Research Internships Inspire Continued Discovery


For former Bigelow Laboratory intern Phoebe Keyes, the relaxing week after her graduation from Hamilton College in 2019 brought something unexpected – a deep longing to return to lab work.

“I realized that I needed to be in the lab, doing research,” Keyes said. “I knew that Bigelow Laboratory was a good place for me to learn and grow as a scientist after graduation, and I couldn’t wait to jump back in.”

At the end of the week, Keyes joined Senior Research Scientist Christoph Aeppli’s team as a research technician. Though the job was new to Keyes, the work and team were not – the position built upon her experience as a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) intern at Bigelow Laboratory the previous summer.

A chemistry major, Keyes had spent her internship in 2018 studying how oil changes chemically in the environment after a spill. Now, as a research technician, her first task was to get a new REU student up to speed on the project, and then hand the reins over.

“Interns at Bigelow Laboratory grow and excel through immersion into a lab and research team, and through collaborations with their peers and mentors,” said Research Scientist Nicole Poulton, who mentors REU students every summer and helps organize the program. “We are excited when a student engages in their work so deeply that they want to return and keep moving research forward with us, and when those experiences inspire them to take the next steps down their own career paths.”

Over the next several months, Keyes dove into a breadth of new projects with Aeppli, Research Associate Erin Beirne, and Postdoctoral Researcher Brian DiMento. Using analytical techniques learned during her internship, she worked to identify and quantify new compounds formed due to sunlight exposure after an oil spill, and their effects on the environment. In a new collaboration with Senior Research Scientist David Fields’ research group, Keyes helped run an experiment investigating the effects of spilled oil on tiny zooplankton called copepods.

Keyes also continued developing important skills outside of the lab, including data analysis techniques and mentoring. The nine months she spent as a research technician at Bigelow Laboratory provided the opportunity to continue reaping the benefits of her internship experience and deepen her immersion into the world of research – and to decide on her next steps.

“During the time I spent at Bigelow Laboratory, I grew as a scientist twice as much as I had during my entire time as an undergraduate student,” Keyes said. “The experience taught me so much, and it really cemented that I wanted to continue pursuing environmental chemistry research for my career.”

Just as for Keyes, the end of Michael Chen’s REU internship at Bigelow Laboratory was only the beginning of a deep dive into research that has helped shape his career. While studying biology at Williams College, Chen spent the summer of 2017 working with Senior Research Scientist Ramunas Stepanauskas and Postdoctoral Researchers Eric Becraft and Maria Pachiadaki.

For his independent research project, Chen used bioinformatics techniques to study a group of ancient bacteria originally discovered in marine sponges. Over the summer, the research team he was part of discovered that these microbes also live independently in a wide range of environments, including lake sediments and the dark ocean. Chen analyzed genetic clues to learn about the relationships between disparate microbial groups, untangling a history of evolution and geographic expansion.

Chen returned to Bigelow Laboratory for the summer of 2018, where he finished analyses and wrote a manuscript about the research conducted during his internship. In March 2020, that paper was published in Frontiers in Microbiology, with Chen as the lead author.

“It was really remarkable how much I was trusted to think independently during my internship, and how much freedom I was given to direct the project as I saw fit,” Chen said. “The intense focus on presentation was one of my favorite parts of the program, and it turned me into a much stronger communicator.”

After the conclusion of their summer program, many Bigelow Laboratory interns put their presentation skills to work at professional meetings. Chen presented at the 2018 Ocean Sciences Meeting hosted by the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO), and Keyes at ASLO’s 2019 Aquatic Sciences Meeting. These opportunities are key to helping students build upon their experience at Bigelow Laboratory and integrate into the broader scientific community.

Currently, Chen works as a research associate at the Broad Institute, a biomedical research center associated with MIT and Harvard University. He is applying for graduate programs, and he plans to study marine microbial responses to climate change. Chen will continue using the computational approaches he learned at Bigelow Laboratory, and he also hopes to incorporate satellite remote sensing techniques, inspired by Senior Research Scientists Barney Balch and Paty Matrai’s work.

In the fall, Keyes will begin a PhD program in environmental engineering, with a focus in environmental chemistry, at the University of Minnesota. She will study how plastics degrade and impact the environment, using related analytical techniques to those she learned while working with Aeppli and pursuing a similar approach to understanding the fate of pollutants. She also looks forward to mentoring undergraduate students, which she learned she enjoyed as part of Aeppli’s group.

“These students become our colleagues,” Poulton said. “It’s incredible to have the opportunity to foster this community of interested students, and to watch them progress through their careers and know that we could collaborate again someday.”