Lab Members

Dr. Erin Spear

Lead Scientist/Principal Investigator

Dr. Erin Spear started as a Staff Scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama in 2022. She has conducted research in the forests of Panama since 2009. 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 do those interactions shape a community).

Her work addresses two key questions in ecology: (1) How do multiple species intensely competing for the same resources coexist in diverse communities, in other words 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 the tropics. Previously she received a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Utah, served as a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, and was tenure-track faculty 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.

Dr. Harikrishnan (Hari) Venugopalan Nair Radhamoni

Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Hari is a tropical-forest plant ecologist and an experienced wildlife conservationist. He completed his PhD at Yale University (Comita Lab), where he studied spatial and temporal variation of herbaceous angiosperm diversity in India’s Western Ghats dry forests. Hari’s previous work includes studying plant-soil interactions in Venezuela’s Orinoco rainforests. At STRI, he is working on the spatial and temporal dynamics of tree interactions with heart-rot fungi in Panama’s rainforests, especially, in the Barro Colorado Island. His work will involve sonic tomography technique, a non-invasive method to detect and assess internal infection in trees.

Blaine Martin

Research Assistant/Intern

Blaine, a native of Arkansas, is interested in biotic interactions and the maintenance of biodiversity, as well as the abiotic factors structuring communities. As an Environmental Biology graduate at Tulane University in the Sunshine Van Bael lab, he completed an honors thesis on tropical liana adventitious roots and fungal colonization.  Collecting these samples at STRI inspired him to return to the tropical forest system. With his background in mycorrhizal mutualisms, he hopes to explore tropical disease ecology and the role of pathogenic microbes in maintaining forest structure.

Chloe Insler

Research Assistant/Intern

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.

Lab Alumni

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


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.