Community Spotlight - Josiah Hester

Josiah Hester sits at a desk in an electronics lab at Georgia Tech with an array of prototype projects and test equipment in front of him.

Written by Benjamin Wright

Josiah Hester likes to build things. Specifically, he likes to build tiny, computerized devices that can be used to help people monitor the environment around them. As a Native Hawaiian he grew up with a passion for sustainability and stewardship of the land. He also found himself drawn to computer programming and how it could be used to create games, graphics, music, and tools. Now he melds those two worlds as an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s College of Computing and Interim Associate Director for Community-Engaged Research in the Brooks Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems.

The idea to apply computer science to sustainability came when Josiah was a college student at Clemson, where he earned his B.S. and Ph.D. in computer science, with his dissertation focusing on low-cost, low-impact, battery-less, and wireless embedded sensing systems. He continued that work as an associate professor at Northwestern, partnering with local tribes in the Great Lakes region to measure and monitor changes in their local environments that they had been experiencing for years. Those projects sparked Josiah’s passion for community engagement based on long term relationships.

The length and depth of community partnerships are vitally important to Josiah. “We want our faculty, researchers, students and staff to be able to work effectively with communities on these important climate resilience opportunities and make sure that those relationships and the ways that we work together are sustaining and nurturing for each party,” he says.  The last thing he wants to see is a team of researchers dropping in on a community, conducting a quick research project without getting to know the local needs and challenges, and then leaving a few months later never to be heard from again.

“Both parties bring assets to the table that are critically important. Our researchers have specialized skills and interests that allow them to solve complex problems. The local communities often have very in-depth knowledge of their own environment and the changes that are occurring, whether it’s air quality, heat impact, sea level changes, or water scarcity. Our goal is to match those skills with communities that can put them to use to bring about positive change.”

Along with matching researchers and communities, Josiah and his colleagues at BBISS keep an eye on available funding sources to make sure projects are properly resourced. Sometimes a small project that starts with a seed grant can turn into something larger with funding from the EPA, USDA or NSF.

“Those major projects can then lead to actionable science that can inform policy and governance,” says Josiah. “And at the same time faculty are advancing their fields and producing publishable work while helping local communities.”

What Josiah enjoys most about his role as Interim Associate Director for Community-Engaged Research, is seeing researchers who have spent their careers figuring out the science of a subject go into the community and apply it in a practical hands-on way that makes an impact. He is also excited by the students participating in the BBISS Fellowship and how they are approaching community engagement.
“My generation of faculty is getting better at engaging, but the way these students approach it is just next level. The future is in good hands.”

Away from Georgia Tech Josiah has his hands full with three kids, three dogs, and a love for surfing that is hard to satisfy on the Georgia coast. He also enjoys cooking, music, and spending time in parks.

News Contact

Brent Verrill, Research Communications Program Manager, BBISS