Last week, on a 450-acre island about 4 miles out into Muscongus Bay, a small group of incoming freshman at Colby College caught and examined bumblebees in a search for a rare breed that hasn’t yet been found on the mainland.
The program that brought them there — The Colby Achievement Program in the Sciences, or CAPS — is just part of the latest chapter in the long history of Allen Island, which pre-dates the arrival of English explorers more than 400 years ago and, since 1979, has been owned by the Wyeth family or their family foundation, Up East Inc.
The students, from as far away as California and New Mexico, are participating in a program aimed at providing summerlong science research opportunities to minority students who historically have faced many obstacles in pursuing scientific careers. Under the leadership of Colby professors, the students stayed on the island for nearly a week, learning about marine, geological and molecular biology research.
“The program started because we became aware of these barriers,” Colby professor Whitney King, who teaches chemistry and environmental sciences at Colby and organizes the partnership between Colby and Up East, said Thursday. King was among a group of journalists and Colby professors who traveled to the island for the day to learn more about the program.
“They’re really making sure there is equal opportunity,” added Connor Wilson, 18, of Johnson City, Tennessee. He and the other students were huddled in the kitchen in a building at the very northern end of the island, where they had been cooking and sharing meals all week. Their living quarters were down the hall on the second floor. The students did most of their work in learning space on the first floor.
Science research opportunities in general are hard to come by for undergraduate students, according to Wilson.
“It’s awesome, as someone who hasn’t even completed their freshman year, to do this,” he said.
And, chimed in incoming freshman Elizabeth Stephens of Maryland, having the chance to build strong bonds with peers before the school year starts means “we will already have that support system set up.”
According to King, to have Allen Island as the laboratory makes for a rare gem of an opportunity.
It’s not unusual for a college or university to have access to a field research station like Allen Island. But, he added, “it is pretty unique” for that station to also fold in elements of art and history, as Allen Island does because of its affiliation with the Wyeth family.
Allen Island sits almost halfway between the mainland village of Port Clyde and Monhegan Island, the latter of which served as a summer home and subject for myriad paintings from N.C. Wyeth, and his son, Andrew, one of the 20th century’s most famous American realist painters. Jamie Wyeth, himself a famous painter of iconic Maine scenery, and son of Betsy and Andrew, still owns a house and studio on Monhegan.
No public ferry stops at Allen Island, which was purchased by Andrew and Betsy in the late 1970s. Much of the island is wooded, but the north end still wears original architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries, appearing suspended in time, speckled with clapboard and wooden buildings painted white. A stone cross at the very northern tip of the island, known as the Weymouth Cross, still stands to signify explorer George Weymouth’s first expedition to the island in 1605.
Andrew Wyeth died in 2009. Betsy, now in her mid-90s, resides in the summers on adjacent Benner Island, a stone’s throw from Allen Island.
The CAPS program has existed for eight years, but this is the first year it has been held on the 450-acre Allen Island. A new partnership between Colby and Up East will allow Colby to have access to the island for the next 10 years, through the summer CAPS program, but also to use as part of a handful of science and humanities courses offered during the year, King said.
Jamie Wyeth, who accompanied the group out to the island, said it has been his mother’s dream all along for Allen Island to be used as a museum and classroom replete with learning opportunities for students. Also on Thursday’s outing was Jamie Wyeth’s wife, Phyllis and their dog, Iggy.
Wyeth said he always expected that Allen Island would attract students and teachers, either because of its rich history, its suitability as a marine sciences field station, or the sheer “physical beauty” of the remote location that often served as a subject for “my father, who did some of his major works on the island.”
The students said they were grateful for the opportunity they were given by the Wyeth family to use the island as their own for nearly a week — which, according to Colby President David Greene, itself provides an important lesson for young adults to glean.
“What [the Wyeths] are doing to contribute to their community” is a good example for everyone, Greene said.