FALMOUTH, Mass. – When Natalie Boelman had the chance to spend a summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory working at the Ecosystems Center, it was a no-brainer. It meant discussing the ecological puzzles of the Alaskan tundra with mentors and collaborators just a few doors away instead of having them spread across the country.
That’s what got her to Woods Hole. What keeps the scientist coming back each year from her home base at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York City is swimming with her children in the ocean, walking them to their summer camp in the morning and back home at night and dining as a family at the picnic table just steps away from their back door.
“The lifestyle is just really, really nice,” she said, sitting on that very picnic table on a recent summer evening with her husband, Felix Waldhauser, and their children, Aline, 6, and Nico, 4. “It’s like summer camp for all of us. But we can still get our work done.”
Summer finds the Marine Biological Laboratory is at its busiest, swelling the private research institution’s year-round head count of 300 scientists and staff to 1,500, including visiting scientists and researchers, students and faculty who come to MBL for some portion of the season.
Many, like Boelman, bring their families along for the ride. For them, MBL offers housing, including 66 two-bedroom loft-style cabins tucked off Oyster Pond Road, and day care for children up to age 12.
The facilities make it possible for scientists with families to come to MBL and conduct their research without enduring a summer-long separation. It also makes a memorable summer on Cape Cod for the families, creating an atmosphere of fun and learning that keeps future generations coming back to Woods Hole long after their parents’ days in the lab are over.
Ann Stuart’s son Jonathan Stuart-Moore, 30, was one of the self-professed Woods Hole brats who kept coming back. He and his fiancee, Megan Guiliano, are getting married in the village Sept. 8, despite living full time in North Carolina and South Dakota, respectively.
“He’s very intensely bonded with this place,” said Stuart, a neurophysiologist.
It doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to figure out where he gets it. When Stuart was an undergraduate at Swarthmore College studying zoology, two of her fellow students were the sons of Haldan Keffer Hartline, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and alumnus of the MBL summer program.
“They got him to come do a talk, and I was spellbound,” she said. “I decided I was going to go and see this place for myself, which I did. After that, I decided I was going to do whatever was necessary to come and do my work here.”
That path led her to study barnacle vision and led her back to MBL in 1973. She met her husband, John Moore, at MBL. He, too, was a neurophysiologist, but studying squid axons.
For 41 summers, the family has returned to Woods Hole. In most years, Stuart packed her lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill into a U-Haul and drove 750 miles to MBL for months of 12-hour days.
“It’s just free of all the winter responsibilities,” Stuart said of the summers. “You really get to work. You can work like mad. If you don’t want to shop, you can pop over to the cafeteria, you can go to the Woods Hole market and get a piece of pizza. It’s free of the responsibilities of academia, of sitting on committees, of doing teaching. It’s just a marvelous time to work.”
But it wasn’t free of all responsibilities. Her son, born in 1983, needed child care while she and and her husband were in the lab. For the first few years of his life, they brought a nanny to Woods Hole. When he turned 2, they enrolled him in what is now Periwinkle Club, a day camp for MBL children.
That got him up to age 5, which is when Periwinkle Club membership ended. (It now covers ages 4 to 6.) She and two spouses of MBL scientists saw the need for more coverage for working scientists and their families, so they formed the Satellite Club, covering students until they turn 12.
“It’s still thriving and making it possible for women scientists and families to come,” Stuart said. “At the time we were trying to set this up, one of the first directors of the neurobiology course wrote a letter stating it would make it so much easier for him to recruit faculty for the next summer. It happened, and it worked.”
Another scientist looking for care for her child at that time was Joan Ruderman, now the MBL’s 14th president and director. She turned a cooperative day care run by scientists and their families into the Periwinkle Club and, like Stuart, convinced the MBL to run it; Ruderman has referred to that as one of her proudest achievements.
Diana Kenney, science writer and editor at MBL, said the availability of the summer camps and housing is invaluable to bringing the world’s top scientific talent to MBL.
“It’s really important. One scientist told me she gets more done during the summer at MBL than she does for almost the rest of the academic year,” she said.