Back to top

Staff Spotlight: Mary Baker

JULY 20, 2018 — I’ve worked for NOAA in Seattle since the late 1970s, starting as a student processing oceanographic data for a deep-ocean mining project, then progressing to help with the development of the NOAA Status and Trends Program. 

Woman posing on a beach.
Look closely and you'll see the group of basking New Zealand fur seals. Image credit: NOAA.

Since the 1980s, I have been providing technical support for evaluations of hazardous waste sites and overseeing Regional Resource Coordinators and Economists in the Northwest and Great Lakes regions of the OR&R Assessment and Restoration Division.  In October, 2017, I stepped down as a manager to focus on providing technical and strategy support for the Lower Duwamish River and Portland Harbor Natural Resource Damage Assessment cases, advance assessment methods and train my colleagues.  The common thread in my NOAA career the application of science to understand contamination in the coastal environments.  I’ve been fortunate to be able to delve into technical issues at waste sites or oil spills in all regions of the country.

I most enjoy the opportunity to design and implement field studies to evaluate environmental harm and plan restoration.  For example, this year our case teams collected juvenile Chinook salmon in Seattle and Portland for growth and contaminant evaluations and we are planning similar collections of sculpin and English sole later this year or next year.  I find it exciting to ponder a contamination problem, sift through the possibilities of how habitats and coastal species may respond to contaminants, figure out what has been affected, how severely, and what can be done to restore environments to compensate for injuries.  I also love the process of building evidence to make step-wise connections between a contaminant source and observations of environmental harm while considering alternative explanations for observations, to best prepare a good technical argument.

I knew early in life that I wanted to become a marine biologist.  When I was a child, my parents had an interest in buying vacation property on the shores of Puget Sound and we spent many weekends riding Washington State ferries to Whidbey and San Juan Islands, wandering cobble shores, and climbing eroding banks of sand and glacial till.  My parents never did buy coastal property but great memories include the smell of creosote pilings, kelp fronds swaying with the current, finding anenomes in tide pools, and the shock of 55 degree water on my ankles (and later my whole body as I learned to water ski in Hood Canal).  Watching the explorations of Jacques Cousteau on TV cemented my life plans, and I think I can do a credible impersonation of him after a glass of wine!

I hold degrees from the University of Washington in Oceanography and Fisheries. I learned my skills on the job, and was fortunate to conduct my PhD research at the LCP waste site in Brunswick, Georgia and the Strandley-Manning site on Puget Sound as part of my work at NOAA. The research focused on trans-generational effects of PCBs and mercury on cutthroat trout and Fundulus heteroclitus (the cutest little forage fish in the country).

Outside of my NOAA job, I love to travel, enjoy hiking mountains and coastal areas, have a crafty bent (making jewelry, greeting cards, and clothes), and serve as an Affiliate Professor at the School of Marine and Environmental  Affairs at the University of Washington, where I occasionally teach and supervise graduate student projects.  This photo was taken in New Zealand in front of a group of basking New Zealand fur seals.  A part-time residence in New Zealand seems to be in my future.

Return to OR&R Weekly Report.