Lauren Gillespie ’19 is one of Southwestern University’s newest Fulbright award recipients. Gillespie, who was a computer science and chemistry double major, will head to Brazil to continue her Ph.D. research on using citizen science biodiversity data and remote sensing imagery to detect patterns of plant biodiversity with machine learning.

After graduating from Southwestern, Gillespie began her Ph.D. program at Stanford University in computer science. Her thesis focuses on using machine learning to enhance biodiversity monitoring through automated methods, specifically on plants. She utilizes remote sensing data, which is widely available and easy to collect but challenging to interpret about how climate change impacts plants. Her emphasis on plants is due to their visibility in satellite imagery and stationary nature throughout their lifetimes.

Gillespie’s primary area of research has focused on California. However, much of the state is protected by natural and state parks and extensive policies addressing issues like logging. Because of this, her focus has shifted to the Global South in areas like the Amazon, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Congo River Basin, where biodiversity faces direct human-driven changes such as deforestation, land use changes, and illegal activities like mining. Remote sensing methods can detect events like deforestation caused by fires, but they often lack the ability to identify the specific plant species affected at a large scale. Her work aims to bridge this gap by building high-resolution plant species distribution maps for regions like Brazil, where dryland forests called Cerrado suffer similar threats.

The Cerrado, a semi-arid ecosystem in central Brazil, has experienced significant area loss. Gillespie’s Fulbright research aims to employ machine learning for automated biodiversity monitoring, specifically examining biodiversity loss and making a meaningful impact on understanding human and climate change’s effects on plant species in these regions. The satellite data she will use in her research provides an opportunity to systematically account for biodiversity loss and address pressing conservation issues in this highly diverse and endangered ecosystem.

“Ideally, we want to create a comprehensive map of keystone plants within the ecosystem by detecting large, visible trees and linking them to smaller species that may not be easily detected by satellite imagery,” Gillespie explained. “It would be remarkable if we could then estimate the number of trees lost over the last three decades. This could offer essential information to NGOs and governments in understanding the industries or factors most responsible for ecosystem degradation. Also, understanding whether natural climate change also contributes to tree decline will be intriguing to explore.”

Gillespie’s primary goal is to produce valuable research outcomes. She intends to create species distribution maps that other biologists can use for modeling scenarios. These maps will be high quality and provide accurate species-specific information. Additionally, she hopes to create a curated dataset for machine learning researchers to develop improved methods for real-world biodiversity monitoring. The data in this domain is often messy, so she wants to encourage the development of more effective methodologies to address this.

Besides achieving specific outcomes, Gillespie also intends to publish the protocols, mistakes, and lessons learned during the research. This will help others to conduct similar projects in other threatened areas in the Global South. The ultimate aspiration is to contribute to understanding and preserving the Cerrado ecosystem and establish methods for worldwide biodiversity monitoring.

The Fulbright Program expands perspectives through academic and professional advancement and cross-cultural dialogue. In partnership with more than 140 countries worldwide, the program offers unparalleled opportunities in all academic disciplines to passionate and accomplished individuals. Recipients of Fulbright grants are selected based on academic or professional achievement and demonstrated leadership potential in their fields. In the last 15 years, Southwestern University has had 16 students receive the prestigious award.