Alumni Profiles Series: Scott Loarie

 July 26, 2023

Dr. Scott Loarie is the co-director of iNaturalist, a leading citizen science site for biodiversity and a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic Society. iNaturalist is a mobile app that allows scientists and non-scientists alike to make observations of plants, animals, and fungi. The observations create a large, international database of biodiversity. Many observations are reviewed and considered research grade, facilitating international collaboration. He has increased the reach of iNaturalist to support millions of citizen science observers. Before his work at iNaturalist, he received his M.S. in biological science from Stanford and his Ph.D. in environmental science and policy from Duke University, where he worked in Dr. Stuart Pimm’s lab, then went on to postdoctoral and research positions concerning agricultural yield and climate modeling with the Carnegie Institution for Science.

What were your career goals when you came to Duke?

I’ve always been interested in conservation and biodiversity, so coming out of undergrad I was committed to that. I had been working on research on Stanford’s campus, and I was thinking about going to grad school. Then I heard about Stuart Pimm, who is a well-known professor and a very important character in the conservation world. I came out to interview and meet his lab, and I was impressed with them and the Nicholas School. I met a really great group of students who were doing exciting work, and I felt like that was a great next step.

What I’m doing now at iNaturalist is very different from traditional academia, but the mission is the same. I’m trying to find ways to prevent species from going extinct by learning more about them while also getting them on people’s radar. That’s what science is, too; it’s just a different way of doing it than writing academic papers.

Tell me about your transition from Duke to iNaturalist.

I wanted to get back to California, so after I finished my Ph.D., I went back to Stanford to start a postdoc. During my postdoc, I met my partner Ken-ichi Ueda, who started iNaturalist as a master’s project at Berkeley in 2008, the same year that I returned to California. 2008 was a really interesting year in terms of the evolution of technology: the iPhone had just come out and people were increasingly interested in crowd sourcing—for example, getting communities like Wikipedia to come together and do science. An interesting thing was happening in science at the time due to the transition from print journals to a newer open-access online model. This prompted some big questions about scaling peer review. Many people were wondering how to actually come up with the right answer from opinions? The creation of iNaturalist fits with this question.

We now know a lot more about how these systems are vulnerable to misinformation and other issues. But these topics interested me at Duke and continue to interest me, and when I met Ken-ichi and I saw the early version of iNaturalist, I felt that this is what I want to do and started transitioning from academia to iNaturalist. We started iNaturalist up as an organization in 2011 and have been working on that ever since!

What’s next for iNaturalist?

Exciting stuff! While a lot of things shut down due to the pandemic, iNaturalist really picked up because a lot of people who were stuck at home discovered it for the first time. It also gave us a lot of time to step back and think about the big picture. We developed a vision for 2030 and much of the last year was spent doing organizational development to get us there. There will be some exciting announcements on the horizon as we continue to improve and expand iNaturalist’s impact. We’re thinking about how to get more types of people involved. If we want to have an impact on global biodiversity, we have to get this tool to work in different parts of the world where there are very different socio-economic situations and different groups of people living with different lifestyles. We know iNaturalist works well with people in Durham, but how do you adapt it to places like South America, where there are entirely different sorts of species and different levels of international development? We’ve carved out this niche of trying to be globally relevant and applicable, but you’re never going to be as useful or as tailored to a region as something that’s really built for that particular region.

Our goal is not to replace local data networks, but rather to complement them. You can think of iNaturalist as a sort of marketplace for expertise. Some people are posting observations from their backyard and they’re connecting with people with expertise from somewhere else. By being a global platform and making those connections, it really helps get high-quality identifications. iNaturalist is just one piece of the puzzle, but the larger goal is to get people engaged with nature and to get the data that we need to reverse the extinction crisis!

Scott Loarie's career advice for graduate students

What has your experience working at iNaturalist been like?

With iNaturalist, it’s almost like we launched a satellite: we built this thing and launched it into space and started getting good images, and now the question is like can you really use these images to have an impact? We’re generating real scales of biodiversity data that haven't been seen before. Now the question is, can we use the data to get people excited about nature and make informed decisions to prevent species extinctions?   

Though I feel like I was answering these questions writing papers, iNaturalist provides a different approach. When writing papers you hope that the papers would have a good set of instructions on what people should do, but you would also hope for publicity of the publication—an article in the news, or the local paper to get people excited. With iNaturalist we’re doing the same thing; it’s just that we’re doing it with interesting technologies like mobile technology, machine-learning algorithms, and social networks.

Those technologies bring a new set of challenges—all the stuff that’s in the news right now: How do you moderate communities? How do you have lots of diverse people working together in a way that produces positive and correct outcomes? How do you avoid misinformation and moderate communities at scale online?

Some of it has been surprising, but it’s fun too. Right now we are trying to predict where species are from the data, which is the kind of research I was doing at Duke with biogeography (trying to understand where species are). It’s fun to think back to my academic roots, since I have worked on different kinds of models in the intermittent period.

How has your doctoral training at Duke helped you to meet these challenges?

I took a lot of statistics classes during my Ph.D. Duke is known for its strength in early Bayesian statistics and probability theory. Jim Clarke is a professor in Biology but he works closely with that group, and so I took his classes because I hadn’t had a chance to study hard-core statistics like that before. This led me to start taking more classes in the statistics department. I never really had a background in computer programming, but it was extremely useful to get some formal, really intense statistics and probability training at Duke. This training has been essential for dealing with the machine learning issues that have arisen while working on iNaturalist because we need to take these huge datasets and try to use them to make accurate and useful predictions.

What is the best career advice you ever received?

Try to do what you are really passionate about. Following this advice hasn’t always been easy working in biodiversity, because there aren’t a lot of career prospects. For example, when I moved back to California, my postdoc was mostly focused on biofuels and crop yields because that’s where the economic forces were pushing me. But I’ve always tried to make sure that I am sticking to my passion, which is biodiversity. I think that gives me an edge that a lot of people don’t have, because it gets me up in the morning. I’ve had the luxury of always having my hobby be my job, and I hope that’s what other people experience.

What is your favorite memory from your time at Duke?

Oh, it was definitely the Eno River. I’m from California and we don’t have very diverse freshwater streams. I remember sticking my head into the river with a snorkel and seeing all the colorful little fish. It’s like a little mini coral reef, and I just feel like that was one of the cool things about being in a completely different ecosystem than the one I grew up in.


Kalei Porter
Kalamkaleimahoehoe (Kalei) Porter

Master’s student, Graduate Liberal Studies

Kalei Porter is a second-year M.A. candidate in the Graduate Liberal Studies program at Duke. She is interested in new ways of looking at environmental problems and is currently investigating the land-use history at Bennett Place State Historic Site with a technology-guided method through the Information Science and Studies lab. Kalei is also a passionate traveler and dancer.