them a better beach. Dowdy later hired him.
Illustration: Ted McGrath