Lab Members

Erin Spear

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. Dale L. Forrister

Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Dale, a native of Vermont, fell in love with tropical rainforests and their complexity in 2014 as a field assistant in Yasuní, Ecuador. This led him to complete his Ph.D. at the Univ. of Utah with Drs. Lissy Coley and Tom Kursar, using untargeted metabolomics to understand spatiotemporal changes in plant chemistry, and the ecological and evolutionary implications for tree-herbivore interactions. Dale is excited to use his background in metabolomics to explore whether pathogen pressure shapes the metabolome of tropical forest seedlings across a tropical rainfall gradient.

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 combines his great interest in interspecific relationships and his desire to discover the tropical rainforest.

Dillon Wheeler


Dillon Wheeler, a recent graduate of Lee University in Tennessee, 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 is working with Dr. Dale Forrister, examining the impact of rainfall levels on sapling-pathogen associations and using high-throughput bioassays to quantify the antifungal properties of secondary metabolites extracted from tropical saplings. In August 2023, he will be joining Dr. Sunshine Van Bael’s lab at Tulane University, applying his experience from STRI to explore the ecology of plant-fungal mutualisms

Blaine Martin

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.

Lab Alumni

Omayra Melendez

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.