Harry Nelson ’76 remembers it like it was yesterday. It was Jan Plan his freshman year, 1974. He arrived on the island of St. Croix. White-sand beaches, sparkling blue water—and a microscope to which he was attached eight hours a day.
One of the first environmental studies majors at Colby, Nelson was an intern at the Lamont-Doherty Marine Station. His task was to count marine diatoms as part of a research project investigating the effect of marine upwelling of nutrient-rich waters on phytoplankton communities. By hand. One by one.
Nelson recounted the experience at Colby one recent morning before a class of Jan Plan students. "When I got back to Colby, everybody said, 'Where's your tan?'" he said.
He returned to Colby to give a presentation to a Jan Plan class taught by Peter Countway, a scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. Colby has established a strategic partnership with Bigelow that has Colby faculty and students working with researchers from the lab at Boothbay Harbor and Bigelow ocean scientists teaching at Colby. Nelson was invited to speak and demonstrate a sophisticated piece of equipment invented by a Bigelow scientist and manufactured and sold by Fluid Imaging Technologies, where he is director of sales and marketing for aquatic markets.
The FlowCAM, a box-like device that hooks up to a laptop, counts and identifies microscopic particles in water, and produces high resolution images of the organisms, mostly phytoplankton. At the Jan Plan class, the machine analyzed a beaker of water, sending organisms popping up on a big screen. Scientists in 35 countries use the machine for real in their studies of marine microbes and the ecology of our oceans.
This sort of groundbreaking technology has changed the way ocean scientists work, and the type and scope of information they can glean. "When I was a student I thought marine biology was porpoises and manatees," Nelson said, pointing to the microbes on the screen. "In ocean science, this is where it's happening."
And, he said, if a student were to do the same job today, there might be more time on the beach.