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Laser focused

Growing up in rural South Africa, Michelle Bester always aspired to pursue graduate school internationally.  

Michelle Bester
Michelle Bester

Today, she is living that dream as a geography Ph.D. student at West Virginia University studying how remote sensing technology can help prevent and control wildfires.  

“Geography is an essential and empowering field of study that allows me to solve real-world problems and make a real difference,” Bester said. “The more I research and learn, the more I have become attracted to the field. The diversity and interdisciplinary nature of geography further solidified my passion."  

A 2021 recipient of the American Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing’s William A. Fischer Memorial Scholarship, Bester is working to innovate remote sensing techniques. Remote sensing uses special cameras and sensors, mounted on satellites, planes and other devices, to detect and monitor an area’s physical characteristics.  

The nationally competitive scholarship is awarded to one student per year.

“The scholarship aims to facilitate careers using new applications of remote sensing that relate to Earth’s natural, cultural or agricultural resources,” Bester said. “The award will allow me to distinguish myself as an expert in my field and show that I am a capable individual who would be a great addition to any business or university.”  

Bester will be part of ASPRS’s 2021 virtual conference from March 29 to 31. She will receive the award and present her research that uses lidar a type of remote sensing technology that uses reflected light from lasers – to create 3D models of plants and help determine how their architecture is linked to flammability.

Bester plans to use the $2,000 scholarship to purchase field equipment to manually measure the plants and validate the models.

“This scholarship recognizes the creativity of Michelle’s research,” said adviser Brenden McNeil, an associate professor of geography. “Her work shows that the laser-ranging technology lidar is not only capable of helping driverless cars automatically recognize pedestrians, but it can be used to discover how the architectures evolved by different forest shrubs helps encourage or discourage the spread of wildfires.”

Through her research, Bester seeks to improve how forest managers and firefighters manage and track wildfires. 

“My research interests mostly focus on using remote sensing techniques for mapping and monitoring real-world applications,” she said. “This work can help minimize the effects of wildfires around the world.”

After graduating next year, Bester aspires to become a professor and pass on her passion for geography.

“During my time at WVU, I have taken every opportunity to broaden my geospatial analysis, problem-solving and critical thinking skills,” Bester said. “My long-term goal is to become a dynamic and enthusiastic lecturer, so I can share my knowledge and love for GIS and remote sensing with students.”