Alfond Scholar jumps from algae to data at the Roux Institute in mission to fix the planet

Headshot of Paige Norris.
Paige Norris, a data science graduate student at the Roux Institute, aims to use data to address sustainability challenges. Photo by Adam Glanzman for Northeastern University

Since she was a child, Paige Norris has been what she calls a “STEM kid.” Math and the sciences have held a special place in her heart, specifically when it comes to sustainability and renewable energy.

In high school, Norris was already building wind-powered turbines and solar energy projects. By the time she received her undergraduate degree in biology from the Rochester Institute of Technology, she had produced biodiesel using spent coffee grounds.

So, it might seem strange that when Norris entered the Roux Institute at Northeastern University in 2022 she did so to pursue a graduate degree in data science. But for Norris, her change in field is not a zig or a zag in her career path but a straight line that leads back to helping the planet.

“The world is going to hell. We need to fix it, and there’s so many different areas of renewable energy,” Norris says. “You can be in biology, you can be in data science, you can be in mechanical engineering. It’s an important topic that we need to talk about and need to make some solutions for.”

Norris was born and raised in Massachusetts and attended the Putney School, a private progressive liberal arts boarding school in Putney, Vermont, but Maine has long been like a second home for her. Her partner’s family has a house on Monhegan Island that has been a source of summer comfort for Norris for at least a decade.

When the Roux Institute offered her the opportunity to not only get a graduate degree in data science but do so in Maine, she jumped at the chance. It also helped that she was able to benefit from the Alfond Scholars Initiative, a Harold Alfond Foundation-backed scholarship opportunity that opens up graduate program opportunities to students looking to pursue careers in emerging fields in Maine, like data science.

Norris says the Alfond Scholar Initiative made Northeastern University and the Roux Institute accessible to her, a first-generation college student who grew up under the poverty line.

“The Alfond Scholarship lowered the threshold for attending and has made it possible for me to earn my master’s without taking on more debt,” Norris says. “I am able to earn this degree so I can pursue a career in renewable energy while being able to remain in Maine during and after my studies.”

Norris’ interest and passion for sustainability became more active while she was an undergraduate. As a research assistant, she used spent coffee grounds to create biodiesel fuel and also explored the use of Spirulina algae carbohydrates in producing bioethanol. She also started Acadian Landscapes, a gardening service that she operated on Monhegan Island in Maine for three years while finishing her undergraduate degree.

Her involvement in those two projects paved the way for an algae biotechnology internship at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado in 2021. But after three weeks in the position, a new opportunity presented itself. 

After a data scientist on her team left NREL, she volunteered to pivot to the data science team. It wasn’t totally outside her area of expertise –– she had taken some programming classes at RIT –– but it was definitely a shift, albeit a welcome one in some ways, Norris says.

“I did it a little bit and really liked it –– [plus] I had been killing algae in my experiments,” she says. “I kept messing up the experiments, so I thought maybe it’s better that I do something that has an undo button instead of something that was alive and needed to be kept alive.”

During her internship at NREL, Norris started exploring possibilities to advance her skills in data science through a graduate program. Her eye was always on Maine –– it’s where her partner was living and she wanted to come back to the East Coast to be closer with her family.

She went searching for a high-quality data science graduate degree program in Maine and the Roux Institute emerged. Between the location, the program and the help she received through the Alfond Scholars Initiative, Norris says the Roux Institute has been the perfect next step in her path toward a career in sustainability.

“I think that it’s good if more biologists learn the data science part just to keep it a well-rounded field, and vice versa,” she says. “Having more abilities in more fields allows you to think more creatively and in more ways than people with just one explicit skill set.”

On top of her coursework at the Roux Institute, she serves as a student ambassador and is working as a data architect at Braincube, a startup that creates tools for manufacturers to reassess their processes. 

“It’s a different way to look at renewable energy and sustainability because what we’re trying to move into is helping manufacturing plants and companies reduce the amount of waste that they’re producing,” Norris says. “We give them an option to see where they’re producing waste, see where they’re lacking in their systems, and then they can use our program or software and fix it that way.”

Despite the twists and turns in her path –– from studying algae to data –– Norris says the journey has only reinforced her passion for sustainability and lifelong learning.

“I love to learn, and my goal in life is to continually learn,” Norris says. “I think I’ll be developing skills and learning more, and then when the right job pops up, I’ll be as prepared as I can be.”

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on X/Twitter @Proelectioneer.