Focus on Broader Impacts: Dr. William Gilly at Stanford University

Welcome again to a new feature of our blog, Focus on Broader Impacts.  As you all (hopefully!) know, each proposal submitted here at IOS requires both an “Intellectual Merit (IM)” and a “Broader Impacts (BI)” section. We see a wide array of distinctive but equally outstanding strategies to address these requirements from successful PIs. Some PIs choose to separate the sections, so they provide excellent individual plans for each individual section.  Other successful PIs find ways to more directly relate their IM section with their BI section, although the distinction between the two is still clear.  While there’s no magic formula for proposing and completing Broader Impacts activities, IOS will use this feature to periodically highlight awardees with unique and/or creative approaches to Broader Impacts.


Dr. William Gilly at Stanford University has created an outreach program for all age groups called Squids4Kids that is designed to promote “ocean awareness” using the animal studied by his lab, the Humboldt squid. This  type of squid lives at depths between the sea surface and 2000 feet (the mesopelagic zone) in the eastern Pacific, and can grow up to a length of over 6 feet. This species also supports one of the world’s largest commercial fishery for an invertebrate species. Perhaps inspired by the multi-limbed organism he studies, Dr. Gilly has come up with a very multi-faceted approach to providing outreach through Squids4Kids.

One aspect of his outreach is providing frozen specimens of Humboldt squid and relevant educational materials to classrooms and museums across the United States at no cost. He and other lab members also personally visits K-12 classrooms in central California to teach about the squids and speak about being a scientist. His group participates in larger public events across the country (such as the National Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC and the Bay Area Science Festival in San Francisco, CA) where they provide hands-on interaction with squid for thousands of students and families annually. The group also serves K-12 teachers in various workshops, and furthermore they collaborate with educational programs at Monterey Bay Aquarium in conjunction with “Tentacles,” a special exhibition devoted to cephalopods that will run through 2018. Despite being an aggressive (and sometimes scary!) predator in the wild, the squid has proven to be a great tool in classrooms and events to get students both curious and excited about the ocean, squids, and science in general.

Julie Stewart, a PhD student at Stanford and Squids4Kids fans at the 2010 National Science and Engineering Festival on the National Mall, Washington, D.C.

Squids4Kids was born during a weekend of squid-related activities at Camp Ocean Pines in Cambria, CA, which included a Humboldt squid dissection with teachers and museum/aquarium docents. Although many teachers include squid dissections in biology classes, the Humboldt squid is superior for this purpose – they are large, easy to dissect with blunt tools and have easy to distinguish internal organs. Discussion with teachers here led to the idea of shipping frozen squid anywhere in the country. After the initial feedback from teachers, Dr. Gilly was pleased to learn that their students and squids went together exceptionally well and started to work further on making Squids4Kids the unique and wide-reaching program it is today.

Squids4Kids has received extremely favorable reviews from various print and online media. In addition to this feedback, Dr. Gilly and his lab keep track of their impact through an online “post-squid survey” that allows them to evaluate how many students they have reached, what feedback from students is like, and how they can further refine their program. In a typical year they reach about 1,000 students through class room visits and squid shipments and directly interact with another 8,000 or so at larger public events.

Squids4Kids was most recently recognized by an invitation for Dr. Gilly to attend Ed-Foo 2016, an informal “camp” at Google headquarters for educators, writers, artists and others who are “taking a broad, multidisciplinary approach to exploring how people learn throughout life, with an emphasis on how innovation can help people learn better, faster and with more joy. ”  He will present Squids4Kids as a model to excite a broad audience at relatively low cost and a new plan to develop a Squid-Mobile lab that could bring the mysteries of ocean life to communities far removed from the coast.

Alaska_DSCN0304_Crop Gilly
Lauren Bell, MS student at University of Alaska Fairbanks leads a Squids4Kids session in Fairbanks, Alaska

When asked about what advice he’d give to a prospective IOS PI about strengthening their broader impacts, Dr. Gilly said that he believed broader impacts should be incorporated in a way that creatively complements the proposed research. He would recommend including broader impacts as a part of graduate-student training and thesis research, and requires his students to participate in some significant outreach activity (whether it be one in which his lab is already engaged or one of the student’s own design), a feature of student training that has helped him develop his broader impacts.


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