Two alumni of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences Keller BLOOM program for Maine high school juniors spoke of how it changed their lives during a Cafe Scientifique event at the Boothbay Opera House July 29.
Briar Bragdon, a graduate of Hall-Dale High School in Farmingdale, and LeAnn Whitney, a graduate of Machias Memorial High School, both completed the Keller BLOOM (Bigelow Laboratory Orders of Magnitude) program during their junior year.
The program educates students in the ocean sciences by providing hands-on laboratory research of the microscopic creatures they catch and study during a course lasting five days each May. The program has been in operation for 25 years.
Moderator Tom Keller, of Newcastle, spoke briefly about the Keller BLOOM program name, which is in memory of his late wife Maureen, who had been a researcher at the lab.
Keller is a co-director of the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance and executive director of the Maine S.T.E.M. Council (S.T.E.M. Stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
Keller demonstrated the meaning of the phrase “orders of magnitude” by describing how small the phytoplankton are that students have the opportunity to study.
“These single-cell organisms are 10 to the minus six meters, or the width of a human hair,” Keller said. “That unit of measure is an order of magnitude.”
Keller said there can be 3,000 of these organisms per milliliter of sea water, which is approximately 1/4 teaspoon, another example of an order of magnitude.
Exposing students to this branch of marine biology studies is one way in which the BLOOM program fosters ocean literacy, Keller said.
Whitney, currently a postdoctoral researcher at Bigelow, said she exhausted all her choices of science classes in high school by the time she had reached her junior year.
“I had never seen what an ocean sample looked like under the microscope before the Keller BLOOM program,” Whitney said. “I was surprised to learn about the diversity and shapes and sizes and how important these little bugs are. I had no idea.”
Whitney said the most valuable lesson she gained from the program was that science was an accessible option for a career and that using the equipment that scientists use every day is something that everyone can do.
Whitney went on from the BLOOM program to earn her bachelor’s degree in marine science at the University of Maine and her doctorate in cell and molecular biology at the University of Rhode Island. At Bigelow she has mentored high school students in the BLOOM program.
“I hope that I brought to them the lessons that I learned that this is fun and exciting,” Whitney said. “I try to convey to them that what we do is not watered-down sciences. This is what we do every day.”
Bragdon’s high school experience was similar to Whitney’s. Having taken every high school science course he could, he also applied to the BLOOM program.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” Bragdon said. “It completely changed my view of oceanography.”
Bragdon is a recent alumni of the BLOOM program, having completed it in 2012. He is now a student at the University of New England, continuing his studies and research in ocean sciences.
Keller said the BLOOM program is limited to 16 Maine high school students in their junior year. The goal of the admissions process is to have one student from each of the 16 counties in Maine. The program is locally funded.
For more information about Cafe Scientifique and the Keller BLOOM program, call 315-2567 ext. 103 or visit http://www.bigelow.org.