Bigelow Laboratory

Microscopic beginnings

Posted:  Friday, November 16, 2012 - 3:00pm

Sometimes big things have small beginnings.

In the case of the Colby College collaboration with Bigelow Laboratory, its beginnings are best viewed under a microscope.

The four semester-in-residence Colby College students have traded in the campus in Waterville for the new laboratory in East Boothbay.

The collaboration between Bigelow and Colby has had a long gestation period. The program was green-lit in 2010 between the school and the lab.

Juniors Marianne Ferguson, Grace Reville, Kathryn Moore and Josephine Liang have been inside the laboratories of Bigelow's new building in East Boothbay since the beginning of the fall, where they have blended practical science with theory in what they termed a “hands-on” semester.

Unlike schools that boast strong student-to-teacher ratios, the students have experienced the inverse of that; at Bigelow there is a 3-to-1 Ph.D. to student ratio.

“You're surrounded by Ph.Ds; whenever you have one question you can grab someone and ask them,” she said. “All you have to do is just grab someone then usually you can have a very good discussion.”

“Everyone here is so approachable,” Moore said.

While they might be looking at larger-scale problems and theories, the students realize they need to look at science through a microscope first.

“This is definitely a different scale; it's microbial and I'm used to looking at things on a much larger scale,” Ferguson said. “I'm not used to looking at things this small but this is very hands-on, and we can physically try things rather than just learn about them in a textbook.”

The courses are tailored to mix different subjects including biology, physical oceanography and chemistry. The students are also tasked with an independent study project that is their own creation.

“It's a good mix of marine sciences, biology and chemistry,” Ferguson said. “We've spent about a month on each.”

That work hasn't been centered solely inside a classroom or lab, either, Moore said.

“We also have field courses throughout the entire program,” she said. “We'll do six cruises about halfway to Monhegan.”

Even if microbiology isn't the path she takes, Reville said her experience at Bigelow has been eye-opening.

“It's been a really good insight into what the career would be like,” Reville said. “For me, it's helped me realize what I want to do; I wasn't sure initially how to use science to create effective policy, but (being at Bigelow) has shown me that I don't want to be in a lab, but I want to use my lab knowledge to create effective policy.”

Ferguson echoed Reville but said that her education at Bigelow has provided her with a strong scientific foundation.

“This is very microbial and what I really like is the large aspect,” she said. “But this builds on what I've learned – you can't have the large aspect without understanding the small aspect. You need to understand fundamentals.”

For Moore, Bigelow represents a preview of the work she hopes to do after she graduates.

“I'm more interested in this level,” she said. “I like the physical basis for everything and how it all ties into biology and climate change.”

Like Reville and Ferguson, Liang said that while her semester away from Waterville isn't focused on exactly what her major dictates her time in East Boothbay is nonetheless helpful.

“I want to be doctor, so this is a good experience,” she said. “It's all hands-on and I get to be inside a lab. It's definitely opened a door for me.”

For Moore, who said she could see herself in a similar setting once she enters the professional realm, having results be fluid and based on real-world results.

“Here it's realistic,” Moore said. “You adjust your research depending on what your results are, which is how it really is.”

Ben Bulkeley can be reached at 844-0711 or Follow him on Twitter: @BBRegisterBen.