How Susan Ustin Helped Launch a New Field of Study and Why She Continues to Study the Earth from Above

In 1982, Susan Ustin began working with NASA satellite data to study how plants respond to environmental stress. Thirty-five years later, the pioneer in remote sensing, and a distinguished professor of environmental and resource sciences at UC Davis, is still finding new ways to tackle environmental problems from above.

By Lisa Howard

December 4, 2017

When Susan L. Ustin began her career in remote sensing at UC Davis in the 1980s, her colleagues — mostly male — weren’t convinced that what she was doing was actually science.

“They didn’t see the images as a visualization of data. To them, the images were just pretty pictures,” Ustin says.

Ustin received a Ph.D. in botany from UC Davis in 1983. After that, she worked on campus for a number of years on nonpermanent funding until she was offered a faculty position in 1990. Although there weren’t many women in her field — it was mostly engineers and geologists in those days — she doesn’t think gender specifically played a factor in the time it took for her to get hired.

“It was more a case that at the time, people didn’t think remote sensing was really science,” she says. “Trying to convince them that it was worthwhile seemed to be the biggest problem.” But she remembers being only the third woman hired as faculty in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources.

The idea of doing scientific research using data and images from airplanes, drones, and satellites may seem obvious to anyone who grew up with Google Earth, but more than 30 years ago the idea was still very new.

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