A professor and two students

Grant Year


Project Leader/s

Dr. Laurie Baker

Project Description

“You can call me Laurie,” says Dr. Laurie Louise Baker, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. “That’s what my students call me.” 

Dr. Baker – Laurie – is a recipient of a 2023 Henry David Thoreau Foundation Faculty Grant for her Community Engaged Data Science program, which pairs students with community organizations to tackle real-world environmental concerns. Through this program Laurie encourages and trains her students to use computational science to enhance the effectiveness of our ecological management toolkit.

As a child Laurie loved the outdoors, and as an undergraduate at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland she pursued a career in marine biology. “But I quickly realized that I actually wasn’t a very good field biologist. I wasn’t great at identifying things, and I didn’t really fit, in my mind at least, as an ecologist. So I began to gravitate towards the data side, applying statistics and studying ecological processes on a larger scale. That allows you to look at things from a birds-eye view and see broader patterns and trends.”

After graduating she found herself off the coast of Chile, analyzing commercial fishers’ catches and bycatches, looking for patterns and trends that might help improve the management of that vital and vulnerable resource. She saw that cultural data – what different fisheries and even individual boats valued or discarded – were almost as important as science. And she soon realized that understanding human behavior and motivations was key.

At College of the Atlantic, which emphasizes environmental studies, “the students in my computer science and data science classes aren’t typical of who you might expect to find in those sorts of classes. They’re interested in environmental issues, so they look at the questions from a variety of different perspectives. I love seeing how they make connections, thinking critically, putting on their ecology hats and their humanities hats.” 

Her students, she says, are eager to use all the tools available to them to promote positive change. “Data Science allows you to look at things very, very broadly. In the last ten to twenty years there's been a surge in the amount of available data, and the quality of that data, which allows us to get at some questions in big ways that we haven't been able to before. For me, that is very, very exciting.”

She is especially enthusiastic about working at the intersection of culture and science. In Chile, she says, “we were looking at catch composition, what species fishers were targeting, and it was really fascinating because while they had three or four main target species, those species would change depending on conditions, or whether a quota was closed.” Now, on the Gulf of Maine, the most rapidly warming body of ocean water in the world, she and her students are exploring how that warming is impacting the biology, economy, and traditional culture and social fabric of the region. 

“One of our projects is called Mapping Ocean Stories. We're developing a historic fisheries atlas, studying oral histories that have been recorded with fishers and people in involved in recreation in Maine. The idea is to also look at where they've been harvesting fish, and when they've been harvesting fish, and how that's changed over time, then combine it all together. For me it’s coming full circle. I’m able to listen to the stories of the fishermen and combine data science with historic ecology.”

Dr. Baker is a knitter, a fitting hobby for a person professionally interested in patterns. “One of the things I like to do is try to open people's minds about how they think about computers, or data. At the start of each class I ask students what they're interested in, what they're hoping to get out of the course, what they're currently doing at COA and what they'd like to do afterwards. Then I share with them some of the ways that I use data science. One of my favorite examples is that I have a little side project designing knitting patterns. If you look at colored knitting, it's actually very similar to a spreadsheet. You can think about each cell of an Excel file as a different stitch, and you can sort the different colors. This is actually a course I'm hoping to teach next winter. With a lot of computing concepts you're figuring out how to repeat things, and that's very similar to designing a pattern. 

“What I really enjoy about giving my students open-ended projects is that, many times, they're often more of an expert in the field in terms of what something means or how to interpret the data, the patterns they're looking at. Where I can help is on executing, taking something that's important in their area and putting it into action. My biggest goal as a teacher is to help them learn skills that they can apply to questions that are interesting to them, questions that really matter.”

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