Most visitors to Mount Desert Island come for its gorgeous natural scenery and Bar Harbor’s thriving tourist-oriented downtown area. Less well known are three academic and research organizations that also play an important role in Bar Harbor’s economy while simultaneously making world-changing impacts on biological and environmental sciences.
Drive onto Mount Desert and proceed along Route 3, and the first of the three you pass is MDI Biological Laboratory, an independent non-profit biomedical research institution with a $10 million annual budget and a staff of more than 60. Founded in 1898 to provide access for researchers to Mount Desert Island’s diverse ecosystems and native plant and animal life, it now concentrates on biological aging and regeneration.
By studying how a variety of simple organisms resist aging and how others repair or regenerate damaged or lost body parts, MDI hopes to apply results to issues of human health and aging, and diseases including cancer, diabetes, stroke, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. MDI Biological Laboratory also provides educational research opportunities for students from middle school through post-graduate and heads up a collaborative of 13 Maine research institutions and colleges to improve the state’s competitiveness in biomedical research.
Drive five miles further down Route 3 and you pass College of the Atlantic’s beautiful 37-acre campus on Frenchman’s Bay. A private college with 360-odd undergraduates, a tiny handful of grad students, and 50 full- and part-time faculty, CoA offers bachelors’ and masters’ degrees in just one field: human ecology. Field research plays a major role in the school’s programs, much of which takes place on its two organic farms, a 100-acre protected area, and two research stations on tiny offshore islands where students study marine bird and mammal behavior. CoA is one of the “greenest” colleges in the country, being the first to achieve carbon-neutral operation, and among the first to divest its (now) $46 million endowment from fossil fuel investments. Students typically go on to careers in environmental sciences and protection.
At the southern end of Bar Harbor is The Jackson Laboratory, another nonprofit biomedical research institute. With 1,500 employees (including a few hundred in other states), it is the largest private employer on Mount Desert Island and one of the largest in Maine. Most of the organization’s funding comes from mice, which it breeds with a variety of special genetic characteristics and sells to research organizations worldwide for studies in a host of biological applications. Its other main activities are in the fields of genetics and genomics. Jackson Laboratory studies how genes affect diseases like cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, and is concentrating on a concept called “personalized medicine,” in which a knowledge of a patient’s specific genes will guide prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases.
Gene research and human ecology surely won’t take the place of Acadia National Park’s Cadillac Mountain or Thunder Hole in the hearts of tourists. But Bar Harbor’s residents take pride in their academically advanced neighbors, who contribute not just to the local economy, but also to human health and scientific knowledge.