A Sea Change for Students


Like many kids with dreams of becoming an oceanographer, Kenneth Lai’s interest in the sea began with whales. But the more he learned, the smaller his focus became. Microbes are now at the center of his curiosity, and he is especially interested in how they can survive in extreme conditions — and the light that sheds on how life may exist on other planets.

“When people say they’re interested in whales or multicellular organisms I’m usually just like, ‘That’s so boring,’” Lai said. “Because a lot of multicellular organisms are really limited as to what kind of conditions they can survive in. Microbes are fascinating because they can really be found anywhere.”

Lai is now a student in Bigelow Laboratory’s Sea Change Semester. The 14-week program gives students hands-on experience with marine research, equipping them with the tools to answer questions they have about the future of the ocean. Students live in residence and earn college credits through field research, courses, and independent research under the guidance of Bigelow Laboratory scientists.

“We give the students an immersive experience of what it’s like to be an oceanographer,” said Senior Research Scientist Nick Record, director of the program. “They conduct their own research in a working laboratory. It’s really different from a research experience on a college campus or even other hands-on programs. They get to experience exactly what it’s like to be a scientist.”

The program is a collaborative effort with Colby College, which awards course credits to participants, but it draws students from across the country.

Lai is one of those students. A junior at University of Washington, his semester project is on microbe-driven chemical reactions in the Arctic. He is working with Research Scientist Alex Michaud to investigate bacterial communities associated with iron-rich microbial habitats in Alaska. These habitats are common in the tundra, where bacteria significantly impact nutrient availability and control chemical reactions of iron and methane. Lai is studying the genetics of these microbes, their metabolism, and how they are involved in greenhouse gas emissions.

“I’ve been really excited to learn how to analyze genetic data found in the environment, and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing this semester,” he said. “I really wanted to come to Bigelow Laboratory because undergraduates don’t get many opportunities to work with genetic research tools like that.”

Students and instructor observing seawater sample

The Sea Change Semester gives students hands-on experience with the latest molecular, artificial intelligence, and synthetic biology tools. With guidance from their mentors, they choose a research question based on their personal interests to answer through an independent project. They also take part in field research that includes six cruises on the Damariscotta River. For many, the program even leads to their first published scientific paper. “There is such a different learning experience when you’re working on a project in a lab versus learning in a classroom,” Record said. “We try to incorporate that not just through their independent research project but as much as we can through the courses they take.”

Students complete three intensive, month-long courses that cover the foundations of marine ecology, microbial oceanography, biogeochemistry, biotechnology, and molecular biology. This interdisciplinary tack lies at the heart of Bigelow Laboratory’s approach to science, and the Sea Change Semester helps students use this unique environment to focus on solutions to real-world problems.

“If the students want to help address the pressing ocean issues the world is facing, they need to learn how to pull from the expertise of other fields, in addition to their own,” Record said. “Solutions to problems of this size and complexity take all of us working together.”

This collaborative approach dovetails with Bigelow Laboratory’s welcoming culture to integrate the students into life on the campus. They build connections with scientists from a wide variety of disciplines through both research and social events. These relationships provide students with mentors at a pivotal time in their careers, and they enable access to the far-reaching professional network that is fueled by the laboratory’s collaborations around the world.

“The scientists at Bigelow Laboratory don’t need any encouragement to open up to a student who shows up at their door,” said Ben Twining, Henry L. and Grace Doherty Vice President for Education. “I think of students who come here as not just part of the research group they work with, but part of the laboratory community.”

Now a University of Maine doctoral student co-advised by Senior Research Scientist Peter Countway, Sydney Greenlee is a familiar face around campus. She has participated in numerous educational opportunities at the laboratory during the last three years, and one of her first was the Sea Change Semester, which she completed as a junior at Colby College.

“The main strength of the program is that you’re not just getting foundational courses in oceanography and marine sciences, you’re also conducting research,” Greenlee said. “You’re not only learning the material; you’re learning how to apply it in all sorts of ways that you’d use as a scientist.”

student in a lab with collected samples

Greenlee did have a chance to apply the experience as a scientist, perhaps sooner than she expected. Following her participation in the program, she was offered a role as a student researcher on a six-week research cruise to the Southern Ocean with Senior Research Scientist Barney Balch. She now works with Countway using DNA found in the environment to understand harmful algal blooms in Maine’s coastal ecosystems.

Those insights can help states support environmental health — and the many people and industries that rely on it. This connection between ocean and human health is a core theme of research at Bigelow Laboratory, and a passion shared by its scientists and students.

Current Sea Change student Kenny Douyon, a junior at Colby College, is working on his independent project with Record using machine learning computer algorithms to forecast harmful algal blooms. The blooms are health and safety hazards around the world and are particularly hard on underdeveloped countries. Douyon immigrated to the United States from Haiti as a child, which has left him with a passion for helping communities with limited resources.

He hopes that the skills he is learning through his Sea Change experience will one day help him provide monitoring techniques and information to help countries like Haiti forecast and plan for environmental challenges.

“Understanding the processes that scientists use to get data helps you understand how the data can be used,” he said. “In order to really help developing communities you need to promote science that’s essential in that region and unique to that environment and community. It’s great to gain experience with some of the techniques now that I might need in the future.”