BOZEMAN -- A longtime Montana State University professor was recognized last month for his pioneering work in the field of remote sensing and geographic information systems over his 21-year career.
Rick Lawrence, a professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in MSU's College of Agriculture and director of the Spatial Sciences Center, received the lifetime achievement award from AmericaView, a national nonprofit that seeks to advance applications for remote sensing technologies on a state and local level across the U.S. The recognition came at an apt time; Lawrence retired at the end of January after more than two decades at MSU.
From 1979 to 1993, Lawrence worked as a corporate lawyer in the Los Angeles area. After nearly 15 years working with large international law firms, he sought a career change, wanting to pursue something that could make positive differences to the natural world. Ultimately, he returned to college, receiving a master's and doctorate in forestry, the latter with an emphasis on geographic information systems and remote sensing.
AmericaView's lifetime achievement award recognizes Lawrence's work in creating MontanaView, which at its inception was the 18th state-level organization in the collection. Now, there are 40 state bodies. It also notes his years spent on AmericaView's national board of directors, including three years as chairman, the longest term as a chairperson in the organization's history. For the roughly 20 years AmericaView has existed, Lawrence has helped lead it for 15 of those.
The national nonprofit oversees state-level organizations that are led by researchers at universities in their respective states. After arriving in Bozeman in 1998, Lawrence helped AmericaView create MontanaView. He was instrumental in creating the consortium -- made up of MSU, the University of Montana, Montana Tech and Salish Kootenai College, along with agricultural and governmental bodies -- to apply remote sensing technology to their fullest potential in Montana.
"Over the years, we've used remote sensing for looking at habitat for endangered species, including Canada lynx, grizzly bears and wolverines, used it heavily for agriculture to look at herbicide applications and agricultural inputs and even down in Yellowstone looking at geothermal features and changes in those features over time," said Lawrence. "The goals of these state consortia were to look at the needs that could be fulfilled to advance remote sensing and make a difference in people's lives."
But arguably most notable are Lawrence's contributions to the field of remote sensing itself, introducing novel uses for state-of-the-art algorithms and applying them to natural resources in ways they never had been before.
"With something like Google Earth, you can see things, but sometimes you want more than a picture. You want to know how much biomass is out there, or what the composition of a forest is in terms of species, or what the geothermal energy is if you're looking at Yellowstone," said Lawrence. "How can we use these techniques from the computer science, machine learning and statistical worlds to make better maps? I was able to bring some of those over into the remote sensing world to help more accurately extract useful map data from the imagery."
And while academia was his second career, Lawrence has made an indelible impact on those around him.
"This lifetime achievement award, coinciding with his retirement, is an ideal way to recognize Dr. Lawrence's accomplishments," said Scott Powell, an assistant professor in the land resources and environmental sciences department and faculty member in the Spatial Sciences Center. "I have worked closely with Rick for 20 years, first as a graduate student and then as a faculty peer, and I have seen few people who have approached their work with as much integrity, pride and joy as he has."
For Lawrence, that impact goes both ways. The people of MSU, and particularly the students, that he has worked with over two decades are the thing upon which he looks back most fondly, he said, calling his time in Bozeman a dream.
"I remember when I first interviewed here, I told the committee that if I ever had to choose between research and teaching, I would choose teaching," he said. "That's the focus for me. I see in our students a strong desire to learn, and even when they struggle, it's with the desire of moving forward. It's been such a pleasure, and it's been worth every minute of it."