Experiential Learning Guides Poulton’s Scientific Path


In mid-May, a cohort of high school juniors from across Maine will gather at Bigelow Laboratory for the annual Keller BLOOM Program (applications open now through April 5!). Guiding them through the week of hands-on research experience in ocean science is Nicole Poulton. A senior research scientist who studies the ecology of phytoplankton, Poulton is the longstanding director of the program. For her, it’s a chance to provide students the same kinds of experiential learning opportunities that were so influential in shaping her own career as a scientist.

Originally from the Midwest, Poulton got the “ocean bug,” as she describes it, when her family moved to Fiji when she was 12. Her love of science, sparked by long days on the reef in the South Pacific, persisted when her family moved back to the United States several years later and she enrolled at Virginia Tech. It was there, as a double major in biology and chemistry, that Poulton got her first taste of experiential learning in a microbiology course.

“Rather than just test you on your knowledge, the professor made us use the knowledge we learned in class and let us be scientists,” Poulton said. “Microbiology can be so abstract, but he appreciated the exploratory aspect of it, which I thought was just revolutionary.”

2 females on a boat preparing to gather samples from the ocean

Not only did the experience inspire her to pursue a minor in microbiology, it also drove her to apply for as many research opportunities as she could. For Poulton, those experiences gave her the connections, passion, and knowledge that put her on the path to where she is today.

During a summer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, for example, she monitored phytoplankton using the same ocean color data her and colleagues at Bigelow Laboratory rely on today, several satellite generations later. After graduation, she applied to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Summer Student Fellowship program with a particular interest in the kinds of marine microbes she still studies. That summer with WHOI, during her first research cruise to the North Atlantic, Poulton also got her first experience with flow cytometry, a method adapted from the biomedical field for counting and identifying microorganisms. Today, she directs Bigelow Laboratory’s Center for Aquatic Cytometry, the center that first applied the technique to ocean science.

“I must have been such an outlier applying to the WHOI program hoping to study microbes, but half of my future doctoral thesis committee was on that research cruise,” Poulton said. “That experience was my first true introduction to all of this, and it just spiraled from there.”

Students speaking with an instructor on a boat.

After working as a technician in the lab of Sallie “Penny” Chisholm, an MIT professor whom she met on that formative cruise, Poulton began her doctorate in biological oceanography in the MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Joint Program studying how a toxic species that can cause harmful algal blooms responded to changing nutrient conditions in the Gulf of Maine. It was during that time that she worked with Maureen Keller, the co-founder of the Keller BLOOM program that Poulton would later direct. After several years continuing to advance the applications of flow cytometry in ocean science, Poulton finally came to Bigelow Laboratory where the techniques were originally pioneered.

As a postdoctoral researcher, she worked with former Senior Research Scientist Michael Sieracki, who directed the Center for Aquatic Cytometry at the time. Poulton also worked part-time at Fluid Imaging Technologies, a private company spun off from Bigelow Laboratory. That exposure to both the commercial and research applications of flow cytometry made her the clear choice to take over the center in 2014 when Sieracki moved on to his next role.

But even as she’s grown her responsibility and research program in the years since, Poulton has continued to pay forward the hands-on learning experiences she got as a young scientist. She has mentored students through the institute’s undergraduate summer internship program and the fall Sea Change Semester program, and she directs the BLOOM Educators Program, a summer professional development experience for Maine science teachers. She’s also been involved with Keller BLOOM, the high school program, since her early days at Bigelow Laboratory and directed the program since 2005. Reaching high school students, she says, has been particularly enriching.

“What made this whole journey possible for me was having these hands-on opportunities from a young age and dabbling in different areas to figure out what I wanted to do,” Poulton said. “Keller BLOOM isn’t just about training future scientists; it’s about getting these young people to really understand what it’s like to be a scientist.”