On a bright autumn day, the R/V Bowditch chugged through the sparkling blue waters of the Damariscotta River as its crew of eager students prepared to do some science.
The students are participants in the Sea Change Semester, a partnership between Colby and the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine. They giddily pointed out seals and other sights as the research boat headed to its first stop of the day, a spot about five nautical miles offshore in the Gulf of Maine.
Annabelle Warren ’25, an environmental studies major from Rogers, Ark., said research cruises like this one, as well as the in-depth coursework and independent research conducted under the guidance of experienced mentor-scientists, make the immersive program special.
“I didn’t know what research looked like outside of doing three-hour planned labs for my courses,” she said. “So being out here and actually doing it, and talking to people who have done it, and seeing their different paths, it’s definitely helped me decide what I want to do in the future. I’m finding direction.”
The same is true for many of the Colby students who have participated in the Sea Change Semester over the past decade-plus, according to Whitney King, the Dr. Frank and Theodora Miselis Professor of Chemistry. He helps coordinate and run the program.
“The student outcomes from Bigelow are really impressive,” he said. “Not every student that does the program goes on to get a Ph.D. in oceanography, but many of them do. They’ve got the academic degree from Colby, they’ve got that immersive experience, and they can write with great confidence about why they want to go on in oceanography.”
The seeds of Sea Change
The Sea Change Semester officially launched in 2012, but the seeds were planted a few years earlier when Colby students and faculty began research and teaching collaborations with Bigelow’s senior research scientists.
In 2010, former Colby President William D. “Bro” Adams signed an agreement with the lab to form a strategic partnership that would include founding a marine conservation track in the Environmental Studies Department and starting a semester-away academic program for Colby students at Bigelow.
Since the Sea Change program began, 72 students—55 from Colby—have explored the environment through learning about oceanography, microbiology, and chemistry, with each student taking several courses during the semester. Colby accredits the program, which is open to undergraduates across the country. Students and Bigelow research scientists, who have the status of research faculty at the College, all reap benefits from the program.
“For us, we get this infusion of great student energy into the lab,” said Senior Research Scientist Nick Record, who runs the program. “And the students are here in a world-class research lab that’s pushing the frontiers of science. They really are outside of a college environment and in a professional setting, working side-by-side with us. And that can be really transformative for students.”
This semester, students have come to Bigelow from Colby, Cornell, the University of Rochester, Northwest Missouri State University, and Southern Maine Community College. Enrollment is capped at 12 students.
“If you went bigger than that, it would probably be hard to maintain the intimacy and scale,” King said.
The students live in a dormitory on Bigelow’s oceanfront campus, where they have access to the lab’s technology and can collaborate with research scientists on projects that matter. It’s an experience that gives students a closer look at what scientists do—and whether that life could be for them.
“They really get ownership over the research that they’re doing here,” Record said, adding that it’s different from doing research in a controlled, campus environment.
The research cruises are a highlight of the Sea Change program. Several times over the course of the semester, the Bowditch sets course for several locations along the Damariscotta River and its outlet in the Gulf of Maine. There, students collect a variety of environmental data to analyze and add to the Damariscotta River Time Series, a long-running study of the river.
“It gives us some really cool data over time to see how this has changed,” said Elias Porter ’25, an environmental studies major from Appleton, Maine.
At the research sites, a group of students deploy a device called a Niskin bottle to sample water from various depths and measure its salinity, oxygen content, conductivity, and temperature. Others lower the Secchi disk, a low-tech tool developed in the mid-19th century still used today to measure the turbidity of the water, while the rest set up stations inside the cabin where they filter the water samples in order to extract chlorophyll for later laboratory analysis and more.
By late October, tasks that took the students a long time to complete at the beginning of the semester ran like clockwork as they confidently moved around the Bowditch. Juvelisse Medrano ’25, a chemistry major from the Bronx, N.Y., helped manage the rosette filled with Niskin bottles, which was hoisted off the stern and plunged into the ocean. Her days are busy on the boat and in the classroom and lab, and she likes it that way.
“It’s what you have to do. They’re giving you a taste of what it’s like to be starting out in a lab and just doing a lot of work,” she said. “This is my first research opportunity, and I’ve really been loving it.”
Medrano’s interest lies in chemistry and not biology, and she was initially hesitant about studying at an ocean laboratory because she assumed the focus would be on marine biology. But that has not been her experience. She’s found plenty of chemistry in her courses and fieldwork, and her mentor, marine chemist and Senior Research Scientist Christoph Aeppli, has helped her see beyond her preconceptions.
“He’s a great marine chemist and role model to look up to,” Medrano said. “It’s good because you see so many of the different roles that people play. It broke the stereotype for me that it’s all biology.”
A tiny keystone species
On the boat, students also tow a net to collect plankton from the water column, which will help them survey the biodiversity of the river and its outlet.
“Basically, anything swimming in there will be filtered into the net, and we’ll take that back to the lab and look at it through a microscope,” Porter said.
There’s a lot happening beneath the water’s surface, said Senior Research Scientist David Fields, a zooplankton ecologist. He specializes in the study of the tiny animals that drift through the water, and he waxed eloquently about one in particular: the copepods of the zooplankton genus Calanus, which play an important role in northern marine ecosystems.
Calanus is a fat depositor, Fields said, accumulating up to 78 percent body fat, or just two percent less than the lipid content of butter.
“They’re like a little butter nugget that lives out there, and during the late summer and early fall, all of these two millimeter, super fat little pine nuts of animals sink down to the bottom and fall asleep,” he said. “And so from here to Norway is this layer that just stretches across the ocean. And that’s what the whales come to feed on. They have to eat thousands of tons of plankton a day to make it.”
A lot depends on the health of the Calanus population, which is vulnerable to climate change and why it’s crucial to survey it in Bigelow’s time series.
“These animals are key to the food chain, not only to the whales, but also the food chain for lobsters, cod, and shrimp,” Fields said.
Another kind of time series that has taken place over the years has to do with the students. Many of them follow the course they set at Bigelow by continuing in their studies and research in the field of ocean science through internships, post-graduate studies, and employment.
And a lot of the students who find their way to the program have always known the ocean would be important to their lives. One of those is Porter, whose parents and grandparents met while working on the Maine windjammer fleet and who has always felt connected to the sea.
When he came to Colby and learned about Sea Change, he couldn’t wait to be part of it.
“This is everything that I’ve hoped for,” he said over the low thrum of the Bowditch’s engine. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s really rewarding to be actually doing science. You get a real product from the end of it, instead of like, ‘Well, here’s my five lab reports that I wrote.’ It’s a lot of fun.”