Karen C. Seto

Yale University

Primary Section: 64, Human Environmental Sciences
Secondary Section: 63, Environmental Sciences and Ecology
Membership Type:
Member (elected 2017)


Karen C. Seto is the Frederick C. Hixon Professor of Geography and Urbanization Science at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She is an urban and land change scientist recognized for her work on how urbanization affects the planet. She is known particularly for her studies to characterize urban land-use with satellite remote sensing, forecast the expansion of urban areas, and assess large-scale environmental impacts of urbanization. She has extensive fieldwork experience in Asia, especially China and India. Seto was born in Hong Kong and grew up in California after immigrating to the U.S. as a child. A first-generation college student, she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and graduated from Boston University with a joint masters degree in international relations and resource and environmental management, and a doctorate degree in geography in 2000. Seto has served on numerous national and international scientific bodies, including the U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Steering Group, the U.S. National Research Council Committee on Pathways to Urban Sustainability, and as Coordinating Lead Author for the Fifth Assessment of the IPCC. Seto is a recipient of an NSF CAREER Award, a NASA New Investigator Program (Career) Award, a Research Excellence Award in Human Dimensions of Global Change from the American Association of Geographers, and a National Geographic Research Grant. She was named an Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow in 2009.

Research Interests

The overarching objective of Karen Seto’s research is to understand the links among urbanization, global change, and sustainability. Using a combination of satellite remote sensing, socioeconomic and biophysical data, field research, and modeling methods, her work focuses on four themes: 1) measuring and characterizing urban land-use and its spatial structure; 2) modeling and understanding the drivers of urban land-use change; 3) forecasting urban expansion; and 4) assessing the environmental consequences of urban expansion. Her work is notable for its systematic use of big data and a scientific lens to study urbanization as a process and to understand the aggregate global impacts of urbanization. Seto’s research has generated new insights on the interaction between urbanization and food systems, the effects of urban expansion on biodiversity and cropland loss, urban energy use and emissions, and urban mitigation of climate change.

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