Students Bring Diversity, Life to Bigelow Laboratory


Allegra Rocha’s job is to keep fleas alive, which is easier said than done. She is researching a group of organisms called cladocera, commonly known as marine fleas. These tiny crustaceans can make clones of themselves – an understandably useful process for scientists to explore. However, they are notoriously difficult to study because they have a hard time surviving laboratory conditions. So, Allegra is working on a way to sustain them during a summer internship at Bigelow Laboratory.

"I’ve always been interested in animals. If there's anything that I can do with animals or something that's alive, I'm willing to try it," said Allegra, a student at University of the Pacific, in Stockton, California. "I never really thought I would be someone that was constantly doing experiments, but I'm really enjoying what I'm doing here."

Each year, Bigelow Laboratory scientists invite college students, like Allegra, to conduct independent research at the lab. Students work with mentors to identify a scientific question, conduct research, and communicate their findings. Many of these students are here as part of the Research Experience for Undergraduates program, funded by the National Science Foundation.

Bigelow Laboratory researchers are mentoring almost 40 students this year on topics ranging from the biology of microorganisms to the study of entire ecosystems using satellites. Some students are working remotely, some commute, and some live in the residence hall on the Laboratory’s East Boothbay campus. And after a year of socially distanced research, the bustle of students learning, sharing their science, and collaborating with peers and mentors has helped revitalize the lab.

"It is really cool because we have spent the past year and a half basically on our own, and now there's 20 of us living in a dorm with each other," said Allegra, who also did a remote internship with Bigelow Laboratory last year. "I can have these different experiences and hear about the work everybody is doing. Then, at the same time, collaborate with others. I love it!"

Science intern preparing water sample

One of the strengths of the interns is the diversity they bring with them. Students come from around the country with different backgrounds and experiences, which is all part of an laboratory-wide effort to foster a more inclusive scientific community.

"If science is being governed by a bunch of people that have the same background, they're going to address questions using the same approaches," said Senior Research Scientist David Fields, who coordinates the Research Experience for Undergraduates program at Bigelow Laboratory. "People from different cultural backgrounds come at problems with diverse toolsets. Bringing in a variety of viewpoints enriches both the current science and the future of the field."

One goal of the internship program is to give students an opportunity they may not otherwise have. From geographic constraints, to financial hardships, to limited exposure to science, not all students have had the same opportunities to be a part of research. David believes in accepting students who he feels will thrive if given the chance, not just the ones with the best transcripts.

"There are different metrics for success, and they're not always just grades or what school they're in," David said. "I struggled in my early years of college and somebody took a chance on me. I did a science internship in Hawaii, and it was life changing. You give people as many opportunities as you can, and some of them will go on to do really amazing things."

One way Bigelow Laboratory provides these opportunities is to look for students outside of big universities, the traditional research environment. Asher Platts is one such student from Southern Maine Community College who is working on a bachelor’s degree in biology, his second degree.

Asher was always interested in science. When he was young, he read science magazines and nature guides. As an adult, he regularly listened to science podcasts while working a manufacturing job. However, Asher has dyscalculia, which is similar to dyslexia but with numbers.

"In college, I was super intimidated by the math there," he said. "I just was like: ‘well, I'm not smart enough, I can't do it.’"

Asher ended up getting a music degree, which he said he would do again, but he eventually felt compelled to become a biologist. He remembers an epiphany he had on a sailboat as he looked out over a fish kill, a phenomenon where groups of fish die in a local area.

"I wondered why they had died," he said. "And then I realized that if I went back to school for marine biology, my whole job could be ‘why did they die?’"

Asher has since found ways to comfortably work with numbers and is now working with Senior Research Scientist Beth Orcutt on a summer internship. He is researching sediments to explore how microbes may respond to deep sea mining in the Pacific Ocean. While he admits the work isn't easy, he feels drawn to the challenge.

Summer intern collecting water sample

"I am often simultaneously completely out of my depth and totally in my element – I love it!" he said. "I love the continuous feeling of trying to figure things out and then the little hits of dopamine that you get when something seems to be working."

Both Asher’s and Allegra’s projects represent an important part of the research experience: scientific discovery. Sometimes the work is tedious and sometimes it’s thrilling but each student is working on a challenging new problem without an answer … yet.

"We're all working on stuff that nobody knows yet," Asher said. "To be on the leading edge of knowledge, even if it's only making small bits of progress, adds up over time to a much bigger totality of knowledge. And that's just super exciting!"

The process of finding these answers is one of the keys to what makes a successful research internship. Beth, who was part of a Research Experience for Undergraduates internship in college, aims to give Asher and her other students particularly challenging projects, not because she wants her students to struggle, but because the reward can be big.

"You help eliminate their fear by having a process to understand the challenges and then making it abundantly clear that we know this is high risk," she said. "If we get something that works, no one has ever done it before. And if it were easy, someone would have already done it."

While the internship experience is educational by nature, at the end of the day, each student's success is measured by their own accomplishments. Through planning, dedication, and creativity, students learn the skills that make a successful scientist and, perhaps, a better person.

"We hope that they learn how to take ownership of the direction of their lives," David said. "They're not going to get judged. There's nothing to be graded. Everything here is just an opportunity. I want them to take home the feeling that they had a really good opportunity and that they took full advantage of all it had to offer – and, really, I hope that's how they approach everything in their lives."