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For Mark Baumgartner, pictured here in his lab at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, a background in programming has been key to his career success.

Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

From computation to the ocean, a scientist finds his fit

Many oceanographers grow up loving the sea and its creatures. But for Mark Baumgartner, it was “absolute serendipity and computer skills” that got him started down that path. And today, computer programming continues to play a central role in the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) scientist’s work studying whales. “Not a day goes by that I’m not writing computer code to analyze data,” he says. “If I want anything scientifically, I do it through the medium of programming.”

When Baumgartner earned his bachelor’s degree in math and computer science in 1990, having programmed computers since he was in seventh grade, he thought that information technology was the logical career choice. But about a year and a half into his first post-college job, a 5-year training program for data processing management at a vast insurance company, he started having doubts about his path. “I was coming home with splitting headaches; it just wasn’t a good fit,” he says. So he began investigating other options. “I knew that I needed to look then, because it would be very hard to walk away from the higher wage that I would have later in the program.”

In the habit of fishing, hunting, and generally spending time outdoors with his father, he had also begun watching nature shows. “They were in the formula of, ‘Here’s this interesting species, how they live, and the threat against them.’ That threat was usually caused by people. The idea of working to help got my juices going far more than working for an insurance company,” Baumgartner says.

So he began applying for environmental jobs. In one case, he was in the running for a position watching over piping plover nests on a beach, which “would have paid almost nothing,” he says. But, he continues, ”I was miserable enough at my office job that I was ready to do anything. No offense to people who actually watch piping plovers on a beach—it's important.”

It didn’t come to that. After about 6 months, he landed a job that employed his computer skills in a way he had not foreseen: using geographic information systems technology to generate maps and data about marine mammal distribution in the Gulf of Mexico as a computer specialist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. The pay was “definitely less” than he made in insurance, he says, but it “certainly paid better than the piping plover job did.”

Baumgartner found the work fascinating, and he was gratified that his technical skill set—which was unique among his colleagues—was valuable. For instance, the office had purchased a system to receive data from satellites tracking sea turtles, and he was the one who was able to get it built and running. Transitioning “from watching TV about turtles to working with turtle biologists and giving them tools to do their jobs” was thrilling, he says.  

His new work also brought to life some science that had previously left him uninspired. When he was in college, he had found physics dry, recalling friction being demonstrated by sliding a wooden block down a wooden ramp. “I was not excited by it,” he says simply. But when he began taking oceanography courses while working at NMFS, he learned that friction is visible in the wind blowing across the ocean, making waves and moving the water. “I said, ‘Wow, that’s real and tangible and amazingly cool. I'd like to know more.’”

Off the northeastern coast of the United States, in 2010, Mark Baumgartner (at bow of boat) and a colleague approach a North Atlantic right whale to place an electronic tag on its back.

Center for Coastal Studies image taken under NOAA permit 633-1763 under the authority of the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act

After spending approximately 2 decades completing a master’s degree, stints as a research assistant and research associate at WHOI in Massachusetts, a Ph.D. in biological oceanography at Oregon State University, and returning to WHOI for a postdoc and various other roles, Baumgartner is now an associate scientist with tenure, a title he earned in 2014. His current work involves writing software to help detect whales in the ocean as part of an effort to make whales more “visible” to humans, partly so that people will be invested in saving whales from boat traffic and other dangers. He employs programming to analyze data from research cruises, 6-foot-long autonomous robotic gliders shaped like torpedoes that scout out endangered mammals, and buoys that “listen” to whales and identify the species. He also gets to tag whales and otherwise be near them. “I always think it's neat that a computer nerd like myself gets to do all these things,” he says.

Although Baumgartner did not build his computer science background with the intention of applying it to biology, he strongly encourages scientific trainees to include programming in their studies, whatever their discipline. Employing his programming skills to study oceanography and marine science has shown him that “a carpenter who can use power tools can do things that a carpenter using only a hammer cannot,” he says. The benefits also extend beyond specific research applications. Whether he wants to locate whales in the North Atlantic or fix the clothes dryer, Baumgartner’s programming background trained him to break problems into parts, which he can tackle independently until he reaches a resolution. Put simply, he says, learning to program “teaches you how to think about problems”—an invaluable skill for any scientist.