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Biolab's Mentoring Program Promotes Scientific Study


The scenic coastline of Frenchman Bay near Bar Harbor, Maine, is home to the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory. The non-profit facility, first established in 1898, is best known today as the Biolab, for its cutting edge marine and biomedical research.

The Biolab offers educational programs, including an intensive eight-week summer program that draws students from around the world.

A unique learning experience

This summer, Kavita Balkaran, a student at the University of the Virgin Islands, spent eight weeks working with Dr. Jane Disney, Director of the Community Environmental Health Laboratory at the Biolab. Balkaran's project included counting mussel seed in Frenchman Bay and other areas of water near Bar Harbor.

Researchers were looking for a possible connection between the high number of mussel seed and the restoration of eelgrass in the bay.

This was Balkaran's second summer at Biolab. She returned for the chance to be mentored by Disney again.

"I love the work that she does and I love that she's so enthusiastic about her work," Balkaran said.

Federal funding paves the way for students' participation

Dr. Patricia Hand directs the Biolab's education programs, which are available to student researchers with a wide range of experience.

The Biolab is supported primarily through grants from U.S. federal agencies, such as The National Institutes of Health and The National Science Foundation, and by private foundations, Hand said. Money from the grants fund research projects and pay students stipends to cover their expenses, said Hand, "so that they don't have to worry about living while they're doing this work."

Scientist mentors make a strong impression

Veronica Hernandez, a student at the University of Puerto Rico, came to the Biolab to study fish physiology.

"The experience was really good; it's the first time that I worked with animal physiology. So it was interesting working with organisms that you can see changes in their regulation patterns and how they react to environmental changes."

Hernandez says what made the program so valuable for her, was the one-on-one instruction and interaction with Dr. James Claiborne, a biology professor at Georgia Southern University and a summer scientist at the Biolab. Claiborne first came to the Biolab 30 years ago, when he was in school.

"I learned so much as a student here and it was what got me really interested in doing research in the laboratory and then be able to teach about it in my classes."

Claiborne said Hernandez's research project was a success.

"She was able to generate data in the problem that we gave her and she was able to come up with results that no one's ever found before."

When students make a discovery it's a memorable experience, said Claiborne.

"That always gets them excited and gets me excited every time!"

Students are inspired to pursue science careers

The results of that excitement are impressive. Almost 90% of the students who have been through the Biolab training program have gone on to pursue careers in science. Kavita Balkaran said her experience working on eelgrass restoration at the Biolab will help her start an outreach program in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"Our main sea grass is a turtle grass. So what I've learned here I can take back home and instead of eelgrass, we use it to help turtle grass," Balkaran said. She added that her experience has inspired her to continue her education with a focus on marine mammals and, eventually, to earn a Ph.D degree.

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