Lab Members

Dr. Erin Spear

Lead Scientist/PI of the DEATH lab

Dr. Erin Spear has conducted research in the forests of Panama for the past 15 years and has been a permanent Staff Scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama since 2022. Her research intersects disease ecology (who gets sick from what, where, and why), mycology (the study of fungi), and community ecology (how different species and the environment interact and how those interactions shape a community).

Her lab, aptly called the DEATH Lab for its focus on tree disease and mortality, addresses two key questions in ecology: (1) How do multiple, competing species coexist in diverse communities (why doesn’t the best competitor win and the losers disappear?); and (2) What factors exclude certain species from otherwise suitable habitats? As STRI’s Forest Microbial Ecologist generously funded by the Simons Foundation, Dr. Spear is developing novel approaches for understanding the distributions of microorganisms across host plants, geographic space, and time to transform microbial research in tropical forests. She is also a passionate advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion in ecology, reflected in her mentorship of a large, energetic team of early career scientists from around the world.

Previously, she received a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Utah, served as a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, and was an assistant professor at Regis University in Denver, Colorado.

Javier Ballesteros

Lab Manager

Javier has over 20 years of experience working at STRI and has been an integral contributor to numerous projects focused on plant-microbe interactions.

Eliecer Alvarado

Research Technician

Eliecer Alvarado graduated in Forest Engineering from the Technological University of Panama. While at university, he acquired knowledge and skills in tropical forests. His first work experience at STRI was participating in the ForestGEO census of the 50-hectare forest dynamics plot on Barro Colorado Island. In that project, he learned more about forest ecology and botany. He hopes to expand his knowledge of ecology and the dynamics of tropical forests and continue gaining research experience. To quote Eliecer, “What better place than the most studied forest in the world and with the Death Lab Panama team?”

Chloe Insler

Research Assistant

Chloe has a strong love for disease ecology, which led her to pursue a master’s degree in infectious disease from Drexel University. Her love for animals drives her interest in vertebrate zoonoses and vector-borne diseases. She is especially interested in the impacts of climate change on disease spillover. With her unique background and perspective, she looks forward to examining the impacts of climate change on plant pathogens and the implications for human disease.

Fransuá Mar Otero Margary

RaMP-Up Fellow

Fransuá studied Crop Protection at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez, where she cofounded a student led agricultural cooperative aimed to collectively offset production costs and to serve as a formative laboratory on cooperativism, leadership, and agroecological crop production. In the context of the climate change and political instability driven food insecurity crisis in Puerto Rico, she is interested in learning about forest dynamics and ecology to draw design principles for agroecological forestry systems.

Laurel Schmidt

Research Assistant

Laurel recently graduated from UC Davis with a degree in Evolution, Ecology, and Biodiversity. During her time at Davis, she completed a research thesis studying fungal pathogen diversity in Allium crops and found a strong passion for plant-microbe symbioses. She is interested in looking at microorganisms from a molecular perspective to inform ecological relationships and ecosystem-level functions. After previously studying abroad in Costa Rica, she is excited to continue to explore the diversity of microbes that inhabit the tropics.

Joel (Joe) Tester

Research Assistant

Joe is fascinated by the biology of plants and fungi. He studied Biology at the University of Oxford, and worked previously on tree phenology and restoration ecology in the Peruvian Amazon. This made him keen to return to the tropics to delve more deeply into forest dynamics, so he is over the moon to be joining the DEATH Lab’s heart rot project.

Jordan Mahr

Research Assistant

Jordan recently graduated from Oregon State University with a degree in ecology. He has a strong sense of adventure and wants to explore the world through field work. He hopes to explore the multitude of organism interactions that take place in tropical forests. In his free time, Jordan is an avid backpacker and soccer player.

Rosa Mason

Research Assistant

Rosa studied archaeology at Leiden University, where she became fascinated by early human-landscape interactions in the tropical forests of Amazonia. She then undertook a one-year archaeobotany research degree at the Australian National University, studying traces of early agriculture in tropical forests around the world. This background – as well as a personal love for the magical world of fungi – inspired Rosa to pursue further knowledge and training in the field of ecology. She is thrilled to be working in close proximity with the forest as she joins a new sort of fieldwork in the DEATH Lab.

Cecilia Webber

Research Assistant

New lab member! More info coming soon!

Nathaly Tulcán Invacuán

Research Assistant

Nathaly is from Palmira, Colombia and a recent forestry engineer graduated from the National University of Colombia. She worked as a research assistant on an annual census of tree mortality and damage in the permanent ForestGEO plot located in Amacayacu (Amazonas). She loves working in tropical humid forests, getting to know the territory, and sharing with the people and their culture. Her focus is forest ecology and she describes being at BCI as the best opportunity to work and research what she really enjoys.

Jessica O’Connor

Research Assistant

Jessica recently graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a degree in Biological and Biomedical Sciences specializing in Botany. During her time there, she completed her undergraduate thesis studying the impact rain has on fungal abundance in Trinity College Botanic Gardens and examining the different species of Fungi present. She is interested in looking at fungi-plant interactions to better inform our understanding of ecosystem functioning.

She is passionate about paleobotany and paleomycology and how by using the fossil record we can make predictions about how future climate changes may impact the environment. She’s embarking on a PhD at Northumbria University, focusing on conifer distributions in response to past and future climate changes.

Passionate about environmental awareness, she has contributed to her university’s environmental magazine, Evergreen, and served as secretary of the university environmental society.

She is thrilled to be on the team and about the field work.

Zach Coulis

Research Assistant

New lab member arriving May 2024! More info coming soon!

Charlotte Hogan

Research Assistant

New lab member arriving June 2024! More info coming soon!

Lab Alumni

Blaine Martin

Research Assistant

Blaine, a native of Arkansas, is interested in the interactions between fungi and their plant hosts and how symbiosis affects each partner on multiple scales (physiology, population, community, and ecosystem). He received his BS in Environmental Biology at Tulane University, completing an honors thesis in Dr. Sunshine Van Bael’s Lab on tropical liana adventitious roots and fungal colonization.

Collecting these samples at STRI inspired him to return to the tropics to further his knowledge of plant-fungal interactions in the DEATH Lab. During his yearlong research assistant position, Blaine led a project on the seasonality of foliar fungal communities and demographics of seedlings on BCI (Growing Pains). He also collaborated on the Death From Above project to understand how the vertical canopy gradient plays a role in foliar fungal community dynamics.

Blaine is now a PhD Student in the Plant Biology Department at the University of Illinois with Dr. Jim Dalling. He will continue his work in tropical forest ecology, researching the fungal communities and population dynamics in the genus Podocarpus.

Mae Space


Mae hopes to bring new perspectives to the study of biology, and learn new ways to coexist with our natural world. With eager curiosity, they hope to learn about the world of fungi and their interactions with other organisms. Mae has recently started studying biology at the University of Panama, and they plan to pursue studies in the area of genetics in the future. They advocate for the protection of the natural world and the countless individuals that share our earth. In their free time, Mae enjoys expressing creation through various art mediums.

Becky Parker

Research Assistant

Becky graduated from Nottingham Trent University with an honors degree in Environmental Science. She is particularly interested in ecosystem restoration, which led her to complete her research thesis on peatland restoration. She is fascinated by carbon sequestration across varied ecosystems, from tropical rainforests to Arctic peatlands.

Dr. Dale L. Forrister

Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Dale completed his PhD research at the University of Utah, using untargeted metabolomics to understand spatiotemporal changes in plant chemistry, and ecological and evolutionary implications for tree-herbivore interactions. In the DEATH lab, he explored the relationship between phytochemistry and host range and host-specific impacts of multi-host pathogens. This project included the characterization of phytochemicals and bioassays measuring the anti-fungal activity (growth inhibition) of seedling crude extracts on confirmed seedling pathogens.

Daniel Navas-Muñoz

Research Assistant

Ecuadorian engineer in biodiversity and genetic resources. He is research associate at the National Herbarium of Ecuador and research assistant in the Endara laboratory at the Americas University. Since 2018, he has participated in projects of ecological interactions in plants-herbivores and plants-fungi in the lowlands of the Ecuadorian Amazon, his participation has been reflected in presentations at scientific congresses. His research interests are the diversity of fungi, trees, and their interactions. He is interested in the role biotic interactions play in the maintenance of the Amazon and Chocó jungles. Daniel hopes that his work will contribute to scientific knowledge and the conservation of these valuable ecosystems.

Kerrin Cha


Kerrin Cha, a California native, is an incoming freshman at Northwestern University. She plans to study Biology and Social Policy, and she joined the lab to learn more about plant pathogens and their role in forest health. As she continues her studies, she hopes to combine research and policy in environmental conservation efforts.

María Teresa Sosa


María Teresa is currently studying Biology and Environmental Science at the Universidad de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain. Her growing interest in microbiology and forest ecology brought her to Dr. Spear’s lab. Born in Panama, she hopes to contribute to tropical research in the future.

Matéo Vaucouleur


Matéo is a French student in ecology and evolution at Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. His internship in the lab combined his great interest in interspecific relationships and his desire to discover the tropical rainforest.

Omayra Melendez

Research Assistant

Omayra (left) was in intern in the lab for two projects. One was led by Dr. Camille Delavaux (right), describing soil microbial communities and their role in global forest diversity. Most recently, she was an intern for the NSF-funded project exploring how sharing resistance gene alleles affects pathogen transmission and growth and she is now a research technician for that project.

Dillon Wheeler

Dillon Wheeler


Dillon Wheeler, now a master’s student at Tulane University, is fascinated by the ecological and evolutionary principles governing interspecific interactions, especially plant-mediated symbioses within tropical systems. As an intern in Dr. Spear’s DEATH Lab, he assisted with bioassays quantifying the antifungal properties of secondary metabolites extracted from the leaves and seedlings of tropical trees.