From computation to the ocean, a scientist finds his fit | Science

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

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…

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