Postdocs Propel Institute’s Research and Community


A postdoctoral position at any institution can be a challenging role, and, for many postdocs, it’s also an isolating one. But the experience of postdoctoral researchers at Bigelow Laboratory shows that it doesn’t need to be.

Postdocs, in that transition after graduate school, come to this idyllic corner of Maine for different reasons, from the beautiful location to prior experience with potential mentors to the institute’s targeted focus. But, once here, all find a supportive community, ample opportunities to gain experience in mentorship, and a unique organizational structure that prioritizes research, flexibility, and professional development.

“Our scientists wouldn’t generate the caliber of work they do without a cohort of incredibly skilled postdocs each year,” said Vice President for Research Beth Orcutt. “In return, the postdocs here are provided with more access, more voice, and more opportunity than possible most anywhere else.”

Academic Excellence

As an independent, nonprofit institution, Bigelow Laboratory provides a different kind of research environment than most incoming postdocs are used to.

“The work here is very specific to the ocean, but it’s broad in terms of the techniques used, the facets of study, and the partners we collaborate with,” said Alaina Weinheimer, a current postdoc. “There’s a lot of avenues to go down, networks to tap into, and skills to learn.”

Between small labs, an open floor plan, and a broad technical staff, postdocs are able to engage with a diverse pool of researchers and get a first-hand view of the day-to-day experiences of running a lab. And if they’re interested in exploring potential careers in industry, Bigelow Laboratory has several Discovery Centers that are providing valuable services and doing applied research with companies and institutions around the world.

Many of those centers are also pushing the frontier of scientific technology.

Postdoctoral Scientist Dave Ernst

“What drew me to Bigelow Laboratory was the specific project I was going to be working on and the unique ability of researchers here to answer those fundamental questions by leveraging technologies like single cell genomics and flow cytometry,” said Melody Lindsay, a former postdoc and current research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory.

For Lindsay, another significant draw of the institute was the rare but powerful opportunity to be named on research proposals as a co-investigator. That offers the opportunity to learn the “necessary and practical stuff,” as Lindsay says, needed to run a research program, like budgeting and project management.

“Postdocs contribute a lot of ideas to research proposals, but they don’t often get the credit for it at other institutions,” said Vice President for Education Ben Twining. “To say you’ve been co-lead on a proposal is an invaluable feather in your cap as you move forward in a research career.”

Despite the institute’s focus on research, postdocs also have a diversity of opportunities to get teaching and mentorship experience. Between a summer internship program, the Sea Change Semester, and long-standing relationships with programs like Northeastern University’s co-op, postdocs have the opportunity to mentor undergraduates and even teach formal classes throughout the year. In the past, some postdocs have taken on part-time teaching at other institutions, while some labs also host graduate students.

“With a constant stream of students, there are great opportunities, for postdocs who want it, to get education experience and start developing their own style and figuring out their career goals,” Twining said.

Postdoctoral Scientist Reyn Yoshioka

One of those experiences is the Rodney L. White Fellowship, which provides salary support for the postdoc, and a mentoring senior scientist, to take on an undergraduate summer intern. For most postdocs, it’s their first opportunity to support a student one-on-one and to spin up a research project that’s all their own. The fellowship also comes with funding for the postdoc to attend a scientific conference with their intern and mentor.

“It’s a really awesome experience,” said Reyn Yoshioka, this year’s recipient of the fellowship. “It’ll allow us to start up a new area of work for our lab, and it’ll open up new paths and opportunities in research and mentorship for me specifically.”

Community Support

What makes the postdoc experience perhaps most unique, though, is the Bigelow Laboratory community, which prides itself on transparency, inclusivity, and flexibility.

Rather than being the sole postdoc in a department, postdocs are part of a large cohort which provides a built-in network to share opportunities and advice.

“Making that transition from graduate school to a new place and starting new research can be tough,” Orcutt said. “Having a community of peers that you can talk to helps it feel not so overwhelming.”

Postdocs meet regularly and work together on research and outreach activities. They also have a monthly seminar series focused on their unique and specific professional development needs.

“To quote Bigelow Laboratory’s own welcome letter, what makes this place is the people,” said current postdoc Yasmina Shah Esmaeili. “Having such a big group — I think there’s 16 of us at this point — creates this very supportive system.”

Beyond their own cohort, though, postdocs also have a unique degree of involvement in decision-making given the institute’s flat organizational structure. For example, postdocs serve on various governance committees, and they have a voice in the regular meetings of senior research scientists and executive leadership.

Postdoctoral Scientists Yasmina Shah Esmaeili, Alaina Weinheimer, Keir Macartney, and Sarah Douglas

“Because of Bigelow Laboratory’s modest size, we have swift and easy access to the folks that make the decisions of how the lab is operating, which is so unusual,” Yoshioka said. “We can quickly advocate for our needs and work directly with leadership toward obtaining them.”

The diverse training and ample networking opportunities allows postdocs to keep open several career paths. Postdocs have gone on to careers in industry, startups, academia, and federal service, and the program has a high placement rate in a competitive job market.

“I’m trying to cast a wide net in terms of keeping my career options open,” said Weinheimer. “That’s why I appreciate the broad range of postdocs and staff here because everyone is doing something different, and there’s a lot of ideas and experiences to draw from.”


Photo 1: Postdoctoral Scientist Laura Sofen leads a lab exercise for undergraduate students in the Sea Change Semester program biogeochemistry class.

Photo 2: Postdoctoral Scientist Dave Ernst collects samples on the Maine Coast for an innovative project developing environmental RNA tools to assist mussel farmers with seed collection.

Photo 3: Postdoctoral Scientist Reyn Yoshioka works with resource managers to study the impact of infectious diseases on marine species, like snow crabs, to help inform fisheries management. Photo Courtesy of Nicole Charriere

Photo 4: Postdoctoral Scientists Yasmina Shah Esmaeili, Alaina Weinheimer, Keir Macartney, and Sarah Douglas (left to right) take a break from research to attend the annual Halloween party hosted by President and CEO Deborah Bronk.