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 20 years administrative experience and 10 years teaching experience at the university. He also has a 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 taught 6-8th grade students for 8 years as a general education science and math teacher and special education teacher in Tucson’s 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.  Her goal is 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 at the University of Arizona. He has a background in education and has previously led programs for other outdoor science programs through AmeriCorps. He taught middle school science in Tucson through a NSF GK-12 partnership and led trips for The Sierra Club’s Inspiring Connections Outdoors group. He is also an assistant professor at the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.

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 2019 – 2020 class of Sky School graduate instructors!

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, University of Arizona
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

Amanda Lee
PhD Student – School of Anthropology, University of Arizona
Research Specialist – College of Public Health, University of Arizona
Like the biological systems that compose our bodies or the ecosystems that compose our environments, our social worlds are composed of systems. As a medical anthropologist, I am specifically interested in the U.S. medical system and how it impacts our lives and the lives of marginalized communities. Why is it that people have such different access to health care services based on social characteristics, like their race, gender, immigration status, or financial security? I use ethnographic research methods to study our medical system, which means that I observe and talk to people about their health experiences and understandings. Through my research, I hope to promote health equity and justice for all people by addressing systemic barriers and solutions to living a healthy life.
Occupational safety concerns in Tucson

Austin Cruz
Ph.D. Student – Science Education, University of Arizona
M.S. Student – Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona
Have you ever noticed that fuzzy white “fungus-like stuff” that grows on prickly pear cacti planted in town or growing wild here in the Sonoran Desert—or other parts of the southwest? Well it turns out that those “fungus” patches are not fungus at all, but are in fact a sticky, cotton-like defensive structure produced by a type of scale insect (called cochineal) originally from central Mexico that feeds on prickly pear cacti. Although this tiny, non-native insect has now become naturalized here in the Sonoran Desert due to human causes, it might play a disproportionately large role in maintaining the diversity of other species (biodiversity) with which it directly and indirectly interacts. I am studying this insect and its predators (and its predators’ predators), along with their host cactus, as a way to ask larger ecological questions about how different species interact with each other across time and space, especially in a rapidly changing, and increasingly urban, environment.
Ecological Relationships
Why is biodiversity so important?
A Day in the Desert: Saguaro Wilderness

Brendan Fenerty
Ph. D. student – geosciences, University of Arizona
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

Cara Nadler
Ph.D. student, Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Arizona
Over the course of days, months, or even years, water dropped on the ground surface makes its way down through the earth to be stored in an aquifer. In the dry deserts of the western U.S., many people rely on the water stored in aquifers to grow food, supply water to homes, and run businesses. Water pumped from aquifers first comes from what is stored in the ground, but over time it may come from other sources like a nearby stream or lake. As a hydrologist, I build numerical models, or mathematical representations of reality, to estimate how much pumped water comes from these other sources.
Water Cycle

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

Chloé Fandel
Ph.D. student, Department of Hydrology & Atmospheric Sciences, University of Arizona
Half of our drinking water in Tucson comes from groundwater – water that seeped into the ground thousands of years ago and filled up all the spaces in between grains of sediment. Now we pump it up and use it, but since we don’t get very much rain, new water doesn’t replace the water we use as fast as we are pumping it out. At the same time, rivers, springs, and all the plants and animals dependent on them also need groundwater. I work on programming computer models to try to predict how groundwater will behave when humans use it, so that we can try to avoid making springs and rivers go dry while also not running out of drinking water. I’m especially interested in groundwater and springs in the mountains, and I spent the past year living in Germany doing research at a field site in the Alps.
Ruined Rivers: the Santa Cruz River (part one)
Ruined Rivers: the Santa Cruz River (part two)

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.

Courtney Giebink
M.Sc. student, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, University of Arizona
Just like you and me, trees need various resources to grow, such as water and space. If a resource is lacking in the tree’s environment, the tree’s growth can be limited. In the Southwest, water is often a limiting factor. High stand density, or lots of neighbors competing for the same resources, can also limit a tree’s growth. These and other growth factors interact to determine the width of a tree’s annual growth ring. By modeling the relationship between tree growth and the environment, I am discovering what conditions allow for growth under future climate scenarios to inform forest management decisions.
Secret of the Southwest Solved by Talkative Tree Rings
Tree Rings

John Malloy
PhD Student, Geological Sciences, Arizona State University
I am interested in the evolution of life, both here on Earth and on other planets. Particularly, I am fascinated by the transition from non-living chemical reactions to living systems and how there could be universal laws which govern life once it begins. There are a number of unique properties of life that are found on Earth, such as the homochirality of chemical reactions, where one chiral form of a molecule is used over another. I hope to discover those chemical reactions that led to the spread of chirality throughout living systems and evaluate the potential universality of life in general.


Joy Liu
Ph.D. student – arid lands resource sciences, University of Arizona
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

Kbusbyathryn Busby
Ph.D. student – entomology and insect science, University of Arizona
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

Lorrie Carnes
PhD student – Geological Sciences, Arizona State University
The Sky Island Mountains of southeast Arizona are the remnants of great tectonic forces shaping the landscape. Since the cessation of these forces, what processes have continued to drive landscape evolution? I study the sedimentary basins adjacent to the mountains, which contain records of sediment eroding off the mountains. Each horizon of sediment contains clues about past climates, the ancient magnetic field, and the rate it was eroded off the mountains. I use these clues to understand how different processes shape our landscapes into what we see today!
Geological History of the Southwest
Landscape Evolution of Southeastern Arizona

Marina Morandini
Ph.D – student – wildlife conservation, University of Arizona
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.

Michael Hammer
Ph.D. student, Department of Astronomy, University of Arizona
I would love to go back in time and watch the Earth and other planets in our solar system form, but that’s just not possible. The only thing I can do is look for planets that are still forming around other stars that are are much, much younger than the Sun. Although most of these planets are too far away for us to be able to see, we can use telescopes to take detailed pictures of the giant planet-forming disks around these young stars. For my research, I run computer simulations of these disks to find ways of knowing if planets we can’t see are forming in disks around young stars. By studying these unseen newborn planets, we hope to learn more about how the planets in our own solar system formed billions of years ago.
ALMA Observatory: Star and Planet Formation
The Epoch of Planet Formation, Times Twenty

Noah Giebink
PhD student, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of Arizona
I study a special group of insects that long ago gave up carnivory for veganism–you likely know them as BEES, the most important pollinators worldwide. There are at least 20,000 species of these flower-loving vegans, and they have so much variety. Few species live in colonies; most live alone, and dig ground nests for their young. Others carve wood or temporarily rent holes excavated by other animals. Some collect no food of their own, and instead pirate the bounty in other bees’ nests by sneaking their eggs inside. Most do not produce honey, but may specialize in much cooler crafts, like concocting perfumes to woo mates, gleaning oil from flowers to seal nests, cutting and rolling leaves to cradle young, or other things we are just beginning to discover–like farming microbes for better nutrition. You may have marveled at the massive carpenter and bumble bees buzzing about, but there are others as small as the tip of your pencil which are easy to miss. I work to conserve bees and all of their diversity so that we miss as few as possible to the threat of extinction caused by changing lands and climate. I use data from citizen scientists, which means that YOU can help too.

Noah Silber-Coats
Department of Geography, University of Arizona
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, University of Arizona
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

Patrick Bunn
Ph.D. Student, Department of Hydrology & Atmospheric Science, University of Arizona
I use computers to simulate the behavior of the atmosphere. The most common simulations are weather forecasts. Observations from today are put into mathematical equations that can predict how those observed values will change in the coming days. Another kind of simulation is a climate projection. These are much longer simulations and can provide us with an idea of how our climate is going the change in the coming years. The mathematical equations used are the same for both kinds of simulation. Group them together and they form an atmospheric model. How realistic those atmospheric models are and how to improve them is what my research is all about. Ask me about climate change, why clouds are different shapes and colors, and is solar energy easy to predict? Find the answers to similar atmosphere related questions here: https://climatekids.nasa.gov/menu/atmosphere/

Sahana SrivatsaSahana Srivathsa
Ph. D. student – neuroscience, University of Arizona
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

Sean Schrag-Toso
M.S. student – Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Arizona
My research involves observing how water moves in natural systems, or better understanding the water cycle diagram that was taught in fourth grade. Spoiler: that diagram is more complicated than we were led to believe. I am particularly interested in the fraction of water that seeps into the ground, or groundwater. Through analysis of the chemical composition of groundwater and observing the ratios of certain isotopes, we can approximate when a sample of groundwater fell as rain or snow and try to deduce how that water is moving underground. I am working in the Sonoita Creek watershed in Southeastern Arizona and partnering with several local organizations and groups to better understand the underground plumbing of the area so that those groups can make more informed decisions about managing the water resources in their area.
What is Groundwater?

Xiaobo “Bo” Hou
PhD student, Department of Environmental Science, University of Arizona
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, University of Arizona
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