Major Expansion to Advance Ocean Education and Innovation


On June 8, World Ocean Day, Bigelow Laboratory announced an initiative to create a transformative new center for ocean education and innovation. Embodied by a $30 million, 25,000-square-foot laboratory addition, the center will revolutionize Bigelow Laboratory’s education and solutions-focused work.

Dedicated teaching labs and classrooms will enable more students and scientists to get hands-on training with cutting-edge techniques. New laboratories will expand support for green business innovation and enable the addition of four more research groups. Newly endowed funds will provide seed grants for exploring promising, creative ideas. And a large and flexible forum will serve as a hub for international scientific collaboration and facilitate ocean solutions among local communities here in Maine.

“Research to understand the foundation of global ocean health will always be at the core of our work,” said Deborah Bronk, president and CEO. “But our staff has doubled since we moved into our current space in 2012, and I’m excited by the growing ways we’re sharing what we learn and applying it to pressing societal problems.”

Groundbreaking is planned for October, with completion slated for spring 2025. Construction and future maintenance is being supported by an $8 million gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation — as well as more than $9 million from individual and institutional donors, and $12 million in federal funding through the National Institute of Standards and Technology 2023 Construction Grant Program.

Fundraising will continue through June 2024 to complete the resources needed for the center and the additional education, fundamental research, and solutions-focused initiatives it will enable. Since 2020, Bigelow Laboratory has raised more than $61 million from a variety of partners and donors to support the initiatives set forth in its 2020 Strategic Plan, of which the new center is a critical component.

“We’re incredibly grateful to our federal representatives, donors, and all those who are helping to raise these vital funds,” said Bill Burgess, chair of the board of trustees. “As the institute nears its fiftieth anniversary next year, this center for ocean education and innovation points to a bold vision for what Bigelow Laboratory will become during the next 50 years.”

Ocean Education

The new center will be purpose-built for flexibility. At the heart of a suite of teaching labs and classrooms is a two-story dynamic forum that will serve as a gathering space for scientists, students, and professionals alike. Together, these spaces will enable an expanding constellation of educational programs at Bigelow Laboratory. This growth will require focused effort to ensure that the programs’ full potential is reached, which is why the funding for the center includes the addition of a new role: marine educator.

“Education and outreach are critical outcomes of our research efforts, as well as an integral component of our mission,” said Ben Twining, senior research scientist and vice president for education at Bigelow Laboratory, “The investments in these new facilities and staff, along with the recent addition of our 48-foot research vessel, will allow us to greatly expand access to our hands-on education programs that already inspire hundreds of students each year.”

From weeklong experiences for high school students to semester-long experiences for undergraduates, Bigelow Laboratory education programs serve students all the way through their doctoral studies. Twining said that the new center will help enrich existing programs and broaden the student base they serve.

“All of our programs center on giving students authentic experiences doing real science alongside practicing scientists,” Twining said. “This has required using laboratories that are otherwise needed for important research projects and are not always ideal for working with large student groups. The new center will really boost the reach and impact of our education programs.”

This expanding reach doesn’t stop at students, however, as the new space will also allow for more professional development opportunities for an international community of educators, scientists, and representatives from industry, government, and Indigenous groups. This means the center will have an impact in ways both academic and economic.

Single- and multi-day courses and workshops are held throughout the year at Bigelow Laboratory, but those efforts are constrained by the current facilities. In addition to increasing access to those offerings, the 300-seat forum will enable the institute to host large collaborative events for both science and industry.

“The kind of education and connection that will be happening in this space reaches far beyond the transfer of knowledge,” said Mike Lomas, a senior research scientist who runs professional education programs on topics ranging from maintaining algal cultures to identifying harmful algal species. “It will also become a place where we are able to translate foundational science into a sustainable economy — one with local, national, and global reach.”

Ocean Innovation

“I’ve always said that our science shines brightest when it cross-pollinates with other fields and disciplines,” President Bronk said. “The greatest opportunities for discovery and innovation happen at the intersection of different specialties and ways of thinking.”

The center for ocean education and innovation is designed to harness this potential and foster the sort of interdisciplinary science that is the hallmark of Bigelow Laboratory. The laboratory expansion will have space for four additional research groups and will be filled with collaborative spaces for solutions-focused science. The strategic fundraising initiative surrounding the new center will also support the science — and people — that it takes to turn foundational discoveries into actionable solutions.

“I’m really looking forward to a dedicated space where teaching and learning can happen between scientists, students, industry, and other community members. It’s the kind of collaborative setting that we need to figure out how to navigate our rapidly changing environment,” said Nick Record, senior research scientist and director of the Tandy Center for Ocean Forecasting at Bigelow Laboratory.

The last two years have been the hottest on record for the Gulf of Maine. As the ecosystem responds to these changing conditions, opportunities and obstacles abound. New insights and tools are desperately needed. Record’s science focuses on using advanced computer algorithms and artificial intelligence to create reliable forecasts about life in the ocean, from alerts for imminent harmful algal blooms to identification of future right whale habitats.

Perhaps the most significant obstacle to early-stage research into new solutions — and into creative foundational research approaches — is funding. These projects start with an invigorating spark of inspiration, but data is needed before they’re attractive to funders. The fundraising initiative integral to the new center aims to address that issue by creating a permanent seed funding program that would provide financial support for promising, early-stage projects.

“Exploring our most creative ideas will not always work out exactly as expected, but they can take us somewhere even more exciting,” said Senior Research Scientist Manoj Kamalanathan, who recently received a seed funding grant. "They also represent some of the best opportunities for big leaps forward in our impact and understanding."

Kamalanathan was funded to explore the use of algae as a living fertilizer. His initial results indicated that the right blend of microalgal species might be able to live in the soil, produce the nutrients that will enhance the quality of the soil, and eliminate the environmental harm created by chemical fertilizers. The seed grant will allow him to scale up his experiments and build evidence that it’s an idea worth further investment.

“The innovative products and solutions we’re working on all hinge on the use of microalgae and seaweeds — living organisms — which makes the science and the solution intertwined and inseparable,” Bronk said. “Our insights are vital to businesses working to create sustainable products and processes through ocean life. There’s so much promise there, and it’s so exciting to think about all the innovative projects this new center will enable in the coming years.”

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: A rendering of the recently announced expansion of Bigelow Laboratory shows the new center in the foreground with the existing facilities behind.

Photo 2: A rendering of the front of Bigelow Laboratory shows the planned expansion.

Photo 3: Hannah Braslau, left, and Katie Baker undertook research on environmental DNA as interns in 2022.

Photo 4: The expansion will support the solutions-focused work of Senior Research Scientist Manoj Kamalanathan and other Bigelow Laboratory researchers.