Meredith White is the first director of research and development at Mook Sea Farm in Bristol, but she cautions that the title is a little misleading, since the entire aquaculture and hatchery operation has been focused on innovation since its beginnings. “This is the first time it is an official position,” she clarified. We caught up with White at a busy time; she’d just moved from Brunswick to Bath and was in the midst of running two major research projects simultaneously.

DETECTIVE WORK: One of those projects is focused on a bacteria called vibrio. It’s a naturally occurring bacteria that, if present in high levels in oysters, can make people sick. So far, so good in Maine, White said, with no closures of oyster-growying areas because of vibrio-related illnesses. But it’s been an issue to the south of the state, and she said increasing water temperatures lead to more growth of vibrio. “They are seeing this as an increasing risk in the future with climate change, so we are trying to get ahead of that threat.” (There are also different strains of vibrio, including a virulent one recently discovered by researchers at the University of New Hampshire.) At Mook, they’re working on a post-harvest process that would reduce the amount of vibrio in oysters. The sea farm is also trying to assess other factors that contribute to the bacteria’s abundance. “No farmer wants to make anyone sick.”

Meredith White is from Massachusetts, but her family roots go way back on Harpswell Neck. Photo by Amy Litwiller

NEW DIGS: That post-harvest process happens in a new facility at Mook, which White said is the state’s first land-based holding facility that holds oysters in recirculating tank systems. The water is sterilized with ultraviolet light and cleaned with a protein skimmer to remove organic waste. It’s intended to provide economic protection from, say, situations where rivers are closed to harvesting because of strong rainfalls or algae blooms. Maine’s Department of Marine Resources is taking increasingly conservative measures with closures, to avoid situations where Maine shellfish might have to be recalled from the marketplace.

ON THE WATERFRONT: Another project takes White out on the water to collect plankton samples; she’s trying to assess how environmental variables affect bivalve settlement as they transition from the larval to juvenile stage. Translation? Baby clams and mussels start out in the water column before finding their way to a place to grow, whether it be mud or rocks or – in the case of mussels – anywhere they can attach and grow, including the pilings of a dock.

DIVING INTO (TIDE) POOLS: White is from Massachusetts, but her family roots go way back on Harpswell Neck. When White was 13 she had a habit of exploring the tide pools around Potts Point in Harpswell. She’d heard from other kids about a scientist who did the same, with a particular interest in the baby lobsters the kids liked to play with in the intertidal zone. The scientist, Diane Cowan, was giving a talk on nearby Orr’s Island, and White asked her grandparents to take her. “At the end, she said she was always looking for volunteers.” White signed up. “I only went with her one time, but it was life-changing. I was like, this is the same thing I do with my cousins, I didn’t realize it could be a career.”

FORMULATING A FUTURE: This was right around the time that Cowan founded The Lobster Conservancy, a Friendship nonprofit that studies lobster science. Meanwhile, White went on to high school, where she took chemistry classes and formulated a future in the oceanographic sciences. She knew she wanted to start with a broad science background. “You have to understand chemistry and physics and biology because in the ocean they all work together – it is a fluid, dynamic system.” At Lafayette College, she majored in biochemistry, “always with the intention of going to graduate school for marine science.” She went on to get her doctorate from the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program in Oceanography, writing her dissertation on the impact ocean acidification has on the larvae of bay scallops.

DUE NORTH: When she finished her program, White wanted, very much, to make a move to Maine. “I am very close with my family.” Her dissertation topic likely boosted her chances of getting hired; ocean acidification is a hot topic in the Gulf of Maine, where it threatens marine species, especially shellfish. Ocean acidification is a byproduct of the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from human activity; it dissolves in the ocean and causes higher levels of acidity. White’s first Maine gig, in 2013, was as a postdoctoral research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory in Boothbay, working with Barney Balch and David Fields on coccolithophores.

WHAT’S THAT? Coccolithophores are a type of algae, or more specifically, “A type of phytoplankton that makes little scales out of calcium carbonate.” And there’s a twist: “When we think about ocean acidification, we usually think of it as a negative impact,” she said, but with coccolithophores, it could be a positive. “They need carbon dioxide for photosynthesis.”

BACK TO SCHOOL: In 2014, Maine passed legislation to create an ocean acidification commission to study its impacts on the state’s marine resources. White was asked to be part of it. That’s where she met Bill Mook, and as they worked together over the six months the commission was active, made a connection that would again change her life. White moved on to Bowdoin College, spending a year as a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Oceanographic Science. One of her students was working on a project involving seed oysters, and White joined her on a trip to Mook Sea Farm, where they met with Mook and talked about the project. He lent her student some supplies. “He is very supportive of education and research in general.” And he made a casual comment about hoping to hire a research associate.

SPEAK UP: White chimed in: “I said, ‘I need a job starting next fall.’ And he said, ‘Oh, we should talk more about that.’ ” She thought maybe he was just being polite, but the next day, he emailed and told her he was serious. He held the job for her until she was through with her teaching year at Bowdoin.

EVERYBODY IN THE POOL: Does she still get time to hit the tide pools in Harpswell? “I do still. My cousins have little kids and so I get to see all my cousins, I don’t have to take vacation time to do it and it is kind of like, ‘Now we have a professional tide pooler.’ ”

RECONNECTING: What about Diane Cowan, has she ever reconnected with her? White sent her an email while she was in graduate school, to let her know the impact Cowan had on her life. “She wrote back and she was very touched.” Now that she’s been back in Maine, it might be time to reach out again, she said. After all, how often do you go tide pooling with a person who changes your life?

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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