Researcher Spotlight – Kaleb Goff

2023-24 Global Change Research Fellow

PhD Student, Plant and Microbial Biology
Advisor: Dr. Seema Sheth

About You

What do you study?
In the broadest sense, I study the processes and mechanisms related to why there are so many beautiful and complex living things, and why organisms live where they do, and who they interact with. These are the questions of ecology, biogeography, and evolutionary biology. My inclination toward many of these questions is at the applied level, thinking about how to inform conservation practitioners, inspire citizen scientists, and protect biodiversity. My dissertation research focuses on the impacts of global change on plant diversity in mountain ecosystems. Mountain ecosystems are the water towers of the world, have high concentrations of biodiversity owing to compressed climatic gradients across elevation gradients, and are being impacted strongly by global change. Plants form the base of these ecosystems, and plant species on mountain summits, adapted to cold conditions and found nowhere else in the world, might be some of the most climate-threatened species and communities on the planet, because they have limited ability to track their climatic niches across valleys of unsuitable habitat. Documenting and understanding mountain top plant community responses to climate change has high potential to help us better understand global impacts of climate change on biodiversity globally by underscoring some of the characteristics of highly vulnerable systems.

What (or who) influenced you to go into this field of study?
Growing up in San Diego, CA, I had the early privilege to be outside exploring the coast, go on camping trips in the Laguna Mountains, and crawl up little scraps of coastal sage scrub habitat between the apartment complexes with my younger brother. This playful enjoyment developed into a deep emotional connection to the beauty and diversity of life through hiking and gardening, and was especially directed toward plants through their grace, quietude, humility, stability and ubiquity. As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, I had amazing early mentors who were travelers, botanists, natural historians and scientists. I was inspired by some of these folks to go on my first trip to a National Park, and fell in love with the mission and shared vision of those places as our common ground. I quickly found out that these places weren’t as I initially envisioned them, being directly and forcefully impacted by climate change, and being clear indicators of our global struggle with human equity, diversity and inclusion. Ultimately, I decided to pursue a PhD studying mountain plant communities in the context of climate change as a way to contribute what I could to both of these issues.

What do you think is the most pressing issue related to global change?
I think the most pressing issue related to global change is the biodiversity crisis. Evolutionary and ecological processes created a vast diversity of life forms over a long period of time, and extinction is irreversible. Biological diversity is at the core of a functioning and productive biosphere, on which we all depend. Human action is causing biodiversity to be lost at a rate similar to previous mass extinctions, and threatens not only the core ecosystem services we all depend on, but is also a failure in our collective morality and imagination. If we can step back and take the view for a moment that humans are one species among many, all with equal right to life on this planet, we can begin to address multiple global change issues synchronistically, including the biodiversity crisis.

About Your Research

Kaleb and Tom doing a downslope survey. Photo provided by Kaleb Goff.

What is the most important thing that you’ve learned?
So far, I have found that in the arid high elevation habitats in the Sierra Nevada and Great Basin in California and Nevada, plant communities on mountain tops have changed very little in the past 20 years. This makes good sense because many of the plants at high elevations are long-lived and adapted to endure extreme conditions, but is important and a bit surprising because of the notable climate change impacts in this region, and evidence of rapid change from other more mesic mountain top habitats globally. These results help to further the idea of complex and lagged responses to climate change, and the need for continued and future long-term monitoring.

Who will benefit from your research?
My dissertation is in collaboration and partnership with a number of land managers and conservation practitioners across the western US, and is beneficial to these stakeholders because they are responsible for managing large areas of high elevation habitat. This research is possible thanks to a non-profit, GLORIA Great Basin (, who has been managing the surveys of mountain summits in the Sierra Nevada and Great Basin since 2004. The field campaigns for this work have been the product of the fun, enriching and demanding work of 100s of volunteers from all walks of life. Lastly, this research is beneficial to the international community, and is part of a global network to monitor plant community responses to climate change on peaks (GLORIA project, Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments,

How would you describe your research to a 3rd grader?
Some plants live only on the very tops of mountains, and love the cold and quiet conditions up there. Because plants can’t just get up and walk to someplace better if things get hard, they might be in danger if their habitats change too fast. My research is getting up to those mountain tops and asking the plants how they’re doing.

About Your Global Change Research Fellow Experience

How do you expect the SE CASC Global Change Research Fellows Program to impact you and your work?
Thus far, the SE CASC Global Change Research Fellow Program has been a way for me to receive important training, connect with an interdisciplinary cohort of graduate students investigating global change impacts, and learn more about future career opportunities.

What advice would you give to a student that is interested in getting involved in your field?
My advice would be to spend time thinking about how you can make the greatest impact with your own unique set of skills, values, and perspectives. What do you care about the most? What aspects of your personal story have led to those values? What experiences have you had, and how can you leverage those to do the best you can for the people, places and organisms you care about? In the context of ecology, I think this means dispelling the myth that all ecologists are people who like running around national parks and going on hikes. As a student interested in ecology, I think it is really useful to be able to say upfront what you like and don’t like, and how your particular perspective is relevant, which it undoubtedly is!

What has been the most rewarding part or your favorite part of being a SE CASC Global Change Research Fellow?
It has been especially rewarding to collaborate on organizing seminars, and discuss global changes issues with graduate students who are not ecologists!

Is there anything else you want to share?

A short poem by Nanao Sakaki:

“Go with Muddy Feet

            When you hear dirty story

                             wash your ears.

When you see ugly stuff

              wash your eyes.

When you get bad thoughts

              wash your mind.


Keep your feet muddy.”

Learn more about the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center’s Global Change Research Fellows program.

This post was originally published in SE CASC.