Wonder Women at Sea: Outreach from the Atlantic


Hovering over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the R/V Atlantis, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences senior research scientist Dr. Beth Orcutt received nearly constant information. She watched on multiple screens as Jason, an underwater robot, collected water and rock samples, and listened to ideas from her colleagues as they troubleshot experimental set-ups. Sometimes, checking her email brought information in a very different package: a haiku, like the one below.

  • Very tiny microbe
  • Small underwater hotdog
  • With four tails behind

This poem, inspired by the bacteria Arcobacter sulfidicus, came from Violet, a middle schooler in Lamoine, Maine, and a participant in the Adopt A Microbe program Orcutt was running with the Girl Scouts of Maine. While Orcutt and a team of researchers collected data at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge for three weeks, a group of Girl Scouts back in Maine followed along, conducting experiments alongside the scientists.

"I was inspired to do more in the state of Maine to bring science to young women," Orcutt said. "I hope this program will empower girls to consider careers in science, no matter where they’re from or their socioeconomic background."

Orcutt designed weekly experiments to be performed at home, with a parent as a research assistant and a kitchen as a laboratory. The participating Girl Scouts drew upon science, engineering, math, and art as they learned firsthand about microbes and marine biology. They filled pasta sauce jars with mud collected near their homes to grow "microbial zoos" called Winogradsky columns, lay with a full milk jug resting on their backs in a lesson about pressure, and filled bottles with different liquids to learn about buoyancy.

Violet said that her favorite activity was making and observing her Winogradsky column, and that the project changed her image of a scientist.

"Both my parents are scientists, and one is in a lab and the other on the computer. I never imagined scientists going out on the water," she said. "Now I see how science I do in school can be the same experiments real scientists are doing out on the water."

Research assistant Annie Hartwell said that she wanted to be part of Adopt A Microbe as soon as Orcutt asked for volunteers.

"Science communication is incredibly important," Hartwell said. "Twelve-year-old girls knowing that the science exists is really cool. When I was twelve, I didn’t know, and I was a Girl Scout."

Orcutt, Hartwell, and three other female scientists, all from different places and career stages, wrote frequent blog posts while at sea that delved into all facets of an oceanographic expedition. The Girl Scouts followed the steps of an experiment for tracing water’s path through the ocean crust, calculated how much toilet paper the ship would need to carry for sixty days at sea, and read about the vast task of packing and shipping samples at the conclusion of the cruise.

Postdoctoral researcher Rose Jones wrote blog posts in between lab experiments with microbes, and believes she would have benefited from learning more about a wide variety of science topics when she was younger.

"I think Adopt A Microbe is a really valuable way to broaden horizons," she said. "Hands-on learning helps kids start thinking that these things are possible, and that science is more than an old guy with a beard in a lab wearing a white coat. It also gives you an excuse to get mucky, which is also good."

Tiffany Leidy, Violet’s mother, appreciated the direct connection between the scientists and students.

"The direct posts detailing what was happening on the boat were amazing," she said. "What was most valuable in this curriculum was its direct connection to the experiments that were being done on the boat expedition."

Orcutt and the other scientists aboard Atlantis took lessons away from working with from the Girl Scouts, as well.

"It helped remind me of the bigger picture of what matters – why we’re doing this and how to explain what we’re doing," Orcutt said. "It’s always so hectic at sea, and then I’d open my email and see a picture that a girl spent 30 minutes drawing or read how her experiment went. Getting the emails from these girls helped renew my sense of wonder about what we’re doing."

Orcutt and the Girl Scouts of Maine are planning future directions for their collaboration, including a visit to Bigelow Laboratory. For now, she and the other female researchers from Adopt A Microbe will continue acting as role models for women in science.

Hartwell, for one, appreciated the opportunity to participate in a scientific cruise with such a strong female presence.

"Being on the cruise with so many awesome female scientists was so cool," she said. "We even watched "Wonder Woman" a whole bunch of times."