The young men and women and the sea

Posted Tuesday, June 21, 2011 in Features

The young men and women and the sea

Alex Vermont, a research student at Bigelow Laboratory in West Boothbay Harbor

by Kitty Wheeler

WEST BOOTHBAY HARBOR – Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences is an independent, nonprofit research institute. Founded in 1974, the laboratory does research from microbial oceanography to large-scale biogeochemical processes that drive interactions between ocean ecosystems and global environmental conditions. That’s a mouthful of explanation.

This May, 16 high school juniors from 10 Maine counties spent four days at Bigelow Lab, engaged in laboratory and field research. The residential program consists of a full day aboard a research vessel collecting samples in the Sheepscot River estuary, data analysis, and public presentation of research results. Future career directions for these students are also discussed, as well as public policy and scientific ethics.

This 22-year-old program is called BLOOM, which stands for Bigelow Laboratory Orders of Magnitude. The program is free of charge for the budding scientists, with the cost being underwritten by the Tandy Foundation, local banks, and other New England foundations.

Professional evaluation of the long-term impact of the program found that 100 percent of BLOOM students attend college; 88 percent graduate from college; and 60 percent now live and work in Maine.

A second research program at Bigelow Lab is called Research Experience for Undergraduates, now in its third year. The National Science Foundation funds this program. Eleven college undergraduates live on the campus for 10 weeks of summer research. It is a competitive program, with 300 students applying for the 11 spots; minority students are given priority. They receive a small stipend and free housing, and transportation to Boothbay Harbor is also provided.   

These students are placed in a senior research scientist’s laboratory and work closely with the scientists. The students identify a research question, develop a proposal, conduct their proposed work, and present their research at a formal student symposium at the close of the program. Close friendships form among the students, and networks are made that provide a lasting foundation for future careers in ocean research.

Dr. David Fields has been part of Bigelow Lab for seven years. He earned his Ph.D. in oceanography from Stony Brook University on Long Island, and his particular field of study is the krill, part of the zooplankton species. He is working with Alex Vermont, a student who attends Northern Arizona University. Vermont has only known the desert landscape, so his research on the Atlantic Ocean in Boothbay Harbor is a new and exciting experience.

Fields and Fowler

Rebecca Fowler and David Fields, Bigelow Laboratory

Rebecca Fowler, education director, earned a master's in science from Portland State University in Oregon. She garners funds for the BLOOM program and is instituting a new program for Maine high school science teachers, who will spend four days on the campus in July. These teachers will develop curricula in marine sciences for their students.

Two other educational programs are also under way. The lab has entered into a partnership with Colby College in Waterville. Scientists teach courses in the college’s January Program in bioinformatics and ocean and climate changes. A semester-long in-residence for Colby students and other participating colleges will soon occur. Students will spend a term at Bigelow Lab, doing scientific research with economic and social policy analysis.

Last summer the lab signed an agreement for academic collaboration with Yale University School of Medicine. Joint research projects, new funding agencies, and holding joint conferences are some of its goals.

Since the present campus for Bigelow Lab is too small, a new campus is being developed on 66 acres of land in East Boothbay. When it is completed, employment at the lab will increase from 50 to 100. The first structure is slated to open this November. It is to be a technology center with a business model at its core. The center will concentrate on growth of jobs for Maine in the marine sciences. The second and third buildings, funded by federal agencies, will house laboratories and conference rooms. In time, dormitories will be constructed.

Only 14 acres will be used for the buildings. The rest of the land will have trails for the public to use. There will be docks for a fleet of boats that will allow researchers to explore the ocean.

Field comments, “The future of the laboratories will expand education, public outreach, and management of ocean resources.  Aquaculture, now a fledgling industry, will grow by leaps and bounds."

Fowler, the education director, is delighted that Maine high school students are exposed to opportunities in the state, possibly countering the "brain drain." “We are engaging students, both in high school and college, who might well want to work here in the future,” she said.

Another outreach that Bigelow Lab makes with the public is holding Summer Science Conversations. Every Tuesday evening, scientists and their guests hold lively discussions for the public at the Boothbay Harbor Opera House at 86 Townsend Ave. It’s an opportunity for the public to learn more about ocean discoveries.

Blending scientific research with student internships and co-mingling with other academic institutions, Bigelow Lab is making its mark on the vital landscape of our oceans.

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