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 2023 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 while gaining experience in fieldwork, learning basic field and laboratory techniques, formulating research questions, and managing and analyzing data to answer those questions.  

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, the VIP team will collect data in the field and laboratory on plant characteristics 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. 

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