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Instructors


Desert Institute

Desert Institute Fall 2020 Catalog

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Palm trees at the Oasis of Mara at night

Palm trees at the Oasis of Mara at night | Photo by NPS/Hannah Schwalbe | Public Domain | Source

Instructors for Field Classes

Julia Adams

Julia Adams


Julia Adams received her Bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College with a major in Biological Sciences. Then she became a short-term research fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) for a year and a half where she studied spatial stable isotopes and bipartite interaction networks of plants and the herbivores that consume them. Then she joined the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences in the summer of 2017 working under the supervision of Dr. Jason E. Stajich. She is now a Ph.D. candidate working on using amplicon sequencing and metagenomics to resolve the microbial community of the yellow crustose lichen, Acarospora socialis. She received the NSF-GRFP Fellowship to work on lichen ecological genomics questions and also a Robert Lee Graduate Student Research Grant to better understand the microbiome of A. socialis across environmental gradients.

Robin Balch

Robin Balch


Robin Balch is a recently retired school counselor and prior co-owner of a skydiving school with her husband. She is a Desert Institute “lead” volunteer and loves being around people. She has hiked several portions of the Pacific Crest Trail and is a Forest Service Fire Lookout at Black Mt. Fire Tower in Idyllwild, CA. She loves the outdoors, hiking, and backpacking and has been mentored by the best learning the ins and outs of backpacking. She has had experience of being caught in unexpected hail, snow, and rain and learned how to pack light and smart.

Diane Best

Diane Best


Diane Best was born in Boston, and headed west for studies at Stanford and the San Francisco Art Institute, before moving south to Los Angeles. In L.A. she created artwork for the entertainment industry and commissioned portraits. Tiring of city life & thirsting for adventure, she moved to Joshua Tree in 1995. Now living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, after 23 years in Joshua Tree, she has shown her work throughout the country, including solo shows at the Carnegie Museum, Southwest Museum (part of the Autry Center of the American West), and BoxoPROJECTS NYC.

Steve Biller

Steve Biller


Steve Biller is the longtime editor-in-chief of Palm Springs Life and a board member of Desert X, the biennial exhibition of site-specific artwork in the Coachella Valley. He writes and lectures about California impressionism, especially the early desert painters, as well as contemporary art in the California desert.

Fran Calvert

Fran Calvert


Fran Calvert has lived near Joshua Tree National Park for ten years. She enjoys sketching, riding horses, hiking, and backpacking year-round in the park. She is a retired technical writer with a B.A. in fine arts and art history from Columbia University. She has been a Desert Institute volunteer since 2014.

Janis Commentz

Janis Commentz


Janis Commentz is a painter living in the Mojave Desert. She has taught high school art, teaches classes at the 29 Palms Art Gallery and facilitated life drawing for almost a decade. She has a B.A. in art and British Literature from the University of Redlands and M.A. in Education from California State University at San Bernardino. She exhibits in Southern California and has participated in the Hwy 62 Open Studio Art Tours, Joshua Tree National Park Juried Art Exposition, Joshua Tree National Park Spring Art Festival, Art Faire at California State University at San Bernardo and Art For Heaven's Sake, Redlands. In 2013, she helped create the “Pop Up” Art Gallery in Joshua Tree which evolved into Gallery 62. Commentz served as Gallery Director for Gallery 62 during 2016. She has been the featured artist at Gallery 62, Glass Outhouse Art Gallery in Twentynine Palms and the 29 Palms Art Gallery. Color and light are an important part of her impressionistic landscapes. Although Janis grew up near the coast, she believes desert beauty is an acquired taste and enjoys plein air painting in the Southwest.

Paul De Ley

Paul De Ley


Paul De Ley obtained his Ph.D. in Invertebrate Zoology at Ghent University, Belgium in 1994 and moved to Riverside in 2000 to joined the Department of Nematology at UCR as a faculty member. His research focuses on ecology, diversity, and systematics of nematodes in arid ecosystems, using methods that combine light microscopy observations with DNA sequence analyses. His current teaching duties include annual upper division undergraduate courses at UCR on the subjects of Invertebrate Zoology and Biology of Nematodes, and his past teaching also included subjects such as Soil Ecology, Arthropod Diversity, and Theoretical Systematics. He is an avid nature photographer with particular interest in macro photography as a tool for exploring biodiversity of Southern Californian deserts and ranges.

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Bruce Fessier


Bruce Fessier has been a journalist and desert community leader since 1979. His family has owned property in Joshua Tree since 1958 and his 40-year career with The Desert Sun in Palm Springs has yielded awards for stories on Sonny Bono (2018), the history of the Mafia in the desert (2015). the new federal uses of the Annenberg Sunnylands Estate (2012) and long-form stories on presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. He won a college award for a story on Richard Nixon's "Road to Watergate." Fessier co-founded the Desert Theatre League in 1987, the Jazz Celebrity Golf & Jam Session 1997, the Desert Rock at the IPAC concert series in 2010 and Tachevah: A Palm Springs Block Party in 2013. He served on Sonny Bono’s founding Palm Springs International Film Festival committee in 1987-88. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award in Music Journalism at the CV Music Awards. He's now preparing to launch a website and write books related to his work in the desert.

Craig Fucile

Craig Fucile


Craig Fucile, B.A., Physical Geography, currently teaches photography for University of California, Riverside Extension, and the continuing education programs of Orange Coast, El Camino and Citrus Colleges. He has also taught for UC Irvine Extension, UC Santa Cruz Extension, University of La Verne. A long time instructor, Fucile has taught numerous photography workshops in western landscapes that he enjoys photographing including: Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Mojave Preserves, Owens Valley, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Anza-Borrego, Kings Canyon, Sequoia. He received a Fall 2017 Artist in Residence for Angeles National Forest / San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. He received the Fall 2010 Instructor Excellence Award from UC Riverside Extension and the 2007 Distinguished Instructor Award from UC Irvine Extension.

Alessandro Grippo

Alessandro Grippo


Alessandro Grippo, Ph.D., Geological Sciences, University of Southern California, has done research and taught geology, oceanography, stratigraphy, environmental geology and field classes at Santa Monica College and several California State University campuses. Alessandro has a keen interest for the geology of the American southwest and loves being out there exploring, learning, and sharing his passion for Earth and its history.

Alexis Grinbold

Alexis Grinbold


Alexis Grinbold has been honing her culinary skills from a young age. She learned to appreciate the pleasures of making and eating food from her mother, who was classically trained in French Cuisine. With a Master of Fine Arts from School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Bachelor’s Degree from University of California San Diego she teaches Art and Art History at various colleges in Southern California. Her love of food and the outdoors come together with two things, good food from fresh ingredients. She has discovered over the years, there is really no wrong way to do it, but you must bring a taste for adventure!

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William Hayes, Ph.D.


William Hayes, Ph.D., Zoology and Physiology, Professor of Biology, Loma Linda University. Hayes specializes in the ecology of venoms and venomous animals, behavioral ecology and conservation of lizards, and behavioral ecology, taxonomy, and conservation of birds. He has published numerous works, taught and organized conferences and workshops, and has given multiple television interviews. Hayes currently teaches classes in behavioral ecology, herpetology, ornithology, and conservation.

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Jenny Kane


Jennifer Kane is an artist, backcountry guide, and teacher born in Los Angeles, CA; she has lived in Joshua Tree since 2009. Having worked as a climbing and hiking guide in Joshua Tree National Park off and on since 2009, she has an intimate relationship with this landscape and its nuances, which she captures through black and white drawings and watercolor paintings.

From 2016-2018, Jennifer organized the Artist Volunteer Program and the Artist’s Tea events for the Joshua Tree Art Innovation Laboratory (JTLab), in partnership with Joshua National Park. She currently serves as Executive Director of Arts Connection – the arts council of San Bernardino County. She received her BA in Fine Arts from Mount St. Mary’s College in 2005 and her MFA in Public Practice from Otis College of Art and Design in 2016.

De Karlen

De Karlen


De Karlen is a Certified Interpretative Guide, who works as a naturalist hiking and desert guide with Desert Adventures in both the Colorado and Mojave deserts. Previously, Ms. Karlen worked as an Interpretative Park Ranger in Yosemite National Park, so she truly enjoys sharing knowledge about the wonders and processes of our natural world.

Pam Kersey

Pam Kersey, Ed.D., MSN, RN


Pam Kersey, Ed.D., MSN, RN, is the Dean of Science, Math, and Engineering and a Health Education Professor at Cuyamaca College in San Diego. She volunteers as an archaeological site steward, for the Desert Institute at Joshua Tree and has also volunteered as a camp nurse. She has camped, backpacked, and hiked for many years including summits over 14,000 feet 5 times. She has taught outdoor classes for women, and enjoys helping others learn how to safely appreciate camping and hiking.

Scott Klinger

Scott Klinger


Scott Klinger is a professional photographer, filmmaker and educator with over 15 years of experience. Scott’s photographs and films have been exhibited throughout the world. Recent screenings include 66th Festival de Cannes and the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival. Recent exhibitions include LAXART in Los Angeles, Anfiteatro Arte in Milan, and La Generale en Manufacture in Paris. His work is held in the permanent collection of the Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Art. He currently lives in La Quinta, CA is an Associate Professor of Photographic Technology at Palomar College.

Tania Kurbessoian

Tania Kurbessoian


Tania Kubessoian received her Bachelor’s degree in Microbiology from California State University, Northridge in 2013. She continued her Masters education at CSUN in Biology until 2016 with Dr. Larry Baresi. It was after she joined the Microbiology program at the University of California Riverside in Sum- mer 2017 to work with her advisor Dr. Jason E. Stajich. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate focusing her research on black yeasts found in desert biological soil crusts. She received the Emory Simmons Award from the Mycological Society of America to understand black yeast’s role in biological soil crusts isolated from the Mojave Desert. She will be using a combination of next generation sequencing techniques to assess the composition of fungal and bacterial communities and investigate the role black yeasts play in protecting them from the harsh Mojave Desert.

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Tor Lacy


Tor Lacy, M.S., Geology, is a tenured instructor at Cerritos College teaching Physical Geology, Introduction to Earth Science, Geology of the Western National Parks and Monuments, Natural History of Southern California and Field Methods of the Earth Sciences.

Bernard Leibov

Bernard Leibov


Bernard Leibov is the Founder and Director of BoxoPROJECTS, a residency and programming initiative based in Joshua Tree, CA. He is also co-founder and co-curator of the Joshua Treenial. Prior to moving to California, Bernard was Deputy Director of Judd Foundation in New York and Marfa. He also operated a non-traditional gallery space in New York City which featured artists from Joshua Tree and other non- urban areas.

Kurt Leuschner

Kurt Leuschner


Kurt Leuschner, M.S., Wildlife Ecology, Professor of Natural Resources, College of the Desert. Leuschner's specialties include: ornithology, entomology, and desert ecology. He has led hundreds of field trips both locally and as far afield as Africa. He teaches natural history courses and leads field trips for the Desert Institute, the Desert Studies Center at Zzyzx, the Living Desert, the Desert Cities Bird Club, Western Field Ornithologists, UCR Extension, California State Parks, the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association, and many other conservation organizations.

Brenda Littleton

Brenda Littleton


Brenda Littleton, M. A. Educator, writer, and Jungian therapist. Brenda has taught book arts as a means to collect the unconscious whispering of dreams, images, rituals, poetry, prose, and personal literacy of place since 1994. Both as an art form and as a healing practice to document one’s place on Earth, a hand- made book is a welcome companion to the personal portfolio of self-expression and creativity. Littleton teaches transformative education and therapeutic self-inquiry in workshops and seminars, with a focus on how the terroir of landscape influences living a soulful life.

Amanda Lopez

Amanda Lopez


Amanda Lopez is the Desert Institute Assistant and she helps organize the field classes to run smoothly. She also works for the San Bernardino National Forest as an assistant researcher surveyor conducting visitor use surveys. Her environmental career started as a volunteer for the Klamath National Forest, where she was 1 of 3 trail crew members for over 800 miles of trail. At Klamath she found her passion for all types of recreation management. However, her heart never left the desert or JTNP, as your home is where your heart is. She hikes daily with her best friend, an 80 pound German Shepard.

Monica Lynne Mahoney

Monica Lynne Mahoney


Monica Lynn Mahoney, BFA, studio art, MLA Landscape Architecture, is a multidisciplinary artist, educator and native plant naturalist living and working in Joshua Tree, CA. Mahoney’s diverse artistic practice includes drawing, painting, sculpture & installation, landscape design, ecological restoration, and award-winning public engagement and civic art programs that integrate art and the environment. She believes that no matter the skill level, the practice of painting and drawing in nature provides a unique portal into the natural world, which helps us to see and connect with Nature—and ourselves—in new and profound ways.

Dennis Mammana

Dennis Mammana


Dennis Mammana, M.S., Astronomy, has delivered the wonder and mystery of the cosmos to audiences for over three decades. A nationally syndicated newspaper columnist with Creators Syndicate and author of six books on popular astronomy, Mammana is also an accomplished night sky photographer and invited member of TWAN—an international team of the most highly acclaimed sky photographers on the planet.

Diane Morgan

Diane Morgan


Diane Morganis an award-winning artist working in watercolor and oil. Her work has been featured in American Art Collector, International Artist, Southwest Art, American Artist, Artist Magazine, Sunset Magazine, Art Patron, Palm Springs Life, The Art of Watercolor and Watercolor Artist.

Ralph Nordstrom

Ralph Nordstrom


Nature has always been a source of inspiration, adventure and rejuvenation for me. Leaving the city and venturing into the wilderness always fills me with anticipation and excitement. The wilderness is fulfilling in and of itself. Adding photography to the experience, especially approaching photography with the eye of an artist, makes the encounter even richer. Because, in art we attune ourselves to our personal response to the beauty we see and attempt to communicate our unique vision through our works. The journey into fine art photography is a venture into a heightened awareness of our surroundings and can also be an odyssey of self- discovery. It is this journey that thrills me as much as my best photographs.

Nat Pombubpa

Nat Pombubpa


Nuttapon (Nat) Pombubpa received his Bachelor’s degree with a double major in Molecular and Cellular Developmental Biology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2015. Then, he joined the Department of Microbiology and Plant Pathology at the University of California Riverside in Fall 2015, working under the supervision of Professor Jason E. Stajich. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate with research focuses on biological soil crusts (biocrusts), desert fungal diversity, and microbiome. He received Robert Lee Graduate Student Research Grant award from Joshua Tree National Park to work on using next generation amplicon sequencing to explore the composition of microbial communities and to investigate spatial and temporal patterns on biocrust microbiome in Joshua Tree National Park.

Kevin Powell

Kevin Powell


Kevin Powell was intrigued at an early age by the quiet complexity of this desert playground. Local author and photographer, Kevin Powell has spent forty four years hiking, rock climbing, photographing, and exploring within Joshua Tree National Park. His book, Classic Day Hikes of Joshua Tree Park, is available at the Visitor Centers.

Ted Reeves

Ted Reeves


Ted Reeves, B.A., Biology, has taught Biology and Geology at Chaffey High School in Ontario, CA for 37 years. He has led field trips in Southern California, Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Tetons, Grand Canyon and Hawaii. He is presently teaching for University of the Pacific and believes that a relevant Natural History class requires an outdoor experience.

Jessica Schiffman

Jessica Schiffman


Jessica Schiffman has been a working artist for over twenty-five years. Her oil and acrylic paintings, including desert landscapes, forest scenes, figurative works and more, are widely collected. In addition, she has illustrated sixteen children’s books and created several murals. Jessica has taught art for fifteen years at venues including the Idyllwild Arts Academy and Summer Program, the Desert Art Center in Palm Springs, and the Create Center in Palm Desert. Jessica has a BFA in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute.

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Candice Weber


Candice Weber, M.A., is an adjunct professor of natural resources at College of the Desert, teaching courses in Conservation and G.I.S. and leading students abroad to the cloud forests of Costa Rica. She majored in environmental studies and has extensive experience working with animals of all kinds (wild and domestic), including many years as a zookeeper and animal trainer at the Living Desert, the Long Beach Aquarium, and other marine parks.

Sydney Williams

Sydney Williams


When the former collegiate athlete and competitive skydiver unexpectedly found herself on the receiving end of a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis, while grappling with unresolved trauma from a decades-old sexual assault, she set out on a mission: turn her pain into power. Two hikes across Catalina Island and 80 miles later, she founded Hiking My Feelings® to help others tap into the mind-body con- nection and healing power of nature that helped kick her self-limiting beliefs and disease into remission. Having more than 12 years of marketing experience with Fortune 500 companies and emerging brands, Sydney serves up her “truth juice” style of storytelling to break wide open tough conversations with prac- tical, powerful content and experiences.