Sitting on top of the world

Already 8 years ...
Sarah Gerhardt is tall, blond and elegantly muscular, not unlike many female surfers tootling around the quaint surf-soaked city of Santa Cruz on bicycles. But several things separate Gerhardt from her surfing sisters. First off, she's the only woman to have braved the towering surf at famed Maverick's, a surf break near Half Moon Bay renowned for its 20- to 40-foot waves and considered the most dangerous big-wave venue in the world. In addition, at the age of 27, she's advanced to candidacy in the pursuit of a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She has two years left in the five-plus-year program. As she explains her research to this science-impaired reporter, it becomes even more clear Gerhardt is no ordinary surfer chick. She spins out a tale of lasers and electrons and atoms as comfortably as if she were reciting a shopping list. "I study excited state dynamics in anywhere from milliseconds to femtoseconds," she says.