The Dryland Plant Ecophysiology Lab | Desert Botanical Garden


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The Dryland Plant Ecophysiology Lab studies plant ecophysiology traits that underlie adaptation to heat waves, drought and other stressors. We use the most up-to-date approaches to study plant water relations, photosynthesis and growth to better understand how plants respond to stressful environmental conditions. We seek to identify solutions for restoring and conserving dryland forests, plant communities, and sensitive species threatened by global environmental change.


Urban landscaping for a cooler future

The heat island effect is extreme in the arid Southwest and are poised to increase in intensity due to population growth and climate change. With collaborators at the School of Earth Sciences and the Environment at Arizona State University, the DPEL is combining...

Plant responses to heat stress

Water loss in plants has commonly been considered only as a cost of photosynthetic carbon gain. However, plants may use water in ways that may not necessarily optimize instantaneous carbon gain, but instead as a strategy for leaf evaporative cooling. The DPEL and...

The distinctive form and function of giant cactus

Giant cactus are among the most charismatic and iconic plant life forms on the planet, but many giant cactus species are threatened by the effects of climate change. At the Dryland Plant Ecophysiology Lab (DPEL) the staff studies the distinctive physiological features...

Tree ecophysiology in dryland riparian ecosystems

Riparian forests are among the most threatened in North America as a consequence of altered hydrological conditions, invasive species and climate change. The Dryland Plant Ecophysiology Lab seeks to identify tree ecophysiological traits that underlie adaptation to...

Meet the Team

Kevine Hultine

Kevin Hultine (Ph.D.)

Lab director / Plant Ecophysiologist

Hultine’s expertise involves studying how plants cope with environmental stress in desert ecosystems in urban, riparian and upland areas. He is focused on the duel effects of drought and thermal stress on plants and ecosystems in dryland regions worldwide. He applies stable isotope methods, measurements in plant water relations and measurements of plant carbon allocation and storage to improve the understanding of how desert plant systems function at multiple scales.

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khultine@dbg.orgphone: 480.481.8195

Lab Director / Plant Ecophysiologist

Luiza Maria T. Aparecido

Luiza Maria T. Aparecido (Ph.D.)

ASU, SESE Exploration Postdoctoral Fellow

Aparecido is a Brazilian plant ecologist interested in assessing how functional biology traits drive plant development under various environmental stressors. Her work emphasis is on how plants respond to environmental and physical disturbances (i.e., climate and land use changes). Aparecido has experience  in various Neotropical sites in North-American savannas, hardwood forests, scrubland, loblolly-oak stands and the Sonoran Desert.


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ASU, SESE Exploration Postdoctoral Fellow

Natalie Melkonoff

Kelly kerr (ph.d)

Kelly received her PhD from the University of Utah. Her research interests revolve around the resiliency of forest tree species to climate change. She is particularly interested in using tree physiology, genetics and modeling to understand and predict tree species’ responses to the environment.


Postdoctoral Fellow, University of California, Santa Barbara

Ivanna Caspeta

Ivanna Caspeta

BS Conservation Biology & Ecology, Arizona State University (In progress)

Caspeta is a bilingual Hispanic/Latinx student interested in desert plant conservation. She is currently working on a project for her honors thesis that investigates the correlation between xylem anatomy, stem morphology and water-use strategies of giant cactus native to the Sonoran Desert.

B.S. Conservation Biology & Ecology, Arizona State University (In progress)

Isabelle DeLeon

Isabella De Leon (M.S.)

Plant Functional & Physiological Ecology Research Assistant

De Leon’s interest is focused on the intersection of biology and society and how the two interact with each other. De Leon’s research is focused on investigating physiological and morphological traits that relate to leaf thermal tolerance and plant drought stress.

Research Assistant

Dan Koepke

Dan Koepke (M.S.)

Plant Functional & Physiological Ecology Research Assistant

Koepke assists lab personnel and colleagues with field and laboratory projects. His work focuses on plant hydraulics and seeks to identify morphological and physiological traits that respond to environmental stresses, and how these traits are interrelated. In turn, information about trait expression improves the ability of site managers to restore ecosystems faced with environmental change.

Google Scholar Profile

Senior Research Assistant

Natalie Melkonoff

Natalie Melkonoff (B.S.)

PhD. Biology, Arizona State University/Desert Botanical Garden (In progress)

Melkonoff’s work is focused on the interactions between plants and animals and how the physiological processes of both impact their interdependence on one another and their ability to thrive under different environmental stressors. She is currently working on her Ph.D. with a focus on the interactions between milkweed, monarch butterflies and pollinators in the Sonoran Desert. She also coordinates Desert Botanical Garden’s monarch and pollinator conservation initiative, Great Milkweed Grow Out.


Ph.D. University of Arizona/Desert Botanical Garden (In progress)

Madeline Moran

Madeline Moran (M.S.)

M.S. Plant Biology and Conservation, Arizona State University (In progress)

Moran’s background is in plant ecology/conservation and environmental education. Moran’s research interests include how plants physically respond to environmental stress, the implications of those responses within their ecosystem and finding community-based solutions to conservation issues. Currently, she is working on her masters about how the thermal tolerance of cottonwood leaves differs in varying climate conditions and how increasing temperatures might alter the efficacy of photosynthesis in these trees.

Research Assistant

Photo_Mary Chisolm_Update 2
Mary Chisolm (b.s.)
M.S. Plant Biology and Conservation, Arizona State University (In progress)
Mary is starting her thesis in the Masters of Science in Plant Biology and Conservation at Arizona State University and in the Dryland Plant Ecophysiology Lab. Mary recently completed her B.S. at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and will be studying patterns of sexual dimorphism in climate sensitivity in dioecious tree species. Welcome Mary.


M.S. Plant Biology and Conservation, Arizona State University (In progress)

Natalie Melkonoff

Ali Schussler (M.S.)

Ali manages the plant physiology and molecular labs. Where she works with the traits and function of traits in desert and arid riparian plants, along with the genomics and phylogenies of agave, cactus and other desert plants. One of her personal research interests is on dark septate endophytic fungi and how they influence plants in desert and riparian systems, where these fungi are potentially aiding plant growth regulator production, nutrient and water uptake and other positive plant growth responses.  


Lab Manager

Natalie Melkonoff

Susan Bush (Ph.D)

Bush is a global change ecologist whose research has largely focused on fluxes of carbon and water in both urban and natural ecosystems. Her research effort has spanned scales from leaf-level gas exchange and xylem vascular hydraulics of individual plants to landscape scale investigations of water and carbon exchange with the atmosphere as impacted by anthropogenic factors (urbanization, invasive species, and climate change).

Google Scholar Profile


Field Ecology Program Director

Natalie Melkonoff

Jessica Guo (PH.D)

Guo is a plant ecologist and data scientist intrigued by plant strategies for surviving arid environments. She is particularly interested in disentangling the temporal patterns of plant responses to environmental extremes and uses Bayesian statistical approaches to evaluate empirical measurements from the field and lab. Guo also loves to teach reproducibility and data science skills in R. 



Data Science Program Director

Lab Updates

Completion of PhD by lab member Dr. Davis Blasini
Dr. Davis Blasini successfully defended his dissertation in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. Davis’ dissertation focused on patterns of local adaptation to heat stress in the foundation tree species, Fremont cottonwood. Davis is currently...
National Science Foundation Grant Funded
Dr. Luiza Aparecido and Dr. Kevin Hultine were recently awarded a $1million grant along with collaborator Dr. Benjamin Blonder of UC Berkeley. The four-year project titled “Alternative Leaf Water Use Strategies in Hot Environments” will study water use strategies of...
Seed Lab Receives Funding to Propagate Rare Arizona Orchid
  The Seed Lab recently received funding to propagate the federally endangered Canelo Hills ladies’ tresses orchid (Spiranthes delitescens), a very rare plant native to southern Arizona. Orchid seeds are unique because they require a specific type of fungus in...
New grant funded to study beneficial milkweed in the southwest
A Bureau of Land Management Cooperative Agreement was granted this year to Plant and Insect Ecology Program Coordinator, and PhD student Natalie Melkonoff and will fund many aspects of the Garden’s Great Milkweed Grow Out initiative. The grant will also, in...

March 24: The Garden, Gertrude’s and Garden Shop will close at 3 p.m. for Fund the Farm (last admission at 1:30 p.m.)