by Chris Chase
Coastal Journal staff
EAST BOOTHBAY — Bigelow Labs, an advanced center for the study of oceanography and marine microbiology, has officially christened and moved into its new location in East Boothbay.
The building, which covers 60,000 square feet and cost $31.8 million, features three separate laboratories and full docking facilities. Each contain cutting-edge technology, much of which was thought up and created by Bigelow itself and is the first of its kind in the world.
This facility will replace the crumbling one they were in previously, which was in a sorry state.
“We had outgrown it completely. The building was deteriorating around us,” said Tatiana Brailovskaya, director of communications for Bigelow Laboratory.
Not only is the new building much more modern, it is also much more efficient. The U.S. Green Building Council has given the building a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum status, which makes it only one of only seven buildings in New England to reach that status and the first laboratory in Maine to gain the honor.
The efforts to reach the status show in the massive banks of windows that will catch the sunlight and release very little heat, and the solar powered water pumps that move seawater into the facility for testing.
Graham Shimmield, the executive director of Bigelow Laboratory, demonstrated using a large display featuring a real-time graph of energy consumption the efficiency of the building. Although the numbers are much higher than any home, for a building of its size running the equipment it needs, the amount of energy used is tiny.
“Although you might feel differently if these numbers were measured in dollars instead of kilowatt hours,” said Shimmield with a laugh.
The building’s green nature is just a small facet of what makes the facility special, according to Brailovskaya. The building’s architects worked closely with the scientists to ensure that everything was placed and designed to enable them to work with maximum efficiency. Everything from the size and placement of tables down to the locations and orientations of the electrical sockets was taken into consideration.
“The lab is employing 70 people; we hope to employ up to 100,” said Brailovskaya. “We’re growing very fast, and not just physically.”
The facility has already had researchers present for a few months. It contains three separate wings, each with its own specific scientific mission. The scientists were eager to move in as soon as possible to escape their prior building.
“The first group of scientists moved into the first wing while we were still doing the blasting for the second,” said Brailovskaya.
Some of the most cutting edge research at the lab will be done in the field of cellular genetics at the Single Cell Genomic Center, which is the first of its kind in the world. At the location, the building will take in fresh seawater to allow the scientists to take fresh samples of organic cells commonly found in ocean water. These cells typically cannot be grown or maintained in a lab environment, and have previously been completely cut off from this kind of research.
“Around 98 percent of what is there we haven’t been able to see like this,” said Brailovskaya. “It’s opening a window on genetics resources.”
According to Brailovskaya, this research could lead the way to new bio-fuels and other important discoveries.
In addition to the research, the building also houses the National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiotics. Within is a virtual library of close to 4,000 strains of algae. These samples are housed in specialized rooms that will maintain them indefinitely with the care of the scientists. The algae are then sold to researchers or companies who need a sample to do their own research. Typically, according to Brailovskaya, the samples can sell for around $300 a vial.
“The ‘Amazon.com of algae’ is what we’re going for,” said Brailovskaya.
The scientists at the facility are all very happy to be in their facility, and excited to get started. Cynthia Heil, a senior researcher at Bigelow, just moved into her new laboratory two weeks ago, and is already at work researching harmful microalgae. The research is important, according to Heil, due to the danger of these algae.
“Well, they can kill you,” said Heil. “Some of the most lethal toxins on earth are in these plants.”
Opening day wasn’t all fun and games, however. Dr. Robert Gagosian, the president and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership in Washington D.C., gave the staff of the lab a presentation called “Oceanography Amidst a Fiscal Cliff.”
Predictably, the talk highlighted the upcoming difficulties the science community will face with an increasing federal deficit straining finances, which will more than likely lead to cuts in the scientific community.
“It’s a very critical time for our community and all of science,” said Gagosian. “Make no mistake. I believe this is a really big paradigm shift.”
Although most of the news was negative in nature, Gagosian said that the Bigelow lab is in a position to take the right path to ensure their future.
“You have a location opportunity that a lot of other places don’t,” said Gagosian.
Even with the upcoming financial troubles the Bigelow lab will have to face, the group remains confident that their research is here to stay.
“It’s a very great day for Bigelow,” said Shimmield.