Buck Lab for Climate and Environment Lets Student Ideas Take Flight

The six-year-old lab encourages Colby students to do work that has a real impact in the world

Sonia Marnoto ’26 (left), at work in Waterville's North Street Community Garden, and Anna Gerner ’25, who stands in Johnson Pond, spent their summers doing hands-on environmental work thanks to the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment. (Photos by Gabe Souza and Ashley L. Conti)
By Abigail Curtis Photography by Ashley L. Conti and Gabe Souza
November 7, 2023

Colby students have traversed Alaskan glaciers to collect high-elevation snow samples, hiked in Ecuadorian cloud forests in search of rare magnolia trees, and surveyed Californians to gauge their knowledge, attitudes, and personal experiences with climate change. 

Closer to home, and the College, they’ve built an electric bicycle from scratch, monitored loon populations on the Belgrade Lakes, made art about the Gulf of Maine, and ventured to remote ponds in northwest Maine to do baseline research on how climate change will affect fish habitat. 

These projects, and many more, have been made possible by the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment. The lab was launched six years ago through a gift from Trustee Sandy Buck ’78 and Sissy Buck, and since that time it has supported student and faculty research, experiential learning opportunities, student internships, community-based projects, and more.

The projects are diverse and span a range of fields and topics. But all are tied together by the common thread of climate change and other environmental issues, according to Gail Carlson, assistant professor of environmental studies and director of the lab. 

Gail Carlson, professor of environmental studies and director of the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment, said that the lab can lead to transformative outcomes for students. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

For her, it has been transformative to witness how the Buck Lab lets student ideas take flight. 

“I can say to a student who’s interested in some environmental topic that if they can think of a project, and it’s worthy and doable, we can fund it,” she said. “It really feels good to know that because we can fund these experiences, we can broaden and expand the student’s world and their idea of what’s possible.” 

What is the Buck Lab? 

Although Buck Lab sounds as if it might be a physical space, it’s more of an ideas lab—an entity that helps to bring good ideas to life. It came about because Sandy Buck, a dedicated conservationist and supporter of the Environmental Studies Department, was eager to find more ways to get students out of the classroom and into the field. Could the lab be an effective way to do that? He hoped so, but he couldn’t be sure.

“When we started the lab, it was a little bit of a leap of faith,” he said.

Trustee Sandy Buck ’78, right, sitting next to Gail Carlson, professor of environmental studies and director of the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment, is a steadfast supporter of Colby students and the Environmental Studies Department. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

But over the years it has been made clear to him, and others, that the leap paid off. Through the Buck Lab, approximately 35 students each year from across campus have been awarded grants that fund travel, pay for housing and transportation, provide stipends, and more. The financial support generally adds up to thousands of dollars per grant—and it matters. 

“I don’t want anybody to say, ‘I couldn’t afford to do this trip.’ I want every Colby student to have those opportunities,” Buck said. “I think it brings real-life experience into the classroom, and the field experience just enriches the classroom discussion. These students are doing real science.” 

A hands-on approach to fieldwork

One of those students is Anna Gerner ’25, an environmental science major who spent her summer deep in the Maine woods measuring the baseline temperature, dissolved oxygen, acidity, and clarity of several ponds that serve as important habitat for native brook trout. 

She did this work in collaboration with Dan Sweeney ’25, traveling nearly two and a half hours from Waterville to land held in easement by the Forest Society of Maine. The students appreciated the fact that they were able to treat it like an independent research project.

“We wrote our own protocol. It was nice to just kind of start something fully from scratch, and I learned a lot through that,” Gerner said, adding that the wild surrounding vistas of forests, mountains, ponds, and streams didn’t hurt, either. “Each pond was more beautiful than the next.” 

Anna Gerner ’25, an environmental science major, studied ponds and lakes in remote northwestern Maine this summer with another student. They took baseline measurements for the start of a long-term climate study, including temperature, dissolved oxygen, acidity, and water clarity. (Photo by Ashley Conti)

It was Buck, an avid fly-fisherman familiar with the northwest corner of Maine where the ponds are located, who connected the students with the project. He even went in the field with them a couple of times, showing them the ropes of fly-fishing while introducing them to Registered Maine Guides and the people monitoring the conservation easement. 

“It was really fun to see how excited these two students were to get up there,” he said. “They went way beyond what they were supposed to do, and they really are psyched about it.” 

That kind of hands-on approach comes naturally to Buck, and it is part of the special sauce that sets the Buck Lab apart, Carlson said. 

“He’s so amazing. He’s so willing to help students. He’s so engaged,” she said. “I’ve seen him literally connect with a student that he didn’t know before, on the spot, and basically create an opportunity for them. He’s such a fan of Colby students—and so helpful. I know students absolutely appreciate that enthusiasm and that attention.” 

‘My dream come true’ 

Carlson, too, is part of what makes the lab special. Sonia Marnoto ’26, a government and environmental policy double major, attests to that. Last spring, after hearing a campus speaker talk about being a farmer, her curiosity spiked. 

“I was like, oh my gosh, I want to do this right now,” Marnoto said. 

So she reached out to Carlson, hoping the professor would have some ideas. She did. “She’s amazing,” Marnoto said. “She ended up reaching out with a few internship opportunities that were happening [in the local community] and that was really exciting.” 

Through the Buck Lab, Marnoto received funding that allowed her to stay on campus and spend the summer just as she’d wanted—with her hands in the dirt. She tended the community gardens for Maine SNAP-Ed, a federally funded program that provides nutrition education services for low-income Mainers. She also helped teach cooking classes and harvested crops like eggplant, leeks, and spinach for the Central Maine Gleaners Group, which helps farmers use surplus crops to combat local food insecurity. 

Sonia Marnoto ’26, a government and environmental policy double major, loved the work she did this summer to help fight food insecurity, including tending community gardens, helping teach cooking classes, and harvesting surplus crops for the Central Maine Gleaners Group. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

“It was my dream come true. It was perfect,” she said of her summer internship experience. 

The work also gave her valuable insight into how federal policy on food assistance and food security is actually implemented on the ground level, something she expects might be useful in her post-college career. 

“I think it just changed my perspective on local work in general,” Marnoto said. “I kind of had this prejudice against it where I didn’t see small, local work as that impactful. I thought, OK, we need larger policies because it’s the bigger corporations that are causing the problems. Doing work in one town isn’t going to help. But when I was working with the Gleaners, that really showed me a different perspective.” 

Leading to a transformation 

About half of the grants given by the Buck Lab are used to fund student internships, often at emerging partner organizations such as the Gulf of Maine Research Institute; the Shaw Institute, a nonprofit scientific research organization; and at Thornton Tomasetti, a global engineering and sustainable design firm. 

The other half includes the students who have their own research ideas, Carlson said. 

“Students have great ideas, and even if they aren’t initially doable, I work with students to make it doable, to make it a good idea, to make it something that is fundable,” she said. “Some projects are off-beat and unique, which are fun to see students carry out.” 

Kate Jaffee ’25, an environmental science major, held a loon as Chris Persico, a senior wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Research Institute, banded, weighed, and took blood and feather samples from it. Jaffee and Brynne Robbins ’26 did internships this summer with the Belgrade Lakes Association’s Loon Preservation Project, work that was funded by the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)

Buck Lab experiences are not about checking a box but stem from what students are passionate about, Carlson said. 

“That tends to lead to a transformative experience, an experience they might link to their learning, their academics, and certainly their career preparation,” she said. “It helps them get more engaged, maybe become an advocate or an activist.” 

‘Leaning in to who you are’ 

For Dominick Leskiw ’21, an environmental science and English double major now working as a water quality analyst and freelance writer and illustrator in Seattle, his six Buck Lab experiences have remained relevant even after graduation. 

They included helping build an electric bicycle from scratch and a remote internship with Berkeley, Calif.-based Earth Island Journal, for which he wrote articles that reflected his deep interest in the natural world and his ability to find poetry in science

He also helped a professor revamp a digital maritime literature database, and he designed an independent course on the literature of trees he needed to complete his English major.

“It kind of lends itself to leaning in to who you are and what you love,”

Dominick Leskiw ’21

The Buck Lab allowed him to explore passion projects, but it ended up being more than that, Leskiw said. 

“I think the Buck Lab really is a way to challenge yourself to think and work and engage and create in ways that complement, but also expand and enhance, the boundaries of your original vision,” he said. “And reach, often in tangible ways beyond what you thought you were capable of.” 

Through the lab, he gained real-world experience in environmental science journalism and illustration and built relationships with professors and writers. He saw that he could turn the things that he really loved—telling stories, drawing animals, and asking people meaningful questions—into “something real,” and he doesn’t take that for granted. 

“It kind of lends itself to leaning in to who you are and what you love,” Leskiw said.