A rendering of the planned expansion of Bigelow Laboratory shows the new center in the foreground with the existing facilities behind. The new center for ocean education and innovation will support expanded programming at the nonprofit research institute. Courtesy of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences

The Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences is undertaking a $30 million expansion of its campus in East Boothbay, saying the build-out will add sorely needed space for the lab’s scientists and broaden its research and teaching capabilities.

The planned 25,000-square-foot center for “ocean education and innovation” will increase Bigelow’s footprint off Ocean Point Road by more than 40% and include new lab facilities and classrooms. Also slated is a two-story, 300-seat gathering space for programs and public events. The project breaks ground in October, with a target finish date in spring 2025.

Bigelow is a nonprofit, independent oceanography institute, exploring scientific topics that range from marine microbes to the large-scale processes that drive ecosystems and the health of the planet. In advance of announcing the expansion Thursday, the lab’s president and CEO, Deborah Bronk, discussed the project with the Press Herald.

“We’re bursting at the seams at Bigelow,” she said. The lab has had to squeeze four or five people into each office and “educational programs often temporarily oust a few scientists from their laboratory space.”

When Bigelow moved to its current location in 2012, the laboratory had about 60 employees. Just over a decade later, staffing has doubled to around 120. In the summer, with students, interns and visiting scientists, the campus population is closer to 160.

The roomier digs will help, and Bronk is especially excited about the gathering space known as “the forum.” The need for the hall was outlined in the lab’s strategic plan.


“To highlight Bigelow’s scientific leadership and to bring the world’s other scientific leaders to the laboratory, Bigelow must have the ability to host scientific workshops and conferences of 100 to 200 participants,” the plan reads.

“Discussions with community leaders in the surrounding region has uncovered an urgent need for conference space. If that space was at Bigelow Laboratory, it would generate revenue and bring people to our campus, which is challenging but critically important for fundraising.”

A rendering of the front of Bigelow Laboratory shows the new entrance and the planned expansion to the right. The 25,000-square-foot addition is expected to be completed in spring 2025. Courtesy of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences

The expansion is being funded by a variety of sources, including an $8 million gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation, $12 million in federal funding and $9 million from individual and institutional donors. Bigelow had an operating budget of about $16.9 million in 2021.

Fundraising will continue through June 2024, and the new center will be named after that work is completed.

Bigelow was founded in 1974, six years after the Portland-based Gulf of Maine Research Institute. Both are considerably younger than two other well-known independent research labs in Maine, the MDI Biological Laboratory (founded in 1898) and The Jackson Laboratory (founded in 1929). Those two are located in Bar Harbor, where they are large economic drivers.

Bronk hopes that, similarly, the new expansion will be a boon for Boothbay.


“In the shoulder seasons, bringing people to Boothbay is great. We need to bring people not just in July and August,” she said.


The announcement of the new center comes as the need for ocean research is increasing, Bronk said.

Because Bigelow is not tied to a university, the lab remained in operation when schools shut down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bigelow thrived during this period, Bronk said, but so many closed laboratories “set research back in this country.”

As climate change continues, she believes the importance of the work that Bigelow scientists and other oceanic researchers conduct will only grow.

The laboratory has been expanding its research on seaweed and shellfish aquaculture, carbon dioxide removal techniques and ocean forecasts powered by artificial intelligence – all work that can expand with the additional space and resources, Bronk said.

Currently, Bigelow’s campus has three wings: the Walter and Helen Norton Center for Blue Biotechnology, the Center for Ocean Biogeochemistry and Climate Change, and the Center for Ocean Health.

The planned fourth wing also will expand opportunities for business innovation, Bronk said, since government funding for two of the wings prohibits commercial research there.

For example, Bigelow’s National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota is a distributor of marine algae for scientists and has sold its cultures in 58 counties. It also offers consulting, contracted research and intellectual property development. This commercialization helps the nonprofit laboratory fund additional research. 

The new wing also will provide designated space for administrative and business operations, which for years have been housed in temporary modular buildings. The modular buildings will be moved offsite and converted into affordable housing.


“We didn’t want to put (them) in a landfill,” Bronk said.


Ben Twining, Bigelow’s vice president for education, said the new center’s two 20-person teaching classrooms and two teaching laboratories will allow more students to participate in hands-on, scientist-led programs. In the past, these have been limited to groups of 10 or fewer students, with only one program underway at a time. 

The expansion may also allow greater opportunities for professional development.

Each summer Bigelow runs a popular college research internship program for about 25 undergraduate students. The lab also hosts the Keller BLOOM program, a four-day summer workshop for Maine teachers who have an interest in teaching ocean sciences to middle and high school students.

“Because so many people want to be here in the summer, it has put pressure on us, trying to fit those programs in at the same time,” Twining said. 


An aerial photo shows the current Bigelow Laboratory campus in East Boothbay. Photo by Yoon S. Byun

The expansion will make it easier to work with both groups, and with more funding and room Bigelow soon may be able to open the BLOOM program to teachers beyond Maine.

In addition, Twining said there will be more collaboration with a new 48-foot research vessel Bigelow acquired from Middlebury College last year. Now the lab will be able to bring students on the water to collect samples, then bring them back to the campus for analysis and teaching.

With expanded facilities and personnel, Bigelow also will be able to engage with a broader range of other educational organizations around the state.

For example, last year the state launched the Maine Outdoor Learning Initiative, an effort to increase access to hands-on outdoor learning experiences for Maine students. Funding is provided to Maine nonprofits specializing in coastal education, ocean ecology, marine science and marine center programming.

“We’ve had the desire and the interest to participate in things like that,” Twining said, “but we haven’t had the resources. I’m excited to expand our own programs and be able to serve as a resource for other (organizations) as well.”

Comments are no longer available on this story