TRANSITIONS: JMIE’s Susan Ustin, Ben Houlton

Susan Ustin, distinguished professor emeritus of environmental and resource science, has been named interim director of the John Muir Institute of the Environment, where she has served as the associate director of research since 2017.

She replaces Benjamin Houlton, her faculty colleague in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources, who has been appointed dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University.

Ustin retired last year, although she stayed on at the Muir Institute and as the director of the UC Davis Center for Spatial Technologies and Remote Sensing, or CSTARS.

Susan Ustin abd Ben Houlton flank redwood tree in posed photo.
Environmental scientists Ustin and Houlton. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Ustin’s appointment as the JMIE’s interim director took effect Aug. 1, as announced this week by Prasant Mohapatra, vice chancellor of research.

“We are thankful for Dr. Houlton’s leadership and wish him well in his new endeavor,” Mohapatra said. “Dr. Ustin has worked closely with the programs in the Muir Institute over the past three years, and is herself a pioneer in environmental research. Her experience and demonstrated leadership will help the institute continue its progress and impact during this transition.”

Ustin received a Ph.D. in botany from UC Davis in 1983 and joined the faculty in 1990. At that time, using research data from satellites and airplanes was considered novel, but she went on to become a world leader in the field of remote sensing, which is now considered a mainstay for tracking environmental changes around the globe. Read more about her career.

“Despite the problems stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to move forward with solutions for energy, food and water security for California,” Ustin said, adding that the JMIE is perfectly suited for the task. “There is no other organization on campus that has the breadth of mission to take on the intersecting program areas of environmental sustainability and health, climate change and sustainable solutions, and climate justice.”

Ustin will work with Majdi Abou Najm, associate professor, Department of Land, Air and Water Resources, and Beth Rose Middleton, professor and chair, Department of Native American Studies, to help advance the Muir Institute’s One Climate program, which leverages the broad expertise at UC Davis to find solutions to the world’s most pressing climate problems.

Houlton joined the UC Davis faculty in 2007 and served as the Muir Institute’s director for the last four years. Under his guidance, the institute became a leader in environmental sustainability and a hub for large multidisciplinary and out-of-the-box environmental programs. His appointment at Cornell takes effect Oct. 1.

He will remain principal investigator for the UC Working Lands Innovation Center, which was initially supported by the state’s Climate Change Research Program. The center received a multiyear grant in 2019 from the California Strategic Growth Council to examine the capacity for soil amendments — rock, compost and biochar — to sequester greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in agricultural soil.

— Lisa Howard, communications specialist, Office of Research

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