Boothbay Harbor lab expands, continues ocean and climate change research

Posted Nov. 03, 2011, at 5:09 p.m.

BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — For 37 years, the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences has been unlocking the secrets of the sea, a mission that will be enhanced with a major expansion that is already a year under way. At the end of this month, some of the nonprofit organization’s 65 personnel — most of them scientists from around the world — will move into the first phase of its new 64-acre ocean science and education campus in East Boothbay.

When the $32 million construction project is complete, the organization will have nearly tripled its lab and office space and moved out of a collection of buildings in West Boothbay that it has been leasing from the Maine Department of Marine Resources since 1974.

In addition to making room for more researchers and new state-of-the-art equipment, the expansion will allow Bigelow to expand its offerings into the education realm with a live-in research program for students from Colby College in Waterville.

According to Bigelow’s executive director, Graham Shimmield, the ripples generated at the laboratory have and will continue to spread far and wide. Among Bigelow’s past clients — most of whom have paid for the research with competitive grants — are the National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Office of Naval Research.

Among Bigelow’s accomplishments are the ability to conduct genome mapping of individual plankton cells, the collection and preservation of U.S. marine phytoplankton and the development of technology that has been passed into the private sector such as an instrument for counting single cells which was shared with a Yarmouth firm called Fluid Imaging Technologies.

“It’d take a couple of pages to list the rest of our discoveries,” said Shimmield.

In general, Bigelow works in three areas: exploring how the ocean and all of its creatures affect climate change; finding new ways to harness the vast power of marine microbial organisms; and addressing growing concerns about the conditions of the world’s oceans. In pursuit of these goals, Bigelow scientists have visited every ocean in the world. Not only do they work at the cellular level, but at the molecular level as well.

Aside from working to ensure the future health of the oceans, the research being done at Bigelow aims to preserve the human race. Tatiana Brailovskaya, a spokeswoman for Bigelow, put the importance of the oceans in stark terms.

“Every other breath you take comes from the ocean,” she said.

Though Shimmield said Bigelow doesn’t typically receive money from state government, he said a key component of the funding for the expansion was a bond approved by Maine taxpayers in November 2008 to create the Maine Technology Asset Fund. The fund gave Bigelow $4.5 million in June 2009.

“That money was absolutely critical to our whole development,” said Shimmield. A mix of federal grants, private investments and a $13 million mortgage will fund the rest of the project.

Though Bigelow always has been able to survive with large grants and donations, Shimmield said the funding environment is becoming tougher, driven partially by some who don’t believe in some of Bigelow’s major research thrusts, namely climate change.

“The scientific community is certainly concerned that political views will drive the scientific agenda more and more,” said Shimmield. “Our answer to that is a diversity of funding sources. We need to make sure we’re planning for these changes.”

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