WUSTL alumna named MacArthur Fellow

Ruth DeFries, Ph.D., a 1976 summa cum laude graduate of Washington University in St. Louis’ earth and planetary sciences department in Arts & Sciences, has been named a MacArthur Fellow and will receive $500,000 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Ruth DeFries
Ruth DeFries

DeFries, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in the Department of Geography and the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, is among 24 nationwide who are being announced Sept. 25 as recipients of what is popularly known as the “Genius Grant.” The fellowship comes to them with no strings attached over the next five years.

The new Fellows work across a broad spectrum of endeavors. They include a biomedical scientist, a blues musician, a forensic anthropologist, an inventor, a medieval historian, and a spider silk biologist. All were selected for their creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future.

MacArthur Fellowships offer the opportunity for Fellows to accelerate their current activities or take their work in new directions. The unusual level of independence afforded to Fellows underscores the spirit of freedom intrinsic to creative endeavors. The imagination of MacArthur Fellows knows neither boundaries nor the constraints of age, place and field.

DeFries, born in 1956, received a bachelor of arts degree in earth science from WUSTL in 1976 and a Ph.D. from the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins University in 1980.

She is an environmental geographer who uses remotely sensed satellite imagery to explore the relationship between the Earth’s vegetative cover, human modifications of the landscape, and the biochemical processes that regulate the Earth’s habitability. One of the greatest uncertainties researchers face when analyzing the world’s carbon balance is the extent of tropical deforestation. In the past, the deforestation rate has been cobbled together using national statistics on forest cover and coarse-resolution satellite imagery that cannot detect changes finer than the level of individual pixels.

Recognizing the limitations of these strategies, DeFries and a team of collaborators developed a more precise approach to mapping land cover that views the landscape as a continuum of land cover characteristics rather than as discrete classes of forests. With this method, DeFries has compiled datasets that have significantly changed the scale and focus of ecosystem research, enhanced her and other researchers’ ability to make more plausible projections of future climate change, and contributed to understanding how human activities are altering habitat needed to conserve biodiversity.

At the regional level, she has played a key role in exploring the impact of human-induced changes in land cover, initially focusing on central Africa and moving on to map areas in Southeast Asia and the Brazilian Amazon. Combining expertise with sophisticated satellite-imaging systems and a deep understanding of the environmental effects of agriculture and urbanization, DeFries is providing a clearer picture of the processes transforming the Earth.

The inaugural class of MacArthur Fellows was named in 1981. Including this year’s Fellows, 756 people, ranging in age from 18 to 82 at the time of their selection, have been named MacArthur Fellows since the inception of the program.