Grad Students Bring Energy, Excitement as They Explore eDNA


Since its founding 50 years ago, the scientific staff at Bigelow Laboratory has expanded significantly, with a growing suite of positions from postdoctoral scientists to research technicians. The one position that wasn’t regularly available, though, was graduate student — until recently.

For the last five years, Bigelow Laboratory has hosted a cohort of visiting PhD students from the University of Maine as part of the Maine-eDNA program. The multi-institutional initiative, co-led by Bigelow Laboratory and UMaine, seeks to unlock the potential of the assorted DNA that can be found in every drop of water to advance the understanding and management of coastal ecosystems. The program is funded by the National Science Foundation EPSCoR program, which seeks to strengthen science, technology, and engineering capacity and expand the STEM workforce in Maine.

“Graduate students are really invested in their research and super motivated because they have a specific goal they’re working toward,” said Senior Research Scientist Peter Countway, one of the investigators on the Maine-eDNA project. “I think we’ve all seen what having a core group of these young scientists working alongside us, bringing all this energy and excitement, has done for the lab.”

 Kyle Oliveira collects water samples

Having PhD students has created opportunities for staff scientists to get experience training graduate students. For postdoctoral researchers, in particular, that mentorship experience is invaluable if they apply for academic jobs in the future. There are also the intangible benefits, like the fresh perspective they bring to the intellectual community and the young energy they’ve injected into the Boothbay peninsula.

“One of the cool things about getting to work with so many of the students on their different research questions is that it’s opened my eyes to how these tools and ideas can be applied more broadly to my own work and other areas of ecological research,” Countway said.

Since the project began in 2020, Bigelow Laboratory has hosted six PhD students, each with a Bigelow Laboratory and a UMaine advisor. PhD students hosted at other Maine-eDNA partners across the state also regularly visit to leverage the institute's resources. The majority aim to finish next year with doctorates from the UMaine School of Marine Sciences, in oceanography or marine biology.

The students are working on a wide range of questions, but all the research feeds into the larger eDNA project goal of applying and developing innovative tools to understand Maine’s coast. For example, they’re looking at the impacts of climate change and invasive species on the health and genetic diversity of kelp forests — and the larger ecosystem they underpin. They’re developing methods for tracking the movement of species in response to warming temperatures, now and in the future, and for tracing the breakdown of kelp in sediment to inform marine carbon dioxide removal strategies. They’re even developing portable tests to quickly and accurately identify communities of algae to help detect toxic species.

Rene Francolini filters eDNA samples in the lab

The diversity of research mirrors the diversity in the students’ paths to Bigelow Laboratory. Their undergraduate degrees vary from environmental science and biology to fisheries science and zoology. Some weren’t very familiar with Bigelow Laboratory before this opportunity opened up; others were.

Sydney Greenlee, for example, participated in the institute’s Sea Change Semester program in 2018, followed by a research cruise in the Southern Ocean with Barney Balch, an emeritus senior research scientist. Shane Farrell began diving with Senior Research Scientist Doug Rasher, his future PhD advisor, as an intern in 2018. And Dara Yiu was planning to come as a research technician when the pandemic created the opportunity to join the PhD program instead.

After almost five years here, they also all have different plans for the future. Some, like Sam Tan, say they’re more interested now in the possibilities of non-academic research jobs after their time at Bigelow Laboratory. Rene Francolini, meanwhile, is interested in applied research that benefits the working waterfront. Others, like Kyle Oliveira, have realized, through doing outreach activities, that they’d like to move into the policy and government research world.

“The molecular techniques we’re using transfer to a lot of different systems and questions,” Greenlee said. “I love working with algae, but there’s so many different things I can do with the skills I’ve learned here, and I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

Sydney Greenlee drilling into the lake ice

But all of the visiting students highlight many of the same benefits of the unique experience of being a Bigelow Laboratory graduate student, including the opportunities to work with students and community members through various educational programs and outreach events. One of the biggest advantages they cite is the institute’s modest size and open community, which provides graduate students easy access to all of the scientists at Bigelow Laboratory and their broad body of expertise.

“One of the real joys of working here — besides this state-of-the-art facility, beautiful campus, and incredible access to coastal waters — is the people,” Farrell said. “The running joke is that the glass offices are set up like fishbowls, but that’s representative of the culture here, and it’s very powerful to have so many different experts that you can turn to.”

For Countway, who co-leads Bigelow Laboratory’s education committee, the experience of having graduate students over the last five years has him thinking about opportunities to host PhD students at Bigelow Laboratory in the future as the five-year Maine-eDNA grant comes to an end.

“I think we’ve demonstrated that this can work, and it can work really well as a potential model going forward,” Countway said. “We don’t know what the next version of graduate education at Bigelow Laboratory looks like, but this experience has encouraged us to be creative in thinking about future opportunities that involve graduate students in our research.”

Photo 1: Dara Yiu and Shane Farrell prepare to dive for a kelp survey off Ram Island, Maine.

Photo 2: Kyle Oliveira collects water samples to test for white shark eDNA off Cape Cod (credit: Colby Johns).

Photo 3: Rene Francolini filters eDNA samples in the lab (credit: Jennifer Smith-Mayo).

Photo 4: Sydney Greenlee drilling into the lake ice to sample for cyanobacteria during Maine’s winter.