Join the Lab

Interested in joining the lab? Please contact Dr. Erin Spear ( with questions or to discuss research ideas. I am happy to speak with potential applicants!

I am hiring a postdoc!

More details coming soon.

STRI Fellowships

STRI fellowships range from 3 months to 3 years and fellows explore their own research questions across Panama’s rich tropical ecosystems while based at STRI’s state-of-the-art facilities. Learn more here.

RaMP-UP Fellowship

Global Sustainability Scholars’ RaMP-UP Tropical BioDiversity Fellows program is accepting applications through April 21, 2024! This is a 1-year paid research experience open to US citizens who graduated in the last four years with a BA or BS. The fellowship includes a stipend of $32,000, RT ticket to Panamá, and lodging while at Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute facilities. This is a fantastic opportunity to acquire robust research experience and professional development, directly contribute to scientific research, develop an international professional and peer network, and gain strong mentors to advocate for your career! My lab is project #9, Ecology of Disease in Tropical Forests: From Genes to Germs to Achy Breaky Hearts. The new cohort of 10 to 12 RaMP-UP Fellows will travel to Panamá in August 2024.

Project-Specific Internship Opportunities

I am currently considering applications for a total of four paid internship positions for two separate projects (two positions per project). Project descriptions are included at the end of this call for applications, below general information about eligibility, the application deadline, required application materials, stipend support, and mentorship objectives. Learn more about my lab’s research at: &

Eligibility: Open to recent graduates (post-bachelor’s and -master’s) of all nationalities who meet some, or all, of the qualifications established for each project. Interns will be evaluated and selected based on merit and potential for achievement, including a match between the project and the candidate’s interests and experience, opportunity for career advancement for the applicant, diversity in the STRI intern community, and completeness of the application.

Application deadline for full consideration: May 12, 2024
After May 12, applications may be considered until all positions are filled.

Required Application Materials: (1) a professional resume or CV detailing relevant education and experience; (2) a 1- to 2-page statement describing the drivers of your interest in the position, academic training and experiences that have prepared you for the project, and what you would hope to accomplish through the internship, including how it would advance your career; (3) unofficial transcripts from your current and/or previous institutions; (4) one letter of reference from an individual familiar with your academic and/or research performance. Send your complete application to Dr. Erin Spear, STRI Staff Scientist and Principal Investigator of the DEATH Lab (

Stipend Support: These paid internships include a stipend to cover living expenses while at STRI (currently $1,250/month), a travel allowance, and a health insurance allowance.

Mentorship: Interns will gain practical experience and skills in field and lab settings. Interns are encouraged to consider the broader impacts and science communication of the project by developing relevant social media posts and/or a short article for the STRI newsletter and participating in-person outreach with visiting students and donors. Research and career guidance is available from Dr. Spear as well as other team members in one-on-one and regular lab meetings. Additionally, interns are encouraged to attend weekly STRI seminars, exposing them to a wide range of research topics and providing an opportunity to interact with the broader STRI community. The ultimate goal is that an intern’s active participation and unique contributions to the project result in an opportunity to coauthor at least one scientific paper. Finally, interns would be joining an inclusive scientific community, as well as building a network of research mentors at various career stages and potential future collaborators.

Project 1: Microbial communities & disease pressure from forest floor to canopy aka “Death from Above” 

Locations: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) facilities in the town of Gamboa and Parque Natural Metropolitano (PNM), Panamá

Duration: Three months (August 12-November 12, 2024)

Project Objectives: Utilizing STRI’s canopy access crane in the seasonally dry forest of PNM, this multifaceted and multi-year project: (a) assesses whether adult trees are reservoirs of disease for understory juveniles (a key assumption of the Janzen Connell Hypothesis); (b) explores the vertical turnover of microbial communities across abiotic gradients from forest floor to canopy; (c) investigates the role of abiotic factors in microbial turnover; (d) determines whether a disease gradient is correlated with vertical abiotic gradients; and (e) captures interannual changes in microbial community composition and disease levels. This project involves lab-based work culturing and molecularly identifying fungi; and field-based collections of diseased leaf tissue. Interns will contribute to the third year of data collection.

Desired Qualifications: an understanding of ecology, mycology, and botany; no fear of heights;
ability to drive a manual vehicle and a clean driving record; experience accurately and effectively entering data in spreadsheets and using the statistical program R (at a minimum for descriptive statistics); using aseptic technique to culture microorganisms and/or extract and amplify DNA, and conducting fieldwork in hot and humid conditions with insects.

Interns’ Role & Expected Products: This is a full-time appointment for a 3-month period. Interns are expected to devote 40 hours per week to research. Expected time allocation: 10% fieldwork (PNM), 75% laboratory work (Dr. Spear’s lab in Gamboa), 15% entering and analyzing data and writing. This project involves collection of diseased leaf tissue using STRI’s canopy access crane and lab-based work, including culturing and molecular identification of fungi. All interns are expected to contribute to written reports documenting methodology, results, and outcomes, which can be incorporated into a peer-reviewed scientific publication with the intern as a co-author.

Project 2: Evaluating microbial-driven internal decay of living trees over time and space: implications for tree mortality and forest dynamics aka “Achy Breaky Hearts: destruction, death, and forest dynamics”

Duration: July 1-October 31,2024 (4 months)

Location: Barro Colorado Island (BCI), Panamá.

Project Objectives: Tree death is a key process shaping forest structure and composition. When a rainforest tree dies, precious resources become available for nearby plants, the act of falling can crush adjacent trees, and biomass turns to necromass. Identification of the drivers of tree mortality is essential for predicting forest dynamics under climate and land use changes, as well as future carbon storage. Together, stem breakage and uprooting account for more than half of tree deaths, and these sources of mortality often occur when a tree has extensive internal decay of its heartwood (heart rot) caused by fungi. Centered on BCI’s 50-ha ForestGEO plot, the research team uses sonic tomography to quantify internal decay in living trees; connect the internal and external health of the tree with historic damage and tree growth and mortality; and assess long-term heart rot dynamics.

Desired Qualifications: an understanding of ecology, botany, and mycology; experience accurately and effectively entering data in spreadsheets, using Excel, Word, ImageJ, ArcGIS, and/or the statistical program R, and participating in fieldwork in hot and humid conditions with insects; some familiarity with tree species identification; comfort hiking difficult terrain, carrying field supplies, and taking measurements in a hot and humid forest 4-5 days per week; ability to quickly learn new protocols and procedures, be proactive, conduct research efficiently and effectively, be part of a diverse team, adapt quickly to situations in the field, including emergencies and bad weather, and exhibit professionalism and responsible behavior; demonstrate a strong attention to detail to collect high quality data. Basic Spanish is a plus, but not mandatory.

Interns’ Role & Expected Products: This is a full-time appointment for a 4-month period. Interns are expected to devote 40 hours per week to research. Expected time allocation: 80% fieldwork in the forest on BCI and 20% lab work, entering and analyzing data, and writing in Dr. Spear’s lab space on BCI. All interns are expected to contribute to written reports documenting methodology, results, and outcomes, which will be incorporated into a peer-reviewed scientific publication with the intern as a co-author. This position will involve living full-time at the BCI field station; conducting strenuous field research in a hot and humid lowland tropical forest with biting insects 4-5 days per week; learning to navigate a ForestGeo plot; using sonic tomography and ImageJ to visualize and measure the internal state of a trunk for >100 different species of trees; observing and recording the external conditions of each of the trees on which tomography is performed; participating in the mobilization of tomographic equipment and other materials through the forest over relatively long distances (~5 km); entering data in ArcGIS while the tomography is underway and in the lab; downloading images, labeling them following established naming conventions, and uploading them to OneDrive; and participating in the collection of fungi present on the focal trees and freeze-drying subsamples following a previously established protocol.

Details about the September 15 application process and deadlines can be found here.

STRI’s policy is to provide equal opportunities to all qualified applicants without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, age, familial status, protected veteran or disabled status, or genetic information.

The DEATH Lab is committed to diversity, inclusion, and equity and seeks talented individuals historically underrepresented in STEM.