Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill: The future of life in the desert


Research at the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill aims to integrate culture, science, and community to advance knowledge on sustaining the future of life in the desert. This VIP will build on the long-term plant ecology research of Tumamoc Hill, starting with permanent plots first mapped 115 years ago. It will integrate these data with multiple inter-related research programs aimed at understanding the dynamics of how life adapts and responds to aridity and climate change. More specifically, students will answer one or more of the following questions:

  • How are desert plants responding to changing climate? 
  • How can we use modern technology to improve methods for documenting changes in vegetation?
  • What are the rates of recovery following extreme climate events?
  • What plant characteristics predict how different species respond to climate? 
  • How are interactions between animals and plants (for instance, pollination, seed dispersal, and herbivory) changing over time and in response to climate?

This VIP offers students from across campus the opportunity to conduct research with a diverse group of researchers from the Desert Laboratory and the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of Arizona. Students will ultimately be immersed in the larger Desert Lab community, providing the opportunity to interact with ecologists, wildlife biologists, artists, and archaeologists. Students will gain hands-on experience in one or more of the following:

  • Self-led research
  • Creative and critical thinking
  • Project management
  • Fieldwork, working with vegetation, invertebrates, etc.
  • Data collection and management
  • Data analysis and visualization using a variety of software (e.g., R, Excel)
  • Science communication and public outreach
  • Community science

Issues Involved or Addressed

Fall 2022 Areas of Focus:  Predicting desert plant responses to climate

Deserts are becoming drier and warmer, and this trend is projected to continue with future climate change. Predicting desert plant responses to future climate is an urgent challenge for ecosystem conservation and management due to plants' role in supporting ecosystem resilience and services. Students will assist in and lead research to help address this concern through their involvement in one of two projects. Project 1 focuses on a wide diversity of species, while project 2 zooms in on one iconic desert species, the saguaro cactus.  Both projects involve gaining experience in field work, learning basic field and laboratory techniques, formulating research questions, and managing and analyzing data to answer those questions.  


1. What plant characteristics predict how different species respond to climate? 

The Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill has a unique record of vegetation change from permanent plots first established in 1906 and most recently remapped in 2012.  This record shows highly variable responses to changes in climate among the diverse species in the plots. To understand this variability, a VIP team will collect data in the field and laboratory on plant traits such as leaf and root size and shape and how these are related to important plant physiological functions such as photosynthesis and water uptake and loss. Team members will use these data and the long-term plot data to investigate the role of different plant traits in the response of desert vegetation to climate change.  Each team member will focus on one particular plant trait for data analysis, scientific literature review, and result presentation.  


2. How do the data of the past predict the future of the saguaro? 

Student researchers will participate in extensive field survey activities, recording detailed data for individual saguaros, as part of the long-term saguaro survey on Tumamoc Hill. Trait data may also be gathered from saguaros on other sites. Students will use these data and existing data from past saguaro surveys on Tumamoc Hill, dating back nearly seven decades, to understand long-term trends in saguaro population dynamics and, eventually, to project future trends. 

Students may be able to obtain course credit (3 credits) or a stipend (minimum of $2000/semester) for their work on this VIP project. Please note your preference on the application. 


Monsoon on Horizon.png

Paul Mirocha


Methods and Tech

  • Fieldwork
  • Measurement of plant physiological parameters
  • Laboratory processing of plant tissues
  • Reading and interpreting scientific literature
  • Downloading and organizing data
  • Data visualization
  • Statistical data analysis and interpretation
  • Science communication and outreach

Academic Majors of Interest

Open to all years of study and majors, including:

  • Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
  • American Indian Studies
  • Plant Sciences
  • Mathematics and/or Statistics & Data Sciences
  • Environmental Science
  • Natural Resources
  • Computer Science and Engineering

Preferred Interests and Preparation

  • Basic understanding of ecology
  • Self-motivated
  • Openness to learning new things and techniques
  • Collaborative and works well in teams
  • Basic computer programming and Microsoft Excel experience
  • Project dependent: Interest in conducting field research
  • Project dependent: Comfort working outside in desert conditions
  • Preferred: Knowledge of basic statistics

Team Advisors

Charlotte Brown, PhD

Deborah Goldberg, PhD

Peter Breslin, PhD

Jocelyn Navarro, PhD Student

Students will also be able to interact with other members of the Desert Laboratory VIP:

Judith Bronstein, PhD

Brian Enquist, PhD

Clark Reddin