Our team

Alan Strauss, Ph.D., Directoralan
Alan is the director of the UA Science: Sky School and Mt. Lemmon Sky Center. He earned his doctorate from the University of Arizona’s College of Education, and has over 17 years administrative experience and 10 years teaching experience at the university. He also has a strong background in outdoor education and recreation especially with persons with disabilities and at-risk youth.

Rebecca Lipson, Assistant director for educationLipson head shot small
Rebecca is a current NOAA Climate Steward has taught 6-8th grade students for over 7 years as a general education science and math teacher and special education teacher in public schools.  With a B.A in biology from Gustavus Adolphus College, her passion and knowledge in the sciences has led her to become a skilled teacher in a range of scientific areas.  It is among her top goals to immerse students in the process of scientific discovery by providing genuine inquiry opportunities and field experiences.

Benjamin Blonder, Ph.D., Science advisorben
Benjamin received his doctorate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. He has a broad background in education and has previously led programs for other outdoor science programs. He taught middle school science in Tucson through a NSF GK-12 partnership and led trips for The Sierra Club’s Inner City Outings group. He is also a research fellow at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford.

Sarah_webSarah Corning, United States Forest Service Partner
Sarah serves as our partner and liaison from the Coronado National Forest and works with us on the Children’s Forest Initiative. As a native Tucsonan, Sarah brings a deep commitment and enthusiasm to connecting regional youth to the National Forest in ways that will establish them as future stewards of our public lands. Prior to working for the United States Forest Service, Sarah worked for the Arizona State Parks as a Ranger at Catalina State Park on the north side of the Santa Catalina mountains.

Meet the 2018 – 2019 class of Sky School graduate instructors!

Lisa JoseLisa Jose
2018-2019 Nancy Willingham Fellow, awarded for contributing at the highest level while demonstrating excellence in instruction and furthering the mission and vision of the Sky School
Ph. D. student – geosciences
My research is all about finding out where and how huge amounts of water move across the Earth, like through rivers or aquifers, which are massive underground layers of water. Because these sources of water are so large, it can be hard to keep track of how much they are changing. Rather than measuring water storage directly, I use satellites to measure changes in Earth’s gravity, which lets me estimate changes in water storage. Where there’s more water, there’s more gravity. By tracking changes in Earth’s water using these methods, I am helping to conserve it.
New NASA data show how the world is running out of water

Yadi Wang
2018-2019 Nancy Willingham Fellow, awarded for contributing at the highest level while demonstrating excellence in instruction and furthering the mission and vision of the Sky School
Ph.D. student – environmental science
I have heard watching plants grow is very boring. I say watching soil grow is even worse because it takes thousands of years to form. However, soil becomes more mysterious because of the extremely long forming processes. In my mind, studying soil evolution is comparable with piecing the puzzles together. To answer the question of how does soil evolve, climate condition (rain and temperature), biotic condition (plants and microbes), landscape position, geological formation and length of the soil forming process are all important factors. My goal is to understand at the very initial stage how soil is transformed from rock under the influences of all the above factors. Ultimately, I’d like to link the message between soil evolution and the entire ecosystem.
Soil is Not Dirt

Alyssa Ellsworth
Ph.D. student – chemistry
My research work has been to link small molecules together through easily reversible connections to create dynamic materials that will ideally respond to only a single desired stimulus. UV light is the desired stimulus I work with because it is a much more controlled and less invasive technique to initiate reactivity of molecules than the majority of chemical reactions. My project takes advantage of the specific light reactivity of molecules both naturally occurring (coumarins) and synthetically made (tetrazines) to influence material change in a controlled and noninvasive fashion. My hope for the future of my research is to create fully reusable plastics.
The Chemistry of Autumn Colors

Austin Cruz
Ph. D. student, College of Education
I am interested in people, plants, and place—also known as “ethnobotany”. To that end, I conduct research on the relationships (the “educational ecology”) between students, families, schools, and the larger community within bio-diverse areas, such as tropical rain forests of Costa Rica where I previously worked, and such as the Sonoran desert. Specifically, I investigate how much of an educational and social impact biodiversity has on people from various backgrounds, and in turn how much those people affect biodiversity. Altogether, the questions I ask intersect both social and environmental needs and sustainability, and touch upon some of the most fundamental aspects of our lives today: from the food we eat and products we consume, the transportation we use, the size and influence of our social networks, and the various impacts of our environmental policies and management, for example.
The Environmental Consequences Of A Wall On The U.S.-Mexico Border

Brendan Fenerty
Ph. D. student – geosciences
From high mountain peaks to deep river valleys, Earth’s landforms are sculpted by the flow of water, wind and ice. Understanding how landforms evolve in response to the complex interactions between earth surface processes, climate, and vegetation is critical to predicting how ongoing and future changes in climate and land-use will affect Earth’s surface. My research focuses on the response of rivers in the Southwest and northwest Mexico to changes in vegetation, precipitation, and sea-level since the last Ice Age. I use radiocarbon dating and geologic mapping to determine what sediments deposited by ancient rivers can tell us about how rivers respond to regional and global climate change. This work is essential to developing sustainable land-use practices and mitigation strategies for hazards associated with river environments.
Global Warming and Fluvial Geomorphology

Chad OstranderChadlin Ostrander
Ph. D. student – geological sciences, Arizona State University
You and I need the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere to survive, as do many other forms of life on our planet. This coveted oxygen, however, hasn’t always been as abundant on Earth as it is today. My research as a scientist focuses on the history of oxygen on Earth. When and how did oxygen first become available? When and why did oxygen contents decline? What was the response of life on Earth to fluctuations in the availability of oxygen? To answer questions such as these, I study the chemistry of really old rocks on Earth. These rocks provide clues to the history of oxygen on our planet.
Geological History of Oxygen

Courtenay Ray
Ph. D. student – environmental life sciences, Arizona State University
I study the processes that determine where plants can grow, especially in stressful environments. We know from previous research that instressful environments, like deserts and alpine areas, it is often beneficial to have close neighbors. One reason for this is that some plants modify the area around them to make it more tolerable to live in. My research goal is to predict under what scenarios it is useful to have neighbors and under what scenarios it is useful to grow far from other plants. Currently I work in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado, but other sites I have worked at include Colombia, Chile, Puerto Rico, Mexico, California, Washington, and the Mariana Islands.

Jessie Pearl
Ph.D student -Department of Geosciences and Tree-Ring Research
Each day I get to travel back in time and explore what our ancient landscapes looked and felt like, thinking critically about past climates and extreme events. Hurricanes, storms, fire, floods, and droughts all leave behind clues across our landscape. As a geoscientist and dendrochronologist, it is my job to find these clues and piece together the story they tell. I use tree-rings, sediment cores, geomorphology, geochemistry, and computer models, to better understand how our Earth’s climate has changed over the past 2000 years, and what we can expect for our future climate. I am fascinated by large storms and extreme weather of the past, and am passionate about discovering their impact on ecosystems and landforms!
The Secret of the Southwest Solved by Talkative Tree Rings
Tree Rings

Joe_headshotJoe Braasch
Ph.D. student – ecology and evolutionary biology
I study patterns of adaptability in plant populations. Harsh conditions in the past may have similarly impacted species living together in the same area causing concurrent reductions in population size. This may limit the adaptability of an entire community by causing reductions in genetic diversity. This information, along with measurements of generation time and heritable variation (the degree to which a parent’s trait, such as height, determines the trait of its offspring), can be implemented in simulation models to predict the response of the community to environmental change. Prior to beginning this project I studied insect ecology, but am enjoying my shift to plant research. I study ecology and evolution because ecological systems are gigantic games that have been played since the beginning of life. Just as some people are passionate about their favorite sports teams, I have plants I want to ‘win,’ and I root for their persistence in a challenging and dynamic environment wrought with competition.
First comes global warming then an evolutionary explosion

Joel Leonard
PhD Student – Geology, Landscape Evolution, Arizona State University
Mountain landscapes: how do they form and how do they change through time? The pursuit of answers to those questions are essentially, what drives my research, and it has taken me to some of the most picturesque mountains in the world. Technically speaking, I am a geomorphologist studying how the surface of the earth responds to different processes that occur during the building of mountains. I use a wide array of tools and methods including field geology, geochronology, remote sensing, and numerical modeling to investigate both modern landscapes and the preserved rock record of ancient mountain belts. I have active research projects focused on understanding the interactions between tectonic processes and climate in shaping modern landscapes, how processes eroding mountains are preserved in the rock record, and developing new techniques to visualize and quantify processes at work on mountain slopes.

John-Paul Mann
PhD Student- Physics
I’m not as interested in the little everyday details of how things work, but instead I’m interested in the large picture.  Did I say large?  I meant astronomical or even universal.  My main research topic interest is in theoretical physical cosmology.  This is the study of the entire universe: how it started, what it looks like, how it’ll end.  I’m interested in the origin of objects and how they wind up after a long time.  My other area of research interest is in the surface and atmosphere of the sun.  Little cords of magnetic material are constantly emerging, growing and breaking on the surface of the sun.  When they break they can send huge ejections of material that can actually hit us right here on earth!

Joy Liu
Ph.D. student – arid lands resource sciences
I am an environmental anthropologist interested in the human dimensions of natural resource management. Before becoming a full-time anthropologist, I obtained my undergraduate degree in Forestry and Resource conservation in Taiwan, while being part of a biological control research that conduct experiments on the use of mites as natural pesticide. I then joined a research team that assess Douglas-Fir seedling establishment using Forestry Reclamation Approaches designed in the Appalachia for mine reclamation and modify it to fit the ecological conditions of western Washington State. My involvement in reforestation programs in Northern China has taken my research from soil conservation to the politics of conservation planning and environmental policies in Chinese societies and how environmental risks are being managed in grass-root initiation and government-led contexts. My current research utilizes ethnographic methods to compare different collaborative mechanisms among government, farmers and non-profit organization for environmental management in farming communities in Loess Plateau, China.
Sacrificing and Saving the Environment: The Case of Shanxi

Julia YangJulia Yang
Ph.D. student – geography and development
I am an ecosystem ecologist studying how forests respond to changes in their environment, such as water availability, temperature, or light conditions. My current work is situated in the mixed-conifer forest northeast of Tucson on Mt. Bigelow, which is uniquely suited to answering questions of how forests respond to seasonal and prolonged drought stress. When thinking about how to study a forest, we can look at a single leaf, a portion of the canopy, or the entire forest, and at each step we employ different tools and add new complexity. My research attempts to span these scales in order to reveal the links and disconnects that occur when we measure the same forest from different perspectives. This will help bridge the gap between what we estimate with satellites in space and what we can actually measure on the ground.

Karla Vargas
Ph. D. student – Wildlife, Fisheries, and Conservation Biology
My research interests are wildlife conservation, conservation genetics and genomics, and non-invasive genetic techniques. I’m broadly interested in applying genetic methods to problems in conservation biology, with an emphasis on vertebrate species. By preserving the genetic variability of the most threatened populations, we will secure their reproduction and long-term survival. My goal is to contribute to the protection of species, and help mitigate the steep decline of our biodiversity. My current project, ”Phylogenomic analysis of Bobwhite quail in Southern Arizona and Mexico”, focuses on reconstructing the evolutionary history of several subspecies of Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) on the basis of the analysis of their genomes to aid in the recovery efforts of the endangered Masked Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus ridgwayi) native to Southern Arizona and Sonora.

Kbusbyathryn Busby
Ph.D. student – entomology and insect science
Insects are like tiny, perfectly designed, and inconceivably complex robots. Their evolution has resulted in elegant systems we humans will never completely fathom. Bees, in particular, have intricately evolved behaviors that enable them to serve crucial roles both in natural ecosystems and in providing ecosystem services that benefit humans. Namely, bees are our most important pollinators. Without pollinators, the majority of our flowering plants could not reproduce. Without bees, we humans would be left with a scarce portion of the variety of food types we enjoy, and the world would be devoid of some of its incredible beauty. A number of human-caused factors now threaten the livelihood of these important creatures. The first step in protecting something is to understand how it works. That’s why I study bees (specifically, carpenter bees), their nesting, their behavior, and their species interactions.
7 Close-Up Pictures Reveal the Beauty of Bees
What You Should Know About The Drastic Decline Of Wild Bees
Native Bees of the Northern Chihuahuan Desert Region

Kiana Martinez
Ph.D. student – genetics
I study evolutionary genetics and genome instability using mouse models. Mice are particularly interesting because they contain a region in their DNA that codes for salivary proteins that are used for mate selection. The last common ancestor of mice and rats had a small region of DNA that coded for these proteins, but since their divergence the mouse genome for this area has undergone an amazing amount of gene expansion. Currently, it is thought that the house mouse is undergoing speciation that is reflected in the DNA region coding for salivary proteins. By using mice models and studying this specific gene region, I can gain insight into how genes undergo evolution and what contributes to their instability.
An introduction to DNA, genes, and chromosomes
What is a gene?

Marina Morandini
Ph.D – student – wildlife conservation
I am a PhD student in wildlife conservation: I am studying to help protect animals. My focus is on the impact fire has on small mammals. With climate change, fires have become larger and more frequent. The fires’ impact on animals is not just direct, killing or injuring them, but also indirect, changing completely their environment. Specifically, I am studying how a fire affected the Mt. Graham red squirrel, a federally endangered species. Last summer, the Frye Fire burned 85% of this species’ habitat and the estimated surviving number of animals is less than 50. In addition, those animals have been left with isolated patches of their former habitat surrounded by completely burned areas. I am assessing the efficacy of translocation strategies by moving them to an area where the habitat is still intact. Understanding how animals respond to fire damage is very important for planning management actions. Those actions can be critical to restore and expand the population of an endangered species.

Moira Hough
Ph.D. student – environmental science
I am broadly interested in understanding the role of organisms in moving energy and nutrients through ecosystems (this is called biogeochemistry), particularly in the context of global change. My doctoral research focuses on understanding how the carbon cycle changes in Arctic ecosystems as the climate warms. As these areas thaw, previously frozen carbon and nutrient pools are released. At the same time, changes in plant community composition alter carbon inputs from leaf litter and drive changes in microbial communities which control decomposition. I seek to understand how these changes in plant and microbial communities interact and how they control the amount of carbon stored in soils versus released as carbon dioxide and methane gas.
Energy Flow Through Ecosystems
Biogeochemical cycling in ecosystems

Noah Silber-Coats
As a human-environment geographer, I study the relationships between ideas, institutions and landscapes. My Master’s research looked at conflicts surrounding a boom in hydropower in central Mexico, seeking to understand how political and economic changes shape the multiple ways that rivers are perceived and valued. Building on this experience in Mexico I recently led an undergraduate field course in Sonora where we explored issues related to conservation along the Gulf of California and in the tropical deciduous forests. Recently, I have taken an interest in resource-based economies that have undergone shifts from informal or illicit production to legal and formalized practices. To this end, my planned dissertation research will study the practices of the emerging legal cannabis industry in the Pacific Northwest, examining the tension between artisanal and industrial production.
A life of science: hydropolitics in the Sierra Madre Oriental

Norma Villagomez-Marquez
Ph.D. student – environmental science
Water is an interconnected system. What we pour on the ground ends up in our groundwater, and what we eject into the sky ends up in our surface waters.  There are five basic needs that all living things have: sunlight, air, food (nutrients), a habitat with the right temperature, and water! Water is essential for life, it is a renewable resource, but it is notunlimited. We all are limited to less than one percent of the water on Earth and so it is important to conserve and manage this invaluable resource, especially in dry desert environments, like Tucson. Today, about 40% of the global population lives in dry environments. In these geographic areas, water shortages are common. Rainwater harvesting has been used as a water conservation measure, particularly where other water resources are scarce. Harvested rainwater (HRW) is one possible solution to address this global issue. National water quality standards for both potable and non-potable domestic usages are thus far undetermined as HRW is a quite new developing practice worldwide. I investigate the presence of pollutants HRW using liquid chromatography to separate pollutants from water and high-resolution mass spectrometry (LC-HRMS) to detect and identify these pollutants with their distinct molecular mass.  All being well, these findings can be used to establish rainwater quality standards that can serve as a guideline to those harvesting rainwater all around the globe. Sir Isaac Newton once said, “What we know is a drop, what we do not know is an ocean.” Let’s find out what is inside a HRW drop together.
Cloud in a Jar
Rainwater Harvesting
History of Rainwater Harvesting

Sahana SrivatsaSahana Srivathsa
Ph. D. student – neuroscience
Memories in the brain are continuously being stored and updated based on current experiences. When we are called upon to make any decision, relevant memories are activated. I study the how the regions of the brain responsible for consolidation of memories and decision making “talk” to each other, to influence behaviour. Using electrophysiological methods, I look at the electrical signals of both individual and networks of neurons in different regions of rodent brains and try to understand how these signals correlate with each other and with the rodent behaviour. Since the area of the brain associated with memory consolidation is sensitive to sequential activity, such as spatial navigation, the behaviour that I study has a strong spatial component incorporating different types of mazes.
Mental Leaps Cued by Memory’s Ripples
Rats recall past to make daily decisions


Xiaobo “Bo” Hou
Soil is the thin layer of porous medium between the earth and the atmosphere. It supports the growth of plants and the life of a versatile community of microorganisms. It plays a central role in the water, carbon and nutrient cycle. The functions of soil depend greatly on the physical properties and processes of soil, such as soil texture, structure, density, surface area, water retention character, and transport of heat, solutes and gases. My research interest lie broadly in the measurement, simulation and prediction of physical and hydraulic soil characteristics and transport processes in the unsaturated (vadose) zone of soil. Increase of such knowledge will help understand water-related problems, and improve soil-water management for a sustainable future.

Yuqiao Han
M.Sc. student, College of Optical Sciences
If you are given a mission to figure out whether there is any flaw in a piece of transparent glass, what would you do? Now imagine, there are so many invisible soldiers in the light because their size is too tiny to see. You can make them super organized. The first solder is been told that if there is a small stone on the road, use a method to avoid stepping on the small stone and stay walking this way for the rest of the path. The soldiers who are in the same line and following the first solder are been told to imitate the first soldier’s movement to avoid touch this stone. And when they arrive at the finish line, General Camera would like to record their movement. These wonderful soldiers have a wonderful name, Wavefront. We need to change the place of this glass and then send other groups of soldiers to take more pictures so that we can have more and more information about this glass. This method is called deflectometry in Optics.
Large Binocular Telescope Observatory