FALMOUTH, Mass. (AP) — 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 (the arthropods have large photoreceptors, she said, making them ideal for study) 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, and the die was cast.
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. Jonathan, born in 1983, needed child care while she and John 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 years old.
“It’s still thriving and making it possible for women scientists and families to come,” Stuart said of the Satellite Club. “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 work as one of her proudest achievements.
Diana Kenney, science writer and editor at MBL, said the continued availability of the summer camps and housing has proven an invaluable tool to bring the world’s top scientific talent to learn and teach at MBL each summer.
“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. “Here, her kids are in camp and she can focus on her research, really get some quality time in her lab and do dedicated research.”
Neither the research nor the amenities come cheap. A lab for the summer can run as much as $21,000, and the cottages run $918 a week, according to rates posted on MBL’s website. Many scientists receive grants for their work to partially offset costs, and MBL also offers research awards.
Some scientists, like Stuart and Moore, keep a home in Woods Hole year round for their summer use. Theirs is a cottage of about 1,000 square feet on F.R. Lillie Road; it was built in the mid-1950s after MBL subdivided plots of land and sold them to its scientists for home building. Many of the cottages are still occupied by their original owners or have remained in the family for decades.
“It’s a testimony to the magnetism of the place that so many people overcome the barriers to come,” Stuart said.
The scientists get good use out of their time. While their families are out and about around the Cape, Stuart said it’s common for the scientists to spend 12 hours a day or longer in their lab, stopping only for the occasional meal break. They stagger home to catch a few hours’ sleep, only to start the process again in the morning.
In her first summer, Stuart said she gave herself Sunday morning to swim in the ocean. The rest of the time was devoted to lab work, study and science.
Although the cottages, the setting and the community bring summer camp to mind (and did for Natalie Boelman), Stuart said the term is anathema to the scientists.
“For the scientists, it’s very serious,” she said. “It’s just incredibly intense.”
This is Stuart’s first summer in Woods Hole in retirement, although with an upcoming wedding and a dance card full of visitors, it’s no less hectic than if she was plugging away in the lab. In some ways, it’s more so, since her friends and family know the summer calendar is finally open for visits.
Natalie Boelman and Felix Waldhauser are keeping their cottage largely closed to visitors (“It gets too hectic,” Felix said) and focusing on their family time. Since Boelman is spending most of her summer reviewing her data gathered from expeditions to Alaska’s North Slope and not in a lab, she’s got a schedule that allows for evening and weekend family time. Waldhauser, a geophysicist at Lamont-Doherty, brought his work to Woods Hole and works from the cabin while the kids are at camp.
It wouldn’t be this way at home. Although life does slow down for the family, camps are crowded, everything’s a subway ride away and there’s no freedom to frolic in the woods behind the cottage.
“They come home filthy and salty and exhausted, which is fantastic,” Boelman said. “Just to be outside exploring — in Manhattan, there’s never going to be a time where they can go outside by themselves exploring.”
Aline and Nico may be headed for a future like Jonathan Stuart-Moore. Now in their third summer in Woods Hole, the kids romp in and out of the family’s cottage with ease and have made fast friends with kids from across the country. When the family visits the MBL-owned Stoney Beach, it’s the kids who get recognized. Aline recently bid a tearful goodbye to a friend, Stella, whose parents wrapped up their Woods Hole stay and headed home.
Sure, there are other places to spend a summer. Maybe even other places where the science could be so rewarding and the life so rich. But none of them are the Marine Biological Laboratory, or Woods Hole.
“We’ve so far pretended it’s a question, but in the end this ends up being so easy in so many respects,” Boelman said. “It’s a four-hour drive, child care’s taken care of, office space is taken care of, the beaches are here. It’s almost too easy.”
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