Experience Lays Foundation for Education Program


Sophomore Halia Morris traveled to Maine this summer to learn about the microscopic ocean life that drives the planet. She came into the week-long educational program at Bigelow Laboratory with research experience, but the course enabled her to explore the ocean in new ways. She participated in hands-on fieldwork, learned laboratory techniques from scientists, and conducted research in a new part of the world. By the end of her visit, she left with a fresh outlook on her education.

“This experience opened my mind to the molecular microbiology side of ocean science, and I like the story it tells,” Morris said. “The microbes tell you about big things like evolution or environmental adaptations. Even though they’re a very small part of an entire ecosystem, they really have a huge impact on everything around them.”

Morris is a marine and environmental science major at Hampton University, a historically black university in Virginia. She came to Bigelow Laboratory with two other students and two professors as part of a pilot program to provide Hampton University students with hands-on research experience. Staff from both institutes are working to develop the nascent program into something that will impact students for years to come.

“It’s important to build relationships with faculty to help them understand how Bigelow Laboratory fits into ocean science and what opportunities are available here for students,” said Ben Twining, Henry L. and Grace Doherty Vice President for Education. “It's not enough to just put an ad out for internships, you need to work with faculty to foster student understanding of how our programs complement and build on the work students are doing at their home institutions.”

As chair of the Department of Marine and Environmental Science, Deidre Gibson is constantly looking for ways to interest students in environmental sciences. Alongside fellow professor Indu Sharma, she was part of the visit this summer and is helping lead efforts to develop the program. She sees hands-on experience at Bigelow Laboratory is a way to inspire students with new perspectives.

“We like to provide opportunities for students in our department,” Gibson said. “Chesapeake Bay is a great place to do research, but gaining experiences in different environmental regions helps students better relate classroom lessons to real-life research.”

The professors think the new program could be particularly valuable to students who just finished freshman year, allowing them an early chance to learn about diverse fields in marine science. This could help recruit and retain students considering an environmental sciences major.

The three students who participated this summer were immersed in a dynamic scientific community and gained insights into some of the fundamental processes that shape our planet. Sierra Merritt, a sophomore, joined as a chemistry major who wanted a chance to learn something new.

“This program gives you the chance to get your feet wet,” said Merritt. “Whether or not you end up pursuing marine or environmental science, they are an important part of everyone’s lives because we all live on this planet. I think everyone could get something out of the program, whether it be academically or just personally.”

Although researchers at Hampton study marine biology and oceanography, the university focuses on fisheries and larger organisms. Coming to Bigelow Laboratory provides the students an opportunity to get experience with the latest microbiology and genetic tools being used to understand the foundation of global ocean health.

“The students experienced a lot of different types of research that we don’t do in our department,” Gibson said. “They learned completely different skills at Bigelow Laboratory that open up opportunities for them. Even if they decide not to go in those directions, they can help share what they learned with their peers.”

Gibson has been friends and colleagues with Bigelow Laboratory President Deborah Bronk for almost three decades. Over the years, they discussed ways to collaborate and mentor students from Hampton University.

They secured a three-year grant in 2020 from the Herndon Foundation to send students to Bigelow Laboratory and develop an educational partnership. Gibson and Sharma came to Maine in 2021 to develop the plan. When they arrived, they found more than they expected.

“At first, we were just thinking of bringing students,” Gibson said. “But once we came, we realized there were a lot more connections than we thought. We saw the potential for a relationship that could benefit both students and researchers.”

Sharma began talking to Senior Research Scientist Beth Orcutt, and they saw the potential for collaborative research. Both scientists study marine microbes to understand their ecological roles. However, Sharma works on culturing them in the lab, and Orcutt studies their genetics. The two are now collaborating on a long-term project to look at life in the deep ocean.

The researchers hope these connections can grow into fruitful collaborations and a full-fledged student program. They also hope they can help with efforts to build a diverse field of ocean scientists, which has not historically been the case.

“I see microbiology as a very monochromatic field,” Sharma said. “I have a long-term goal to see a lot of diversity in ocean science, and I think a program like this is a good platform to help build towards that vision.”

Twining said that one-on-one recruitment of diverse students can only make so much of a difference and that it's critical to also nurture relationships with faculty. It is through these partnerships that programs like this become integrated at a community level and develop the strong foundation needed for long-term success.

“Our staff really care about growing diversity in science and many are eager to participate in programs like this,” he said. “This summer was one of our first efforts in that direction, and we’re excited to continue to learn how we can develop these efforts and support progress in our field.”