Semester Students Step Out of Their Comfort Zone


Annabelle Warren grew up in Arkansas, far from the coast. But with good Google skills she learned as a high schooler about a marine science institute on the coast of Maine, over 1,500 miles away. Today, she is a participant in Bigelow Laboratory’s Sea Change Semester program, an immersive, 14-week program that combines in-depth coursework, independent research, and hands-on scientific training.

Warren is the latest in a long line of students who have gained real-world experience in ocean science through Bigelow Laboratory’s growing suite of hands-on education programs.

“It’s the unique student who really wants to take advantage of all that we have to offer,” said Vice President for Education Ben Twining. “And, for that student, this is an amazing opportunity.”

Inspired by the energy and enthusiasm summer interns brought to Bigelow Laboratory when that program began in 2009, scientists began brainstorming other opportunities to engage undergraduates. In 2012, they landed on the Sea Change Semester — a model that Twining said “plays to our strengths as a state-of-the-art research lab.”

Made possible through a partnership with Colby College, which accredits the courses, Sea Change is open to undergraduates across the country. Students participate in semester-long independent research with guidance from a scientist mentor, as well as a field class that includes several research cruises. They also take three foundational courses that cover topics in oceanography, microbiology, and biogeochemistry.

For Warren, everything this semester has been new, and she described it as her first in-depth exposure to ocean science and independent research outside of the classroom.

Semester students exploring Allen Island

“I have learned so much already, and it’s really helped me hone in on my particular interests,” she said.

Warren is working with Senior Research Scientist Rachel Sipler to study the accumulation of microplastics in different types of marine algae. The project enabled her to try out scientific snorkeling to collect samples and, alongside her classes, has exposed her to the field of microbiology for the first time.

“Being here has definitely pushed me toward wanting to continue doing research in ocean science specifically,” she said. “I’m already planning the classes I’m going to take when I get back to Colby!”

Throughout the semester, students also live together in the Bigelow Laboratory residence hall, participating in the intellectual and social life of the community,

“One of the things that’s special about the program is the really high ratio of PhD scientists to students,” said Senior Research Scientist Nick Record, who runs the program. “We’re right at the frontier of science, and students get to be immersed in that process.”

Other benefits the program affords include experience with peer-review; the chance to develop skills in collaboration, leadership, and project management; and the opportunity to build strong mentoring relationships that can continue long past the program’s end.

Semester students on a research cruise

Given its successes, Bigelow Laboratory has been working to expand access to the program in recent years. That has meant expanding access to students from a broad range of academic backgrounds and recruiting participants from universities across the country. Twining has worked to raise philanthropic money to support students from other schools whose financial aid may not transfer to Colby. To date, they’ve distributed over $300,000 to ensure that the experience doesn’t cost students any more than a similar semester at their home institutions.

One of the students who has benefitted from that expansion is Melyssa Correa-Diaz, a senior environmental science major at University of Rochester. Coming from Las Vegas, Correa-Diaz grew up with a deep appreciation for the importance of clean water, but they had never spent time on the ocean.

“I remember my chemical oceanography professor talking about field cruises, and I knew then that I wanted to do that,” they said. “I came to this program, and they threw us right in with a research cruise that first week. I didn’t expect to check that off my list so fast.”

This semester, Correa-Diaz is working with Manoj Kamalanathan to understand how much phytoplankton growth is driven by osmotrophy, a feeding mechanism where the plankton absorb nutrients directly rather than through photosynthesis. Their findings could have important implications for how much atmospheric carbon the ocean can sequester, and, while Correa-Diaz said it’s all new to them, it’s exciting to dig so deep into the biological sciences.

All of that has been possible, they said, by Bigelow Laboratory being proactive in meeting their accommodations and helping them secure the aid necessary to participate. Correa-Diaz and Warren, in fact, both say they’re already planning to encourage fellow students to participate in the program.

“Someone who is ready to step outside of their comfort zone is the sort of person who’s really going to get a lot out of this,” Record said. “That makes me excited to bring in students — whatever their affiliation — as long as they’re ready to have an adventure and give it all they’ve got.”