The Dryland Plant Ecophysiology Lab | Desert Botanical Garden


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The Earth’s drylands are home to over one billion people. The delicate balance between humans and the unique biota that thrive in dryland habitats depends largely on maintaining a healthy and stable environment. The Dryland Plant Ecophysiology Lab (DPEL) is tackling the most critical issues affecting dryland plants and ecosystems. The DPEL team brings together a wealth of experience and passion to a core vision of protecting the Earth’s drylands through science, conservation and education.


Milkweeds, monarchs and pollinators in a changing climate

As monarch butterfly populations experience declines of up to 99%  across the United States, and essential host milkweed habitat is lost to urbanization, critical conservation choices need to be made about these species and their interactions. At the DPEL, staff...

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

Davis E. Blasini

Davis E. Blasini (M.S.)

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

Blasini’s research work focuses on a combination of ecological, physiological and molecular techniques to identify the effects of climate change and exotic species invasion on native plant species. While ecophysiological methods record the direct response of a local adapted species to novel environmental conditions, molecular studies have the potential to elucidate the reasons behind those responses.

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

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 (B.A.)

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.

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

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 M.S by Lab Member, Madeline Moran.
Madeline Moran successfully defended her thesis in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. Madeline’s thesis focuses on the heat tolerance of Fremont cottonwood trees growing across a wide climate gradient in Southern Arizona. Madeline is planning to...
New Paper Published by Jessica Guo and Susan Bush.
Lab members, Jessica Guo and Susan Bush recently published a paper in Functional Ecology titled “Temporal variation in stomatal sensitivity to vapor pressure deficit in western riparian forests”. The paper shows that non-native species in western riparian forests have...
New Paper Published by Ph.D. Candidate Davis Blasini
Lab member Davis Blasini recently published a paper in Plant, Cell and Environment, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The paper titled “Tradeoffs in Leaf Cooling and Hydraulic Safety in a Dominant Drid Land Riparian Tree Species” shows how warm adapted Fremont...
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...
The Garden is currently deinstalling Chihuly in the Desert and there may be temporary closures to some areas of the Garden. We appreciate your patience and understanding.

The Garden will be closed to the public July 4-11. We look forward to seeing you again on July 12.