Science Story November 2022

Jocelyn Navarro at RMBL

Cultivating scientists

Jocelyn Navarro grew up in Pomona, a city in southern California. She’s the daughter of Mexican immigrants whose highest level of education was elementary school. So who could have imagined that she would one day pursue a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology? Actually, her parents could. Highly attuned to nature, they nurtured Jocelyn’s fascination with plants throughout her childhood.

She says that her parents’ yard is filled with “tons” of herbs, citrus and fruit trees, and roughly 20 species of cactus. A child with intuitively scientific curiosity, Jocelyn kept notes on when flowers bloomed, how much fruit plants produced, and when the fruit ripened. One of her chores was watering the plants. “I always asked my dad why I was instructed to water some plants more and others less. He would tell me, ‘I don’t know, but if you do well in school, you can go to college and learn why,’” she says.

That she did, and when she got to Connecticut College in New London, CT, she found answers to many of her questions about plants in science courses. A five-day field trip she took in September 2017 with the Ecological Society of America’s SEEDS program introduced her to RMBL. Amazed at the fall colors in the Valley, the historic cabins of Gothic, and the sheer abundance of world-renowned research taking place, she promised herself she would return.

That winter, she applied for and won a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant funded by the National Science Foundation. The grant allowed her to return to RMBL in the summer to work with Dr. Diane Campbell, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine. Jocelyn studied the effects of decreased summer precipitation and earlier snowmelt on the scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata).

Determined to return to RMBL yet again, Jocelyn directed her applications for graduate school to programs with principal investigators doing research at Gothic. That’s how she ended up in the lab of Dr. Brian Enquist, a plant biologist and ecologist at the University of Arizona who has been conducting research at RMBL since 2003. His lab studies how plant community composition affects ecosystem functioning using a physiological and functional trait approach. Dr. Enquist’s research also takes him to locations as varied as Peru, Norway, and China and environments ranging from tropical forests to elevation gradients and high alpine ecosystems.

Now in the third year of her PhD program, Jocelyn has five summers at RMBL under her belt and hopes to add more. Currently, she’s looking at plant-water relations using a reciprocal transplant experiment. In 2017, a lab colleague, Laura Seltzer, physically moved half-meter by half-meter plant communities to various elevation gradients along Washington Gulch to expose them to the colder or warmer environments in their new locations. Since 2020, Jocelyn has been studying the plant coverage of those communities as well as their respiration and photosynthesis. The experiment is designed to help scientists understand how plants will perform under changing environmental conditions like air temperature and moisture.

Thanks to RMBL supporters, the daughter of immigrants who never received a formal education is blooming into a scientist who will lead her own generation to solutions to preserve the Earth for generations to come. Jocelyn represents the fruit of seeds planted by donor generosity.

Her gratitude for the opportunities she’s had grows at the same pace as her knowledge. The experiences at RMBL gave her an opening into a scientific career she would not have had otherwise. Without help from the RMBL community, Jocelyn says, “I wouldn’t know the first thing about applying for fellowships or even what’s required to get into graduate school. RMBL provided me with all those resources. I’m thankful for the incredible people I’ve met and for the ability to be part of that community.”

“The work being conducted at RMBL changes lives,” she added. If you are a RMBL supporter, you’re doing the same thing.


Jocelyn Navarro is a PhD candidate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ. She is the recipient of a National Science Foundation REU grant and a graduate of Connecticut College. She has participated in scientific research at RMBL for five summers.