Back at Bigelow!

Bigelow_cruise1

Howdy! I’m so glad I’ve finally gotten a chance to write about my home away from home, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences!

I was lucky to spend the summer working here at Bigelow as an intern studying Antarctic bacterial communities with Dr. Pete Countway, and I’m even luckier to announce that I’ll be going on a research expedition with Bigelow scientists in the Southern Ocean this January! There are lots of opportunities for undergraduate research at Bigelow, and I’m continuing to do more research this fall.

I’m one of two Colby students helping to pilot Bigelow’s Changing Oceans student diver program with Dr. Doug Rasher (it’s not so cold if you have the right gear for it- just like winter in Maine!). My independent project this fall is going to focus on the kelp microbiome. I’ll be determining which bacteria live on or near kelp as well as determining genetic techniques for quantifying and detecting the invasive lacy bryozoan Membranipora membranacea. Lacy bryozoans are originally from Europe and are new to the Gulf of Maine. The lacy bryozoan doesn’t directly harm kelps, but it colonizes the surface of their fronds. This creates drag, which makes the kelp more susceptible to detaching from rocks in a storm or in waves, killing the kelp.

Kelps are important to Maine not only because they represent a major coastal ecosystem, but because they are an up-and-coming fishery! Kelps, often sold as seaweed, are being both wild harvested and farmed for human consumption- dried kelp, kelp protein bars, carrageenan (a natural thickening agent from red seaweeds), kelp stew, and more. The lacy bryozoan renders sections of both wild and farmed kelps inedible and unsellable as well as possibly leading to kelp deforestation.

As part of the Changing Oceans semester, we also take 4 oceanography classes (1 per month) along with our independent research. A field and laboratory techniques course runs throughout the semester and we Colby students get to go on day-long research cruises in the Damariscotta River out to the open ocean. We sample water from the surface and the bottom of the ocean at each of our sites to look for phytoplankton, nutrients in the seawater, bacteria, and zooplankton (small animals, like lobster larvae), then analyze them. These research cruises have been happening each semester since the beginning of Colby and Bigelow’s partnership, so the samples document changes in the Gulf of Maine over the years.

Going out on the sea is always exciting, and our first cruise was especially so. The day started out calm, sunny, and warm, but as we were returning from our open ocean site (five miles offshore in the Atlantic!), a giant thunderstorm swept over the peninsula! We made it back with everyone and all our equipment unharmed, but it was a bumpy, windy, soggy ride back to the lab (I’m smiling in blue!). Who knew water samples could be that exciting?

My two pieces of advice for aspiring scientists so far?

Keep your options open, and always bring your rain gear!