Forest ecology in a changing environment

Welcome! For the most current updates, please visit the LOC Lab’s new website!

As a plant and forest community ecologist, I am interested in tracing human impacts across terrestrial landscapes. Global change drivers in forest and grassland communities, including infectious disease, pest outbreaks, invasive plants, and climate change, are at the forefront of my scientific inquiries. I use a variety of methodological approaches to answer important questions about the changes transpiring in natural systems. In particular, I love disentangling the complexity of climate change-induced shifts in abiotic-biotic interactions that shape plant communities across multiple scales.

Research Highlights

Climate change shifts infectious tree disease

Combining a long-term study of the epidemic tree disease caused by Cronartium ribicola, with a six-year, field-based assessment of drought-disease interactions, we found evidence that climate change shifted disease prevalence. The shift was asymmetric due to complex host-pathogen interactions and drought occurrences that ultimately contributed to an unexpected decline in mean disease prevalence. Our study underscored that host-pathogen-drought interactions will strongly mediate climate change impacts on infectious disease (Dudney et al., 2021, Nature Communications). Link

If you’re interested in causal inference, see this Rmarkdown that explains fixed effects panel models and compares them to mixed models in ecology.

Extreme drought effects in the subalpine

Between 2017-18, I designed a study that assessed the impacts of the recent CA drought on subalpine forests in the Sierra Nevada (see map below). Together with collaborators from NPS, USGS, and USFS, we extracted 800 tree cores, 1200 stable carbon isotope samples, and DNA from all whitebark pine trees measured. The remote locations and extreme terrain presented a fun challenge for the crew, but thanks to their insatiable sense of adventure, we recently finished collecting data and are now analyzing our results.

The tree growth patterns and responses were counterintuitive. We found that on average, growth increased during extreme drought, and our stable isotope analysis suggested that photosynthesis also increased throughout most of the Sierra. The genetic data provided evidence that genotypic variation of whitebark pine is relatively low in the Sierra Nevada; the populations are fairly similar across the range. We’re working on two papers that will hopefully be published by 2021!

Mechanisms of bark beetle outbreaks in the Sierra Nevada

I am currently investigating the mechanisms driving mountain pine beetle (MPB, Dendroctonus ponderosae) outbreaks from low to high elevations in the Sierra Nevada. Specifically, we are asking whether post-drought, lagged bark beetle outbreaks are driven primarily by changes in tree density or vulnerability, or rather by beetle population spillover from lower elevation outbreaks. Using a combination of physiological and remote sensing data, we aim to disentangle the complex drivers of MPB outbreaks in the highly vulnerable subalpine forests.


Excited that I’ll be building my lab at UC Santa Barbara this coming year! I will be accepting students through the Bren School. If you’re interested in joining my lab, please send your CV and a brief description of the general topics you’re interested in pursuing for your PhD. Email:

New paper in Nature Communications

This epic combines strong theory with causal inference to isolate the effect of climate change on infectious tree disease range shifts. The range shift was asymmetric due to complex, abiotic-biotic interactions that varied in strength and direction across an aridity gradient. To describe these complex interactions, we used a stable isotope analysis and long-term observational field data. Check the study out here!

Fig. 6
Complex abiotic-biotic interactions that modified disease range shifts across an aridity gradient (elevation) under climate change (Dudney, et al., 2021, Nature Communications).
Research in the news!

My latest recent research was picked up by KCBS radio, TV News Reno, and various other media outlets, including Inside Climate News,, and the Daily Mail.

The New York Times recently interviewed me about the recent fires in Sequoia National Park, where I’ve spent the past seven years conducting research.

Summer 2021

Guest on the podcast Water Talk!

I was invited to record a podcast on Water Talk! It was so much fun chatting with the wonderful hosts, Mallika Nocco, Faith Kearns, and Sam Sandoval, about my research in the Sierra Nevada. We covered a lot of ground from drought-disease interactions, to bark beetles and climate change, to processing the loss of millions of trees during extreme events. Check out the episode and the many other fascinating guests at Water Talk!

Research Brief for CalFire

Sara Winsemius from UC Davis wrote a really clear and concise research brief on my recent paper in Ecosphere. She highlights the concerning decline of sugar pine in the southern Sierra, the spread of white pine blister rust disease into higher elevation white pines, and the importance of understanding multiple biotic and abiotic factors that shape forests under climate change.

Spring 2021

The forest understory is often the most diverse and under-appreciated forest layer. Should we conserve this undervalued source of biodiversity? I recently published a paper describing the long-term impacts of three commonly applied fuel treatments and patch cuts (small clearcuts) on understory species. We found fuel treatments increased introduced species in the mid-term, though patch cuts were associated with much higher levels of invasion (e.g., > 100% cover in some sites). This study helped identify win-win forest treatment outcomes that can support management goals aimed at reducing high severity fire and sustaining forest biodiversity. PDF

Summer 2020

“New evidence from over 4,600 studies calls into question the universal application of critical threshold values, or tipping points, along gradients of environmental stress. Identifying never-to-exceed environmental targets may prove elusive for environmental policy and management.”

Had a lot of fun writing a News and Views piece for Nature Ecology and Evolution with the brilliant Dr. Katharine Suding! Link

Summer 2019

Class of 2019 Smith Fellows!

I am honored to join the amazing Smith Fellows 2019 cohort. This fall, I am heading to UC Davis and will work with Andrew Latimer, Connie Millar and Phil van Mantgem on whitebark pine research and conservation.

See more about the project here.

Spring 2019

We had an out-of-this-time super bloom in Southern California this year. I finally got a glimpse of what John Muir wrote about years ago before the invasive grasses outcompeted our native forbs.

Plant Love Stories featured my super bloom love story on their website. Also had fun making a video of some of the best wildflower shows I’ve ever seen!

Winter 2018

Photo won “Best Overall” at the ESPM Grad Fest

My writing piece on last summer’s research was selected and featured by the UC Berkeley Graduate Division. See the full story here!

Fall 2018

Options and Outcomes of Resilience-Based Management (RBM) under climate change.

Our paper was published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. We discuss the importance of considering novel elements and ecosystems in resilience-based management.

Novelty is a double-edged sword.

Some novelty is critical for long-term ecosystem resilience, while novelty can also lead to undesirable outcomes, including a reduction of biodiversity and other ecosystem services.

Identifying how we embrace or reject novelty in natural resource management is becoming increasingly important in an era of global change.

CNR press release here.

Study Systems

I am fortunate to conduct my research in various systems, from grasslands, to mixed conifer, to subalpine forests. These systems provide critical ecosystem services and offer endless opportunities for scientific explorations, both outside in the backcountry and inside the lab. Each system offers insight into the next, and I am always amazed that no matter how much time I spend observing in the field, the mysteries grow increasingly more complex—a life-long challenge that will never grow old!