Bigelow Laboratory Celebrates 50 Years


To learn more about Bigelow Laboratory's past innovations, and where we're heading in the future, read the special 50th anniversary edition of Transect.

Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences officially celebrated its 50th anniversary on July 1. In the five decades since its founding in 1974, the institute has continually pushed the boundaries of scientific discovery, buoyed from its earliest days by enthusiastic supporters in the Boothbay community and around the world.

Throughout the year, Bigelow Laboratory will celebrate its history of innovation, and the people who helped make those ocean discoveries and solutions possible, while sharing a bold vision for the coming decades. The celebration will culminate with the grand opening of Bigelow Laboratory’s new center for ocean education and innovation, which is currently under construction at its East Boothbay campus.

“Bigelow Laboratory pioneered a unique and highly effective model for research and scientific innovation, expanding what we know about the ocean, how scientists study it, and how we may use it to solve global challenges,” said President and CEO Deborah Bronk. “As we begin our anniversary celebrations, we’re excited to look back at all we’ve accomplished with the help of our supporters, and ahead to what will be possible over the next 50 years.”

Charles and Clarice Yentsch

Loaded with ambition and science equipment, a small research vessel called the Bigelow arrived in Boothbay Harbor 50 years ago marking the beginnings of Bigelow Laboratory. Founded by Charles and Clarice Yentsch, the institute was named for Henry Bryant Bigelow, a trailblazer of modern oceanography.

The Yentsches envisioned the new organization as an independent collaboration of researchers designed to maximize everyone’s creativity and contributions. They sought to avoid departmentalization and hierarchy, prioritize research above all else, and foster interdisciplinary and collaboration. Scientists were encouraged to pursue both lab- and field-based research and to study the ocean as a coherent whole in line with the philosophy of Henry Bigelow.

“We had a particular vision of how people could learn together when this began, but, 50 years ago, neither Charlie nor I could have dreamed that Bigelow Laboratory would become what it is today,” said Clarice Yentsch, one of the co-founders. “The model has continued to bring together an amazing group of curious people in this unique and extraordinary working and natural environment.”

Original site of Bigelow Laboratory from the air

For much of its early history, Bigelow Laboratory was based at McKown Point in West Boothbay Harbor, adjoining Department of Marine Resources facilities. In 2012, the institute moved into its state-of-the-art campus in East Boothbay. As the institute has grown — from just 12 scientists in 1974 to a staff of over 120 today — so has the reach of its discoveries and scientific contributions in all corners of the ocean.

Bigelow Laboratory has played a central role in key innovations that have advanced scientists’ understanding of the ocean and the global processes it drives. That includes pioneering the first application of flow cytometry, originally a biomedical tool, to the aquatic sciences; the first use of satellite imagery to monitor biological activity in the ocean; the first center for analyzing the genetic code of individual microbial cells; and the first FDA-approved facility for measuring biotoxins in shellfish using an advanced, quantitative method. The institute also curates the world’s most diverse collection of marine algae for research and commercial applications, and it maintains one of the longest-running oceanographic time series studies, which has helped illuminate the rapid changes underway in the Gulf of Maine.

“From the earliest days, Bigelow Laboratory has been a fixture for leading edge research into our world’s ocean,” said Rick Spinrad, NOAA Administrator, Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and a former Bigelow Laboratory research scientist. “The institute has set the pace and made critical discoveries, and its researchers’ efforts in flow cytometry, particle imaging, and algal culturing are world renown. It is because of Bigelow Laboratory’s leadership in these areas that the oceanographic community has made such wonderful strides in addressing the threats of climate change, hazard mitigation, and sustainable resource management.”

From the beginning, scientists at Bigelow Laboratory aimed to share their groundbreaking work widely and inspire the next generation of scientists. For almost 35 years, that’s included Keller BLOOM — an annual, weeklong program for Maine high school students to get hands-on experience with ocean science. Since the launch of that initiative, the institute has expanded the reach of its educational opportunities — drawing learners from across the country to immerse themselves in cutting-edge science through research internships, professional development workshops, and a semester-in-residence program.

Bigelow Laboratory construction site

The institute has also developed a new model for solutions-focused science through “impact centers” that are wedding cutting-edge science with policy and industry needs to tackle challenges from climate change and food insecurity to water pollution.

"The science and development work that Bigelow Laboratory has undertaken for decades continues to help shape the industry," said Heather Johnson, Commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development. "From efforts to support Maine's working waterfront to developing sustainable products, the expertise and innovation of Bigelow researchers have played an important role in building a resilient blue economy for our state."

Architech rendering of the new Bigelow Laboratory forum

Today, the institute is in the midst of its largest expansion in over a decade. Last October, it broke ground on a new center for ocean education and innovation, slated to be completed next spring. Construction is well underway on the 25,000-square-foot addition, which will transform the institute’s education and solutions-focused work for decades to come with new laboratories, teaching spaces, and a 300-seat forum.

“With the new center, and expanding research into pressing issues and opportunities, I know this institute will continue to accelerate the pace of research, inspire the next generation, and unlock the potential of the ocean for the betterment of our society and planet,” Bronk said. “The first 50 years was only the beginning!”

Photo 1: In 2012, Bigelow Laboratory relocated to its current state-of-the-art campus in East Boothbay (courtesy of Yoon S. Byun).

Photo 2: Charles and Clarice Yentsch co-founded Bigelow Laboratory as a new model of scientific innovation in 1974.

Photo 3: Upon its founding, Bigelow Laboratory was originally located in a vacated federal lab in McKown Point in West Boothbay (courtesy of Robert Mitchell).

Photo 4: Construction is underway on a new center for ocean education and innovation that is slated to be completed in 2025 (courtesy of Chris Salatino).

Photo 5: The center for ocean education and innovation will include additional laboratories, expanded teaching spaces, and a new 300-seat public forum, rendered here.