Program Inspires Next Generation of Ocean Leaders


During the middle of the night last September, conversation and splashes broke the typical quiet of midcoast Maine’s tiny Allen Island. Several students perched on a dock scooped up seawater, collecting samples of microscopic marine life as part of Bigelow Laboratory’s Sea Change Semester.

"It's an incredibly immersive experience," said Nick Record, a senior research scientist and the director of the program. "We expose them to all aspects of what it's like to be a scientist, help them take ownership of a research project, and foster the skills that can empower them as the next generation of ocean leaders."

The Sea Change Semester is a hands-on, intensive ocean science program for undergraduate students in residence at Bigelow Laboratory. This year’s cohort of six students swapped their classrooms for the lab, and a typical college semester for a deep dive into the world of research. They led independent projects under the mentorship of senior research scientists, built a foundation in ocean science during rigorous classes, and conducted fieldwork in the Gulf of Maine and around the state.

For several students, it was their first foray into ocean science research. Gabby Kim, however, began the semester already immersed in a research project at Bigelow Laboratory. In the spring of 2019, she took Earth Systems Chemistry at Colby College, which was co-taught by Ben Twining, a senior research scientist and the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Vice President for Education. She came to work with him as a Research Experience for Undergraduates intern the following summer.

"It's been very rewarding to be a part of the process of research, and it has helped me develop a better understanding of the issues surrounding climate change," said Kim, a double major in environmental science and government. "I think this experience will help me a lot when I go back to college next semester, and when it’s time to decide I want to do after graduation."

Throughout her internship and the Sea Change Semester, Kim and Twining worked together to study nutrient limitation along a transect in the eastern Pacific Ocean. In August, Kim had the opportunity to participate in international fieldwork when she flew to Bermuda to join her first research cruise. She will present the results of her project at the international Ocean Sciences Meeting in San Diego this February.

Over the semester, the rest of the cohort also worked with senior research scientists to conduct research on diverse topics. Their projects leveraged cutting-edge techniques and research directions, from developing eDNA tools for Maine’s aquaculture industry to using CRISPR/Cas 9 to edit the genome of an oyster parasite. Led by Research Scientist Nicole Poulton, the students also collected data during six research cruises in the Damariscotta River. They added their measurements to a long-term dataset that was begun in 2012 when the Sea Change program started.

"This program is powerful because the students learn through authentic inquiry without predetermined results," Twining said. "They work side by side with us as colleagues to answer real research questions using cutting-edge technologies, and that experience provides totally different opportunities than what’s available on a college campus."

Twining and Postdoctoral Researcher Jake Beam co-taught the final course of the semester, "Ocean Biogeochemistry on a Changing Planet." They structured the course based on the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which came out in September and identified major changes to the ocean as a result of warming and acidification. These served as the basis for the students to learn how the oceans function through crucial chemical processes, and how these processes are shifting.

These ocean changes also became fodder for something unusual – stop-motion animation videos. As part of a two-day workshop aimed at building their science communication skillsets, the students wrote, illustrated, and produced short videos that describe ocean alkalinity and deoxygenation for non-scientists.

"Just as ocean sciences are inherently interdisciplinary, so is this program," Beam said. "Integrating fields that are typically separate in undergraduate courses gives the students the opportunity to learn about the big picture of ocean science and interact with people from all sorts of backgrounds."

In December, the semester ended with the students sharing their research with one another and the greater Bigelow Laboratory community. They presented results from their Damariscotta River fieldwork in a poster session, and they gave short talks about their independent research projects in a joint symposium with a group of Bowdoin College students.

The researchers who teach the Sea Change Semester continually update the program to keep pace with the full range of innovative research taking place at Bigelow Laboratory. For next year, they are considering the addition of a specialized track for students interested in a deeper immersion into molecular biology techniques.

"The questions we’re facing as a society demand leaders who encompass diverse skills and backgrounds," Record said. "The students who come through this program always give me an exciting preview of what our future ocean leaders will look like."