Educating the Next Generation


In the late 1980s, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences was a nascent research institute nestled on the coast in West Boothbay Harbor. As the scientists continued studying the ocean’s tiniest inhabitants, they also began to turn their attention toward cultivating the next generation of researchers.

One of the leaders was Maureen Keller, an expert in phytoplankton ecology and physiology and a passionate advocate for education. With the aim of making ocean science careers more accessible, especially to women, she teamed up with Trustee Jim McLoughlin and Bigelow Laboratory co-founder Clarice Yentsch. The trio designed a unique program — a week of hands-on ocean science learning that would immerse high school juniors from across Maine in a professional laboratory. The Bigelow Laboratory Orders of Magnitude (BLOOM) program was named to celebrate the diverse microbiota whose sizes span many orders of magnitude in the ocean — the focus of the new program, as well as the work of Bigelow Laboratory scientists.

"Bigelow Laboratory recognized the value of experiential education quite early on," said Tom Keller, Maureen’s husband and a science education expert. "Giving high school students exposure to a professional laboratory environment and the chance to work side-by-side with scientists as peers is unique."

Maureen Keller remained at the program’s helm through its first decade. When she passed away in 1999, the program was renamed to honor her leadership and contributions to ocean science and education.

Today, the Keller BLOOM program is in its 30th year. It continues to deliver upon the same ethos of providing authentic science education opportunities to Maine students, nearly 500 to date. Its graduates have gone on to pursue higher education and diverse careers — many in Maine, which is challenged by the "brain drain" of people with advanced degrees leaving the state.

"I think a weakness of science education is that many classroom laboratory experiments have predetermined results," said Nicole Poulton, a research scientist and director of the program since 2005. "When we take the students into the field, we have no idea what results they’ll get. There are no right or wrong answers, and that gives the students room to ask questions and draw their own conclusions from the data. They thrive on it."

Though the BLOOM program maintains the original core mission and approach, it continues to adapt and expand to expose students to cutting-edge technologies and techniques. As part of a new component in 2019, Senior Research Scientist Nichole Price led the students in a kelp aquaculture experiment, exposing them to research at the forefront of Maine’s developing blue economy.

"For a high school student to be embedded in a world-class research institution for a week is both unusual and extraordinary," said David Fields, a senior research scientist who helps run the program. "And it’s all due to an incredibly dedicated group of people and the support of individuals and organizations that donate to the program each year. Their efforts have allowed this program to continue uninterrupted for 30 years and offer generations of students an eye-opening experience."


Growing up in Cumberland, Jamie Currie spent his early years looking at books about fish and watching documentaries about sharks. Despite having never heard of Bigelow Laboratory, he took a teacher’s suggestion and applied to the Keller BLOOM program during his junior year of high school in 2011.

"BLOOM was my first real exposure to large-scale environmental research, and it showed me the doorways I could walk through to keep the ocean in my life," Currie said. "Nicole and David and all the other scientists involved put their hearts and souls into the program, and seeing their passion about their work lit a fire in all of us."

Currie went on to study aquatic science at Kenyon College, where he helped lead a wetland restoration effort and also learned filmmaking techniques. Today, he unites his interests in science and film as an assistant science communicator with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Integration and Application Network.

Back in 2011, Currie experienced a pivotal moment while analyzing data from the research cruise on the Sheepscot River that begins every Keller BLOOM week. He noticed a sudden spike in dissolved nutrients, and spent hours with a group of other students trying to understand why the water chemistry would change so suddenly. They finally realized that it was likely an effect from tidal processes and runoff.

"Working with other BLOOM students to figure that out showed me how we as a species affect the environment around us, and that the impacts we have are profound," Currie said. "That moment drove the point home very clearly, and it helped set me on an environmental science and communication trajectory."

Currie returned to Bigelow Laboratory in 2019, when Poulton organized a career panel as part of the 30th anniversary of the program. Along with four other alumni, he shared his experience with the current students, encouraging them to think creatively about the range of opportunities open to them.

"The night we got to meet the alumni and hear about their paths was amazing," said Toby Seidel, a Lincoln Academy student and 2019 BLOOM participant. "It was incredible to see how the Keller BLOOM program led them to other research, travels, and interesting jobs. It showed me how many possibilities there are in the scientific field, and that it’s possible to find something that really fits."


LeAnn Whitney didn’t grow up planning to become an ocean scientist. In fact, before she participated in the Keller BLOOM program in 2000, they felt more like mythical creatures than real people.

"In my experience, scientists were only in textbooks or on TV," Whitney said. "Coming to Bigelow Laboratory and meeting card-carrying scientists who were also ordinary people had a lasting effect on me."

Whitney’s experience in the Keller BLOOM program inspired her to study marine science at the University of Maine, and then to pursue a doctorate in cell and molecular biology at the University of Rhode Island.

Though she didn’t know quite how she would do it, her ultimate goal was always to move back to Maine. In 2012, she returned to Bigelow Laboratory as a postdoctoral scientist to work with Senior Research Scientist Mike Lomas, bringing her background in cutting-edge molecular techniques to his study of phytoplankton in challenging environments.

Whitney credits the mentors she worked with along the way for helping her discover her research and teaching interests. Looking back, those interactions feel almost serendipitous, guiding her towards unknown areas that have become focal points of her career.

"I think the greatest effect that a mentor can have is being passionate about their work, because passion is always contagious," Whitney said. "Experiencing the impact those relationships can have has made mentoring so important to me."

In 2018, Whitney became a research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory and an assistant professor of oceanography at Maine Maritime Academy. In both roles, mentoring is one of the most important and fulfilling parts of her work.

Over the last several summers, she has mentored Research Experiences for Undergraduates interns at Bigelow Laboratory. She enjoys seeing them flourish in the lab and take ownership of their research, driving projects forward out of their own curiosity.

"Maureen would have been tremendously proud of LeAnn," Keller said. "She has shown that you don’t have to leave Maine to have an impactful career in ocean science."


A career in ocean science can be full of adventure. Sara Cathey has circumnavigated Iceland twice, gone diving on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and managed a laboratory in Antarctica.

Cathey’s interest in oceanography began during her time as a participant in the inaugural Keller BLOOM program in 1990. She went on to study biology at the University of New Hampshire, where she worked in a marine science lab studying zooplankton genetics and population dynamics. After graduating and spending three years as a ski bum in Wyoming, she returned to New Hampshire to manage the same laboratory and continue conducting research.

"Thirty years ago, the Keller BLOOM program was the first time I interacted with genuine research," Cathey said. "It left a deep impression on me as a high school student, and it was monumental in shaping the path I’ve taken."

Today, Cathey teaches marine biology at Oyster River High School in Durham, New Hampshire, where she seeks to give her students the same exposure to authentic research that inspired her. She runs long-term experiments with her classes, takes them on research cruises, and encourages them to intern at the University of New Hampshire. One of her current students even works in the same lab space that Cathey did in college.

Last summer, she returned to Bigelow Laboratory to participate in a version of the Keller BLOOM course that has been designed for educators. In response to requests from teachers across Maine, Poulton and Fields began the program in 2009 to expand the impact of the Keller BLOOM experience and help develop ocean literacy.

Alongside nine other BLOOM Educator participants, Cathey attended seminars by Bigelow Laboratory scientists, practiced using an ocean science sampling toolkit, and identified plankton under a microscope. She also began developing ideas for a long-term plankton sampling experiment to run with her class, and she exchanged lesson plans and ideas with other teachers.

"Educating 10 teachers each year multiplies the effect of these programs far beyond the 16 students we teach directly," Poulton said. "Just as we’re teaching students about the orders of magnitude of life in the oceans, we’ve also increased our impact by an order of magnitude. It’s exciting to think about how the program can grow over the next 30 years."

The last photo is courtesy of Roxana Branch.