Professor Whitney King

What kind of students should be interested in the Colby-Bigelow program?

Students should be interested in understanding and helping to solve large-scale global problems of Earth systems. Bigelow by its nature is a truly cross-disciplinary, integrated research institution that has chemists, biologists, molecular biologists, physicists, etc. all intimately working together to solve really important problems. … If a student thinks marine science is something they want to do, they get an exquisite opportunity to figure out if that is something they’d like to pursue later on.

What about students who are committed to science but who aren’t sure about oceanography? Why Bigelow for them?

[They’ll be] working in a research-intensive environment in collaboration with a group of scientists on a scientific problem that models how science is done more globally. It’s the process and the skills and the mechanics of how you do it that’s more important to them than “how I studied copepods.” Learning that you like working in the lab, learning that you get seasick, learning that you like working in a team or by yourself—the process is invaluable in shaping that knowledge.

And what does either kind of student get from a semester in East Boothbay?

[The Bigelow Changing Oceans semester] gives students a solid amplification of the basic skills they need to be a fully functional scientists, in or out of oceanography. I don’t care if you’re going to be a physician or a molecular biologist or a physical chemist—you’re getting reinforcement in the basic skills of science: how do you keep a notebook, how do you record it, how do you interact with other people, how do you search the literature, how do you keep from getting your fingernails in the sample. These are really important skills.

But this is sophisticated research, right?

They’re getting exposed to some cutting-edge projects. Big picture. What’s regulating the carbon uptake of the ocean? How do you work together in a team of twenty international scientists? … What appeals to me is the diversity of the scientific questions and the diversity of the tools and techniques that the students will learn. They’re going to get exposure to everything from remote sensing to working in the coastal zone, working in the open ocean zone, working as a molecular biologist. They’re seeing this diversity of scientific techniques to understand a diversity of scientific questions.

Outcomes include what you learn, but career information too, right?

Jade [Enright ’15, who was on two ocean research cruises before her senior year] was working with world-class iron chemists from ten institutions from all over the world and was getting to sit down and ask those people questions: How did you get there? Who did you work for? What did you like? What didn’t you like? When she goes out to get letters of recommendation for grad school, she can get letters from us [Colby professors], from the people she worked with at Bigelow, and from people from University of California–Santa Cruz and other people who’ve actually seen her functioning on a ship.

And when it comes to getting into grad schools?

When you apply to grad school in the sciences there are three things that come into the application process: your academic course work and how you did; your GRE scores, and those don’t have to be spectacular—you have to have decent GRE scores; and probably the most important criteria for getting into top graduate programs … is a significant research experience where you’ve actually been a scientist—not practiced doing science, not learned how science is done from a laboratory (do this experiment and learn how to pipette), but actually gone in and tried to answer a question where somebody doesn’t know the answer. The best graduate programs will not admit you without a substantial research experience. Bigelow is one of the ways to get that experience.

We talk about students working with senior research scientists. What does that mean? Who are these men and women?

The criteria for getting hired [as a senior research scientist at Bigelow] are that you have a national reputation in the field of marine science and that there is a high probability you can bring in sufficient grants to support your research program going forward. … So a senior research scientist has to have the name and the prestige and has to ask questions that are going to allow them to raise money through the National Science Foundation, NOAA, the Office of Naval Research, EPA, etc. to basically fund their research forever.

How is the Colby-Bigelow semester different from other undergraduate programs?

What makes it unique is a combination of things. It’s more curricularly diverse than a lot of marine science programs, which tend to be more biologically and ecologically focused. Bigelow researchers do a diversity of things: atmospheric chemistry, fundamental chemistry, molecular biology, classic ecology. The students see all of that in the curriculum. The other advantage they have is the faculty-to-student ratio. They are part of a very intellectually involved team. They know all of the Bigelow scientists, or many of them, before they come back to campus.