At Bigelow Laboratory, Interns Discover and Develop


Halley Steinmetz spent the July before her senior year at UMass Amherst in an unusual way. She spotted flying fish in the Sargasso Sea, watched sunsets from a hammock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and filtered gallons and gallons of seawater.

Steinmetz was aboard the R/V Endeavor, on a 17-day research cruise as part of her internship at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. Working with Senior Research Scientist Barney Balch and funded by the National Science Foundation’s competitive Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program and another NSF grant to Balch, Steinmetz conducted original research on ocean color and optics.

“The opportunity to go on a research cruise really drew me to this program,” Steinmetz said. “It was a lot of work, but I really enjoyed it.”

In the summer of 2018, Bigelow Laboratory hosted one of its largest cohorts of student interns. Eighteen students participated in the REU program, and an additional 10 undergraduate interns worked in research, communication, enterprise, and computer science. The group spent 10 weeks in residence at the Laboratory, getting hands-on experience in the lab and field.

Steinmetz was part of the 10th year of Bigelow Laboratory’s summer REU program. Over the years, about 150 undergraduate students from across the country have traveled to East Boothbay to conduct original research under the mentorship of Bigelow Laboratory scientists. About a third of these REU interns have presented their projects at scientific conferences, and many have continued and published their work, resulting in 17 peer-reviewed papers.

“At conferences, the students that Bigelow Laboratory brings are always the most prepared,” said David Fields, senior research scientist and the director of the REU program. “It’s because they have interned in a research institution, and received guidance from people that are full-time researchers.”

Steinmetz’s research compared different types of remote sensing data to the classic method for classifying ocean color. Understanding how these measurements are related could allow researchers to utilize ocean color data collected before the age of satellites — including data from Henry Bigelow, for whom Bigelow Laboratory is named.

Color data gives scientists information about essential ocean characteristics, like what microscopic organisms are living in the water — including the unicellular, highly reflective coccolithophore, a type of phytoplankton that Balch’s group specializes in detecting. Steinmetz’s research could make historical data more useful to today’s researchers, increasing the capacity for Balch and others to study changes in ocean color over time.

“These students are immersed in working labs, and do spectacular work in ten short weeks,” Fields said. “In the process, they build networks and mentoring relationships that last a lifetime.”

Steinmetz plans to continue her research as part of her senior thesis over the next year, and wants to pursue oceanography in graduate school.

“Before this internship, I had never considered ocean optics research as a career, but now it’s on my mind a lot,” Steinmetz said. “I’m so happy to have come here this summer.”

While Steinmetz and two other interns collected data in the Atlantic Ocean, the rest of the cohort was back in Maine. They performed experiments in Bigelow’s laboratory facilities, dove to study kelp forest recovery in the Gulf of Maine, and collected samples from the local environment.

Jared Wang, an intern in the National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota (NCMA), spent the summer working at the intersection of Bigelow Laboratory’s research and enterprise initiatives. He began his internship by conducting hands-on research and then took the next step, into the entrepreneurship that discoveries can inspire.

A recent graduate of Colby College’s environmental science program, Bigelow Laboratory wasn’t new to Wang, but the world of enterprise was. Wang studied in the Changing Oceans semester program at the Laboratory in the fall of 2016, and returned the following summer to do ocean chemistry research with Senior Research Scientist Christoph Aeppli, a project that became his senior thesis.

“During my senior year, I decided I wanted to explore industry and the business world,” Wang said. “I knew this internship would be a good shift from purely scientific research to the interface of science and society.”

This summer, Wang studied the production of astaxanthin, the compound made by the algae Hematococcus that turns salmon pink. When raised on feed, farmed salmon naturally lack the characteristic pink color consumers expect. Senior Research Scientist Mike Lomas, the director of NCMA, wants to commercialize production of Maine-branded astaxanthin and sell it to salmon farmers in the state to support sustainable aquaculture practices and improve their product’s marketability.

Wang spent the first half of his summer working in the NCMA laboratory and greenhouse, running experiments on how to maximize algae’s astaxanthin production. For the second half of his internship, he left the lab for the office. Learning a suite of new skills in the process, Wang developed a business model that quantifies the cost, revenue, and profit for commercial astaxanthin production.

“It enlivens and enriches the Laboratory to have interns engage not only in research, but in our enterprise activities,” said Ben Twining, a senior research scientist and vice president for education. “There is so much potential in the work done by NCMA, and students bring diverse perspectives and skills to our efforts to expand this path for the Laboratory.”

This fall, Wang will continue exploring the interface of science and society in the Coastal Environmental Management program at Duke University. He credits that decision to his introduction to business and enterprise at Bigelow Laboratory.

“Scientists here think not just about science, but also about applications and policy,” Wang said. “Bigelow really opened up my mind to how diverse and multidimensional environmental science can be.”