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Combining passions to impact the environment

Published Date: 
Thursday, January 28, 2016

Computer science and ecology may seem an unlikely combination at first, but it’s exactly the niche new Oregon State University assistant professor, Rebecca Hutchinson, envisioned. Her research uses machine learning and statistical modeling to help scientists answer questions like: What will happen to monarch butterflies under climate change? What are the habitat requirements of olive-sided flycatchers? How can we build a reserve that birds will want to live in?

Hutchinson did not start her research in ecology, however. Her Ph.D. work at Carnegie Mellon University was applied to brain imaging research. But she realized her passion was for the environment, so she made the move to Corvallis to pursue research in which she could use computer science to inform fields related to sustainability. Her dream was fully realized when she received a SEES fellowship (Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability) from the National Science Foundation and began her interdisciplinary research.

“What I find really inspiring is that I can use computer science to have an impact in ecology — to help protect species that are threatened by climate change,” Hutchinson says.

Hutchinson was just finishing her post-doc fellowship in computer science and forest ecology at Oregon State when she saw a job position for a rare interdisciplinary professorship. The job was part of the Provost’s Hiring Initiative for advancing and equalizing student success.

“The luck of finding a job like this in the place that I live is just incredible,” Hutchinson says.

Her joint appointment is in the College of Engineering's School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. She is also affiliated faculty for the Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing, which is initiating undergraduate and graduate programs in bioinformatics, an emerging field that uses computer science, including machine learning, to analyze and interpret biological data.

But it was luck, she says, that brought her to computer science when she started college at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. She chose engineering because she liked math but didn’t have an idea for which area to specialize in. A dean at the school encouraged her to try computer science, and despite lacking any previous programming experience, she gave it a try.

“It took me a while to get it, but then it just clicked and I loved it. There's a pure problem-solving aspect to programming that I really like,” she says.

It was at the end of that first programming class that Hutchinson’s interest in artificial intelligence was sparked. After designing a program that moved a symbol around a grid on the computer screen to “eat cookies,” she asked the question, “Can we make it smarter, so it finds the cookies faster?” And her teacher replied that there was a whole field called artificial intelligence to answer questions like that. It was a moment that started her on the path to Oregon State.

Although many things stayed the same for Hutchinson as she moved into her role as a professor this year, many things changed, including more teaching responsibilities. She enjoys teaching because it gives her the opportunity to immerse herself in a topic, and to help students learn a different way of thinking. She is also looking forward to the diversity of her teaching which includes courses in both computer science and ecology.

In addition to being motivated about the impact of her own research, Hutchinson looks forward to having broader reach.

“The vision for this position was to be an ambassador between departments and help communicate across disciplinary boundaries, and I'm excited about that aspect of the job,” Hutchinson says.

Corvallis has turned out to be the perfect place for Hutchinson and her husband. Both enjoy outdoor activities and living in a bike-friendly community. Growing up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Hutchinson was used to a pretty harsh climate, but now can’t imagine going back to the cold. She was struck by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest on her first visit.

 “I just felt like I was home,” she says.

— Rachel Robertson