Freshwater Fires Dr. Shirley Baker and a TEAM OF UF scientists ARE poised to research the effects of PRESCRIBED burns on FRESHWATER SPECIES

Surrounded by plaques of achievement from a twenty-six-year career, Dr. Shirley Baker leans back as she reminisces of her upbringing that lead her to her career as a marine scientist. Now an Associate Professor and Marine Sciences Faculty Advisor at the University of Florida (UF), Baker works behind the scenes of the Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences program securing grants and serving on numerous academic and industry committees.

Dr. Baker dissects a long-spined sea urchin to develop health diagnostic procedures

In seventh grade, a young Baker found herself on a boat in the Pudget Sound of Seattle. With the clanking sound of chains and pulleys around her, she was excited to discover what species were going to be pulled up from the underwater world beneath. Having already been on a field trip that year to see sockeye salmon journey through the Ballard Locks, Shirley was hooked and well on her way to a career as a marine scientist.

In present-day, Baker describes the environment of Western Washington as strongly infused with Native American culture. Fisheries, aquaculture, and marine resources are fundamentally present in the Pacific Northwest. Baker attributes growing up in that environment as instrumental to her future path. Baker has established an impressive career as a marine scientist, and she currently advises the next generation of young scientists in her field. Her class, "Natural Resources in a Changing Climate" explores thinking creatively when applying conservation management tools in a changing world.

The topic of climate change is often met with a mixture of agreement, disagreement, actual sound science, and emotion. The two main perspectives on climate change can both be incomplete and incorrect. Baker said, “Climate change supporters can be wrong in their world view by making hypocritical life choices. People are walking contradictions. I see people that are vegans or vegetarians wearing leather Birkenstocks. Another example is alternative energy solutions are not as awesome as they might think. Biofuels seems like a great idea, but then, you have countries burning down forests to plant soybeans or corn for biofuels. Is that really a good option? Not really because you are releasing all that carbon and the forests are no longer there for carbon sequestration.”

Baker also agrees that there are ways that climate change skeptics may be correct. “They are correct in that there is disagreement in the projections but incorrectly take that as scientists don’t know what they’re talking about. A lot of it depends on how much humans will limit emissions and knowing how much land use is going to change. People are hard to predict!” Observing these public opinions of climate change from a scientist’s perspective has only further fueled Baker’s fascination with its effects and the potential breakthroughs.

Baker’s return to research is an exciting one. Collaborating with colleagues Dr. Raelene Crandall and Dr. Lindsey Reisinger from the UF School of Forest Resources and Conservation, their upcoming project will study fire regime’s impact on freshwater organisms. With a team of subject matter experts in prescribed fire, aquatic insects, and aquatic bivalves, this exciting new research has a great chance of making new discoveries for both aquatic and terrestrial systems. Baker says, “Fire can have a huge impact on the water resources surrounding it. You might see an influx of nutrients, leaf litter, and changes to sedimentation. This could have implications all the way down to the estuaries.” Baker is currently working on acquiring funding, but her dream team is ready.

“I’ve always had this interest in how fire regimes might impact freshwater organisms. I got those two together [Crandall, Reisinger] and said, nobody is doing this. Let’s talk about doing some work on this.”

Dr. Baker is a marine scientist hailing from the Washington State who has been teaching at the University of Florida since 1999. Her work involves researching the species of interest in Florida’s aquaculture industry, the role of climate change on Southeastern marine ecosystems, and advising young marine scientists at the University of Florida.

Story by Tom Davis

Tom is a Master's student in the Agricultural and Education and Communication program at UF.