Finding paths, and making them: Erin Hestir breaks new ground with CITRIS connections

Mountains and seashore in the Greater Cape Floristic Region of South Africa.

Photo by Adam Wilson

The CITRIS principal investigator and geomatics engineer uses remote sensing to construct complex pictures of aquatic ecosystems under threat.

Erin Hestir at a computer with a topographical photo displaying on the monitor.
Photo by Veronica Adrover/UC Merced

“I immediately knew that CITRIS was so aligned to my professional and personal goals that I had to be a part of it,” said Erin Hestir, a University of California, Merced professor of civil and environmental engineering and principal investigator (PI) at the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute (CITRIS). 

“The work I do is fundamentally underpinned by the urgency that we’ll soon have to feed 9 billion people while sustaining diversity of life in all its forms.”

Hestir conducts research through the lens of geomatics, or the gathering, processing and analysis of geographic data. By mounting sensors on satellites, aircraft, drones and boats, she collects not only images of places around the world, but also measurements of reflected and emitted electromagnetic energy from the Earth’s surface in each location. She then uses spectroscopy and other analytical techniques to build a complex biogeophysical picture of the environment. 

Erin Hestir taking a selfie in a small watercraft in a marsh.

Her research focuses on ecosystems in rivers, estuaries and coastal regions, and the ways humans alter these landscapes — changing the Earth’s surface and moving water around — to feed growing populations. She is particularly interested in exploring the consequences of human development on biodiversity, and how we can balance ecosystem health with a need for water and food security. 

Much of her work is applications-based. These proof-of-concept explorations help agencies such as NASA have a better understanding of the data that sensors can record, and the societal importance of that data, before engaging in further research. 

“That’s really important evidence before they invest hundreds of millions of dollars in launching and operating new sensors in space,” she said.

Hestir studied physical geography as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley and graduate student at UC Davis. After receiving her Ph.D. in 2010, she performed research in Australia for several years before accepting a position at North Carolina State University in 2014. 

While an assistant professor at NC State, she heard from Joshua Viers, a UC Merced professor of water resources engineering, whom she knew from the time they had overlapped at UC Davis. He suggested she look into an open faculty position at UC Merced’s School of Engineering, as it might suit her research interests. She agreed, and in 2017 Hestir brought her talents back home to California. She is now an associate professor of geomatics in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Merced, where she also leads the Earth Observation and Remote Sensing Lab

“What makes CITRIS so exciting to me is to have people working on these technology solutions for the good of society, for the good of us. We need more people thinking that way.”

Erin Hestir

Hestir’s ties to CITRIS and the Banatao Institute run deep. Her doctoral advisor, Susan Ustin, has spoken at several CITRIS events and helped to launch the CITRIS-supported UC Davis Drone Academy in 2018. These days, Ustin lends her considerable experience in remote sensing to CITRIS Aviation, through which she advised student teams competing for the inaugural CITRIS Aviation Prize. Also, Joshua Viers, who recruited Hestir to UC Merced, has served as the CITRIS at UC Merced campus director since 2013.

“She is clearly a leader and has the motivation to leverage technology and informatics in new and important ways,” said Viers. “Given her background in California and accomplishments in environmental remote sensing of biodiversity and water quality, I knew she would be a great fit for what we were trying to do at UC Merced.”

Hestir was named associate director of CITRIS at UC Merced in 2019. Like Ustin, she sits on the CITRIS Aviation working group, and she also helps to influence the campus’s emerging strengths in agriculture and food technology (Ag-Food-Tech). 

Meanwhile, Hestir’s own research portfolio is extensive. 

She is an investigator for IoT4Ag, a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center (NSF ERC) founded in 2020 that seeks to explore how the Internet of Things can support precision agriculture for a sustainable future.

She is a co-lead of NASA’s first biodiversity campaign, the Marine, Freshwater, and Terrestrial Biodiversity Survey of the Cape (BioSCape) in the Greater Cape Floristic Region of South Africa (GCFR), one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. With a large team of investigators from the United States and South Africa, BioSCape will use NASA’s sensor technologies to map biodiversity and understand the role of biodiversity in ecosystem functions and services to humanity. 

Hestir also recently received a NASA Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) award to study the impact of wildfires on California’s coastal ecosystems. She and a team of researchers from UC Merced, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, UCLA and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute are investigating the role of wildfires in the movement of sediment and carbon from watersheds into California’s coasts and the effects on kelp forests already stressed by climate change.

Erin Hestir looks over the shoulders of two students working at laptops.

As part of her role as associate director of CITRIS at UC Merced, Hestir leads the campus’s EDGE in Tech efforts, building on her long-term commitment to forging and widening pathways to STEM for underrepresented communities — in higher education broadly, and in the San Joaquin Valley more specifically. In 2020, CITRIS supported her efforts with a CITRIS Seed Award, for a cross-campus project to analyze the effectiveness of a digital mentorship platform on retention efforts.

Hestir also spearheaded the creation of ¡Valle de Exploración!, a collaborative effort between Google’s exploreCSR program and CITRIS at UC Merced. ¡Valle! provides mentoring, skills training and networking opportunities to undergraduate women, people of color, people with disabilities and financially disadvantaged students in STEM fields at colleges and universities throughout California’s Central Valley. Now in its third year, ¡Valle! is actively recruiting its next cohort.

“¡Valle! is one of the most rewarding programs we run, because it’s going to take a diversity of perspectives and people to solve the challenges we’re facing,” Hestir said. 

“What makes CITRIS so exciting to me is to have people working on these technology solutions for the good of society, for the good of us. We need more people thinking that way.”