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Associate Professor, Michigan State University

Andy Finley uses Bayesian statistical modeling and high-performance computing to develop new understanding of ecosystems and how they change.

Degree Earned

B.S., Forest Science, 2000 (now Forest Ecosystem Management Major)

The Big Picture: Exploiting massive spatial and temporal environmental datasets to build new understanding

"I build new tools and data products to help researchers answer big questions about changing environments." ~ Andrew Finley

Finley uses Bayesian statistical modeling and high-performance computing to develop new understanding of ecosystems and how they change. He and his colleagues strive to understand environmental change and its impacts on ecological systems by developing statistical tools and learning opportunities that help researchers analyze massive datasets. He urges undergraduate students in forestry and other applied disciplines to seek research opportunities—including programming—to learn how to analyze data early in their undergraduate careers. "We are moving into an era where open-access, data-rich environments provide extraordinary opportunities to understand the spatial and temporal complexity of ecological processes at broad scales," he says. "Exploring novel questions with such large and messy datasets requires analytical skills and the ability to write your own boutique computer code—and the foundation for such skills is best acquired by undergraduates."

Finley became interested in forestry at a young age. His father, Jim Finley, is a Penn State professor with degrees in forestry and agricultural education. Weekends spent together at Christmas tree shearing courses, maple syrup festivals, and forest landowner training workshops were the norm. The pair always shared the outdoors—hunting, fishing and backpacking together in Central PA. These early experiences guided his decision to pursue a B.S. in forestry at Penn State.

Finley notes, "As an undergrad, I was very fortunate that Professor Wayne Myers (now Professor Emeritus of Forestry Biometrics) gave me the opportunity to work on his PA GAP analysis project. That experience showed me firsthand that new computing environments and data analysis techniques are needed to conduct cutting-edge research." Undergraduate courses in biometry, GIS, and remote sensing led Finley to an internship at Harvard Forest. After leaving Penn State, he earned an M.S. in forestry at the University of Massachusetts, and an M.S. and a Ph.D. in statistics from the University of Minnesota. In 2007, he joined the forestry and geography faculty at Michigan State University.

Andrew Finley at the 1st Annual Graduate Workshop on Environmental Data Analytics
Andrew Finley (back left) and group at the 1st Annual Graduate Workshop on Environmental Data Analytics in Boulder, CO, held from July 28 - August 1, 2014.

Q: Do you think people are surprised when they learn about the kinds of research you conduct in a forestry department?

A: Most people have no idea what modern forestry and forest science entail. I'm pretty sure most folks assume we all stand around in a tower somewhere looking for wildfires, or work as park rangers or loggers. This is troubling, because the reality about and need for forestry is quite different. Forests play a key role in nearly all aspects of our ecological and economic systems. Ensuring sustainable ecosystems and economies—in the face of changing environments and resource demands—requires collaborative work engaging scientists and practitioners with forestry expertise.

Q: What are you working on right now that is really exciting?

A: For the next four years, I will lead a series of workshops on environmental data analytics at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO. Those workshops and other associated work are funded by my recent NSF CAREER award. The workshop series is designed to help prepare the next generation of researchers and practitioners to work within, and contribute to, the data-rich era. Each workshop will bring together graduate students and senior scientists in environmental statistics and related fields to explore contemporary topics in applied environmental data modeling. Students will share their research findings and explore open questions within and at the interface of environmental, ecological, climatic and statistical sciences.

Q: What is your opinion of the work being done at Penn State?

A: Penn State is a premiere research institution. Across all faculties, there are people doing cutting-edge research. They’re building incredible capacity in statistics, computing and quantitative sciences. It's clear that the administration values development and investment in next-generation research and cross-disciplinary collaboration that will maintain Penn State’s place as a top-tier research institution.

Q: What did you do as a forestry student?

Advanced courses in GIS and spatial data analysis

Research collaboration with Geographic Information Sciences at Penn State

Pennsylvania GAP Analysis Project

Penn State Undergraduate Research

Q: Where can we find your work?

Andrew Finley's Michigan State Homepage

Next Generation Climate Data Products Workshop

Graduate Workshop on Environmental Data Analytics