Extreme Learning on the Coast of Maine


When a winter storm closed Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in mid-January, the campus stayed unusually active. A snow angel appeared next to the Graham Shimmield Residence Hall, and brightly-bundled figures on the dock were visible through the sideways snow. The figures were Colby College students, spending the week at Bigelow Laboratory as part of the college's Jan Plan session.

The students were taking a course entitled, "Extreme Climate Change in the Gulf of Maine," taught by Senior Research Scientist Pete Countway. The course included three weeks in the classroom at Colby, which bookended a week of hands-on research on the Bigelow Laboratory campus. It was one of two Jan Plan courses taught by Bigelow scientists this year, the other on synthetic biology by Senior Research Scientist José Fernández-Robledo.

Blair Dixon, a senior studying biology and sociology, said that she was surprised by how the immersive nature of the course helped her feel personally connected to climate change.

"Working with these incredible scientists has made me more passionate about the subject," she said. "Obviously, climate change is such an important topic, but I'd never had a hands-on experience with it. If you asked me last week if I wanted to go collect dock samples in the snow in 10-degree weather, I probably would have been skeptical about that. Instead, I was so down to get out there and take samples."

While at the Laboratory, students conducted an experiment to evaluate coastal Maine winter plankton communities that could exist during a warmer and more acidic future ocean. The students set up four different treatments in Bigelow's indoor mesocosms, large experimental tanks which can be warmed and acidified to mimic the effects of climate change. Each mesocosm holds 2,500 liters of seawater, a volume large enough to approximate ocean conditions in a controlled indoor laboratory.

"The mesocosms allow us to simplify the system and ask what these large-scale changes to future oceans are going to look like, and how they're going to impact microbial communities," Countway said.

The students began every morning at the Bigelow Laboratory dock, deploying oceanographic instruments to profile key characteristics of the water column, like salinity and temperature, and to collect water and plankton samples.

After coming inside and warming up, the students would conduct the same procedures on the experimental water in the mesocosms. In the afternoon, they headed to Countway's laboratory to process both sets of samples, filtering and preserving seawater for a full suite of microbial interrogations.

"This experiment enables us to compare what's going on in the outside world relative to what's going on in our mesocosms," said Countway.

Dressed in L.L.Bean boots and white lab coats, the students learned to use a number of analytical instruments and practiced core oceanographic research techniques like DNA and chlorophyll extractions. In Dr. Nichole Price's lab, the students learned how to make precise pH measurements, a critical technique for ocean acidification research.

"We've been busy from nine to five every day," said Julia Grimmett, a Colby senior majoring in biology. "We took so many samples and ran so many different tests every day. If you hear about our experiment, it sounds simple. But there are so many steps to get to the final product that made it really interesting."

Countway said that he learned alongside the students, as well.

"I always find that the students enrich my own experiences in the lab," he said. "There's always a question that comes from a student that involves a particular angle of my research that I hadn't fully considered. They help me to ask questions in different ways, and give me new research ideas."