Donor helps buoy Unity College wet lab
Founder’s daughter, a trustee, steps up to support programs at America’s Environmental College
The newly re-opened wet lab at Unity College will be named the CJ and Rick O’Connor and Clifford Family Coral Wet Lab, in recognition of a generous donation from the descendants of founders.
The wet lab is a coral cultivating facility that allows students to study, interact with, and understand dynamic underwater processes within a classroom setting.
“A facility like the new wet lab provides students with authentic, intensive learning experiences in sustainability science. This is exactly why students come to Unity,” said Executive Vice President and President-elect Dr. Melik Peter Khoury.
The facility — unveiled Friday with a small celebration involving students, staff and faculty — was recently featured in a report on WABI-TV News.
The donation comes from CJ and Rick O’Connor and the Clifford family.
Bert Clifford, one of the founders of Unity College, was a nationally recognized telephone industry pioneer and Maine philanthropist who passed away in 2001. His daughter, Coral Jeanne (CJ) Clifford-O’Connor, continues in her parents’ legacy of ensuring a student–centric focus at Unity College, where Clifford-O’Connor serves on the Unity College Board of Trustees.
“My parents taught me that it was important to give back to organizations that made the community and the world a better place,” CJ O’Connor said. “Unity College is a place that was important to my family and I wanted to give back through both my time and resources to continue their work of educating students.”
There are currently 45 students enrolled in the Marine Biology program at Unity, and interest among potential incoming students continues to increase. Research plays a critical role in the Marine Biology curriculum, and the wet lab is an integral part of the curriculum, providing a place for student projects and research.
“Undergraduate research is a major part of the experiential learning that happens at Unity College,” Khoury said. “Savvy students, parents, and industry partners all demand exceptional learning experiences that go beyond the classroom. Thanks to the generosity of people like CJ and Rick O’Connor and the Clifford Family, we can ensure that Unity College is equipping the next generation of environmental leaders and living up to our promise as America’s Environmental College.”
An equipment failure in 2014 contaminated the tank containing the coral specimens. Dr. Emma Perry, Professor of Marine Biology in Unity College’s Center for Biodiversity, took the lead and engaged her students in a rebuilding effort. The new lab has been completely re-designed by students to ensure it allows for more direct aquatic research.
Maintenance staff provided support work over the summer. But most of the rebuilding and fine tuning of the design was carried out by Perry and students enrolled in “Themes in Marine Science: Coral Culturing,” who helped reorganize the wet lab and rebuild the coral culturing facility.
“The students and I discussed the various design and equipment options available at each stage of the rebuild,” Perry said. “They then implemented their decisions, working many hours outside of class time to get results. The students have been working very hard to do this.”
Perry said the newly renovated wet lab is fully integrated into the Marine Biology curriculum. It includes a large coral culturing tank in which students learn how to propagate corals, and which will provide living specimens for a range of classes.
There is also a bank of 10-gallon tanks for short-term, in-class projects; a cold water Maine tank which will support CoolME and other marine biology classes; and a plankton culturing system to support marine botany and other courses.
“All of these features will support and be supported by undergraduate research and other co-curricular activities,” said Perry, whose students recently helped her discover and identify a new species of marine tardigrade – a microscopic animal known for its extreme resilience – while in the field on Allen Island, Maine.
The wet lab is one of a constellation of hands-on facilities that support animal studies at Unity College. From studies in biology and taxonomy to animal care and restoration, wildlife biology, pre-veterinary programs, and more, students at Unity learn to identify, understand, manage, care for, and educate others about animals using the wet lab, animal room and heritage barn facilities.
“CJ and her family are wonderful people so it comes as no surprise they have chosen to generously invest in an initiative that focuses on the needs of students,” said Julie Briggs Cunningham, Director of College Development and Alumni Affairs. “There are many exciting partnership opportunities at Unity College, and CJ and her family chose the one that personally spoke to them.”
Perry said students and faculty are ecstatic to see the wet lab reopen.
“The wet lab provides practical knowledge of one of the biggest biodiversity crises out there,” Perry said, “and offers the potential for students to engage in culturing and growing corals to relieve commercialization and pollution pressure and learn techniques to restore vital undersea coral reefs that are under siege globally.”
“That’s the power of Unity College: We provide students unique learning opportunities in an intensively focused sustainability science environment,” Khoury said. “Not only do students benefit from the facility, but they were instrumental in restoring it—that gives a sense of how Unity students solve real-world environmental problems.”