Principal Investigator

My reserach incorporates experimental, statistical and demographic methods to understand the processes that regulate plant populations and communities. Plants can’t move and resources are not evenly distributed within a habitat, which suggests that the responses of an individual plant better reflect the quality of its local conditions more so than the quality of the overall habitat where the population resides.  The spatial pattern of plants can provide useful information about habitat quality for plants of different species or sizes over time.  By integrating information on plant spatial distributions, the distribution of resources, and plant demography, my research focuses on basic research questions including factors that permit species to coexist, and applied questions such as anticipating how communities may or may not tolerate radical changes to habitat quality.  My current arid-system research examines feedbacks between two common plant species and the soil microbial community of a well-studied arid plant system.  These feedbacks will be examined at different life history stages of  Ambrosia dumosa (A. Gray) Payne Asteraceae, white bur-sage, and Larrea tridentata (DC.) Coville Zygophyllaceae, creosote bush.  This study is conducted at a Colorado Desert field site where more than 35 years of spatially-explicit demographic data have been accumulated within a permanently mapped plot.  Observational and experimental studies of microbial respiration, microbial and invertebrate diversity, and microbial composition in response to 1) plant species, 2) plant size and 3) plant density will be conducted, and outcomes will be used to parameterize Integral Projection Models (IPMs).

I am dedicated to issues of inclusion and equity in ecology and environmental sciences.  To this end, I lead a National Science Foundation funded research coordination network, UNIDE:  The undergraduate network for increasing diversity of ecologists, which aims to co-develop inclusive, culturally sensitive teaching practices that are based on evidence-based pedagogical models to foster broad interest in ecology and environmental science to promote broad participation in ecology and environmental biology.  The results of this project will contribute to developing the “cultural wealth” that is required to empower educators and practitioners to engage across cultures independent of individual background. This knowledge can improve education and disciplinary practice and improve recruitment and retention of underrepresented students. Because cultural competence applies to many disciplines, the activities of this network can be translated to other STEM disciplines that endeavor to increase diversity.

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Graduate students

McKenna is interested in nature as a system, or ecology, and how people interact with that system. On the ecology side of things, she is interested in why things, such as plants and animals, are located where they are. One of her projects considers how the spatial relationship of shrubs in Joshua Tree National Park impacts nitrogen availability and the resulting consequences for new seedling recruitment. On the people side of things, she is interested in how people connect with nature and the role social identities play in that connection. She is currently working on a project pertaining to undergraduate student’s ecological identities and how field experiences impact those identities. She received her BS in Evolution and Ecology from Ohio State University.







Postdoctoral scholar

Ariel Rawson, Postdoctoral Scholar, Ohio State University. My long-term interests are at the intersections of environmentalism, social justice, and interdisciplinary education. Specifically, I am interested in how “human” dimensions are integrated into ecology or (not!) and the ethical implications of routine environmental concepts (e.g., competition, community, population). Recently, I have been collaboratively examining the relationship between colonialism and natural history in the context of increasing inclusion in ecology education. My Ph.D. examined the way race emerges, explicitly and implicitly, in excitement around the microbiome as a new ‘Anthropocene’ science of society-environment interactions. My previous work investigated the uneven relations between the global North and South in both Sustainable Development and in alternatives, such as ‘Rights for Nature.’ I have a Ph.D. and MA in Geography from Ohio State University and a BA in interdisciplinary studies from San Diego State University.






Recent lab alumni

Ryan McCarthy, PhD 2022




Ryan successfully defended his dissertation entitled, “Spatial analyses of desert shrubs in response to drought,” on April 29, 2022.  He will receive his PhD in August 2022.






Dr. Corrie Pieterson, Ph. D. 2018


Corrie’s dissertation is entitled, “Nature versus Nurture: The Influence of Phylogenetic Relatedness, Origin, and Environment on Native and Introduced Woody Shrubs in the Eastern United States.”  She is currently employed as a Lecturer for The Ohio State University’s Center for Life Sciences Education.





Dr. Natasha N. Woods, Ph. D. 2015.




Natasha’s dissertation is entitled, “The relative importance of abiotic and biotic factors for seedling establishment in the Colorado Desert, CA.”  She is currently employed as an Assistant Professor at Moravian University.