December 16, 2018
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Maine lab that researches the ocean’s tiniest organisms eyes growth under new president

Courtesy Bigelow Lab | BDN
Courtesy Bigelow Lab | BDN
Dr. Deborah Bronk began her new job and president and CEO of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay earlier this year.

BOOTHBAY, Maine — Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences has a new president who wants to expand its research into how climate change is affecting marine environments around the world, but not so much that the organization loses its nimble, collaborative ethos.

Dr. Deborah Bronk said during a recent interview that she thinks Bigelow Lab’s current staff of about 100 people, roughly half of whom have PhD degrees, could grow by about 30 to 40 percent over the next several years. She started work at the marine research laboratory in February, more than a year after the prior president, Graham Shimmield, died after a battle with cancer.

Bronk stressed that growth at the lab should be limited, however, in order to preserve its culture as a place where scientists frequently talk to each other about their research, where governance is streamlined, and where decisions can be made quickly and efficiently. The lab specializes in the study of microscopic marine algae but also has conducted extensive research on how changes in the Gulf of Maine are affecting the state’s $433 million lobster fishery and its growing aquaculture industry.

“It’s got a reputation as being kind of a little bit of a rebel, kind of very entrepreneurial,” Bronk said. “This is one of the best oceanographic institutes in the world. If you’re an oceanographer, you know Bigelow.”

Scientists Charlie and Clarice Yentsch, who founded the lab in 1974, set out to establish a research lab that was free of the bureaucratic and organizational constraints often found at large research universities, she said.

“The trend in science, moving into the future, I think as a country we need to get much more nimble, [to] break through the bureaucracy and the silos,” Bronk said, sitting in her glass-partitioned office overlooking the tidal Damariscotta River in the village of East Boothbay. “There are no departments here, and that’s by design. We want everybody talking to everybody. That’s a very different philosophy from a lot of universities.”

Bronk, a Wisconsin native, spent 17 years at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences at the College of William and Mary before starting her new job. She said universities have their strengths, including more diverse sources of funding. But she said Bigelow’s reputation as relatively small and innovative is one reason she was interested in applying for the lab’s top job.

“That’s one of the reasons they are so productive,” she said of Bigelow’s institutional willingness to try new things. “This is an incredibly productive place in terms of success with proposals and papers that come out. It’s been very influential in the field [of oceanography].

“We do need to get a little bit bigger though, I think,” she added. “It would make us more resilient to [economic] downturns and things like that.”

Bronk said two primary issues are facing oceans worldwide — climate change and acidification. Because oceans cover most of the planet and their interplay with the atmosphere is so strong, the trend of warming oceans around the globe can be explained only by climate change, she said. Increasing carbon levels in the water, referred to as acidification, is a byproduct of that, caused by elevated production of greenhouse gases.

“The ocean and the atmosphere have to be in equilibrium, so if we’re pumping all this carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, some of it is going to dissolve into the ocean,” Bronk said. “When it does that, it makes the ocean more acidic, and that causes problems for shellfish — clams, lobster, corals, anything that’s making a shell.”

Acidification also may be affecting phytoplankton, the microalgae organisms in the ocean that Bigelow specializes in studying, she added. Bigelow’s National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota serves as the country’s primary repository for thousands of strains of phytoplankton, which are estimated to produce half of the planet’s oxygen and serve as the primary basis of the marine food chain.

Bronk said much of the research at Bigelow — whether on the carbon sequestration potential of growing kelp or the methods used for detecting biotoxins in bivalve shellfish — has direct implications for the state’s fishing sector. That research could help produce practical applications for the aquaculture industry which, if done sustainably, could grow significantly in Maine without adversely impacting the environment, she said.

“It’s going to keep growing,” Bronk said of aquaculture. “As the standard of living rises in Asia, they’re going to want fancy seafood, a lot of which comes from [the U.S.] I think it’s a great opportunity. We have the capacity to increase our fishery production.”

Bronk said running Bigelow Lab, even with a streamlined administration, has its challenges.

Roughly 70 percent of its $6 million in research funding comes from the National Science Foundation, which Bronk said is both “amazing” and “alarming” — amazing because federal funding for ocean sciences is hard to come by, and alarming because maintaining that level of federal funding is difficult from one year to the next.

Bronk, who from 2012 to 2015 also worked for the National Science Foundation while she was at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, said increased costs for maintaining facilities, research vessels and equipment is taking up more NSF funding and leaving less to cover the expenses of actual research projects.

“In a way, we’re a victim of our own success,” Bronk said. “We’ve gotten better and more sophisticated about the things we can do, but everything costs more.”

Bigelow generates revenue through its education programs by offering scientific research experience to high school students, undergraduate college students, teachers and other scientists, she said. It also boosts its income by offering scientific services to other scientists and to the private sector through in-house programs such as its Industrial Collaboration Laboratory and Center for Seafood Solutions, among others.

But there are other more immediate, non-revenue-raising tasks for Bronk to tackle. Three months into the job she is starting the process of updating the lab’s five-year strategic plan. And, with input from the lab’s scientific and support staff, she has to decide what kind of boat the lab should buy for use as its new research vessel.

She wants both done in a way that reflects Bigelow Lab’s commitment to helping set the pace for modern scientific problem-solving.

“We do have to get quicker. We have to pivot,” Bronk said. “We can’t spend months on end discussing every detail.”

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