Team

Students

PhD & Masters

María Alejandra Sanchez

Maria Alejandra Sánchez, PhD. Candidate

Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá & Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

I am a Panamanian Marine Biologist, interested in applying high throughput molecular techniques to understand the dynamics of biotic interactions in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. I am especially interested in the settlement of introduced species and the impact of trophic interactions on the development of benthic communities in tropical marine ecosystems.

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Thais Lemos Quintão, PhD. Candidate

Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo

I am a Brazilian PhD student conducting research on cryptobenthic fishes. I am interested in understanding how miniaturization has affected taxonomic diversification and trophic ecology. I am also focused on using environmental DNA analyses to detect cryptobenthic species.

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Helio Quintero, PhD. student (start date: 01/2025)

Universitad de Panamá

I am a Panamanian marine biologist and STRI fellow. I consider myself a naturalist with a lot of curiosity about the natural world and its interactions. For my research I track the endangered and endemic sharks and rays of the Eastern Tropical Pacific of Panama and Costa Rica, mapping their diversity and distribution through environmental DNA. I am interested in the conservation, ecology and evolutionary history of marine and aquatic organisms and how they relate to each other and to our societies on the eve of highly changing times.

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Laura Lardinois, PhD. candidate

McGill University & Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

I am fascinated by the trillions of microbes; including bacteria, archaea, viruses, and fungi, that grow on and inside living organisms, forming their microbiome. My research revolves around marine microbiomes and how they – in tandem with their animal hosts – can survive and adapt to both natural and anthropogenic environmental change. My research leverages the seasonal upwelling in the Tropical Eastern Pacific and transisthmian sister species pairs to investigate host-microbiome responses to changing environments across seasonal and evolutionary time scales.

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Matt Doherty, PhD. candidate

University of Plymouth & Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

I am a marine biologist specializing in coral ecosystem dynamics, with extensive research experience across the Caribbean, Red Sea, Tropical Pacific, and Western Indian Ocean. As a technical diver, I have primarily focused on mesophotic ecology for the past two years in the Cayman Islands. I am currently pursuing my PhD at the University of Plymouth, under the guidance of Professor Richard Preziosi and Dr. Mathieu Leray. My research interests include gathering and synthesizing large-scale monitoring data to assess regional responses to environmental changes, particularly in the context of the strong ENSO event currently unfolding.

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Maria Alejandra Chacón, MSc.

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

I am a microbial ecologist who specializes in research on the role of diverse and poorly known coral associated microbes. In my research, I have encountered challenges in isolating many of the microorganisms that live in association with corals when using traditional culturing methods. As a result, I develop innovative techniques to uncover and manipulate the ‘dark matter’ of the coral microbiome. I use these powerful approaches to develop consortia of beneficial microbes that can be used to enhance the resilience of corals exposed to stressors.

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Natasha Hinojosa, PhD. Candidate

University of California at Santa Cruz & Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

I am fascinated by morphological diversity and its functions; my doctorate looks at reef fish feeding traits and how they adapt in different environments. I am answering my research question in the Republic of Panama by comparing the feeding morphology and digestive physiology in transisthmian reef fish sister species (sister species found on either side of the Isthmus). One of my main goals throughout my scientific career is to promote art and photography as main methods of scientific communication.

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Hannah Sima Rempel, PhD. Candidate

University of Texas, Austin & Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

My current research focuses on how the ecosystem roles of herbivorous fishes vary in response to local-scale human stressors. My work integrates field-based research with lab-based DNA metabarcoding, compound-specific stable isotope analysis, and ecotoxicology approaches. My broader scientific interests are in studying the ecological roles and interactions of marine organisms, how they change in response to human impacts, and how this may alter ecosystem services these organisms provide to coastal communities.

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Luisa Meister, MSc. Student

Bochum University of Applied Sciences

I am currently finishing my master’s degree. My passion for tropical marine ecosystems brought me to Panama and to write my Master’s thesis at STRI. In the project, I will analyse the community structures of selected coral reefs by eDNA metabarcoding. The aim is to get insights into the diversity patterns of coral reefs across different depths on inshore and offshore coral reefs. I’m interested in monitoring marine ecosystems and the anthropogenic impacts on them and want to combine marine biology and sustainability to support science-based marine protection and management.

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Loïc Laur, MSc. 

Université de Liège

I recently graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Liège. My research focused on reconstructing trophic interactions in a coastal food web, from sediments to top predators. At STRI, I conduct research on the interactions between sea cucumbers, seagrasses and coral, in the Portobelo National Park, in collaboration with Panasea, a sustainable aquaculture business based in Panama. The aim of the study is to test whether the reintroduction of sea cucumbers, which have been heavily overfishing in the last decades, would benefit foundational species.

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Jade Hargous, MSc.

Université Toulouse III Paul-Sabatier, Université Perpignan Via Domitia

My passion for tropical island environments and biology since childhood led me to choose marine biology as my career path. Feeling concerned about current ecological changes, I want to focus my research on coral reefs, which preservation is a public health and economic issue, particularly in tropical island environments. The aim of my research at STRI is to contribute to the understanding of the impacts of temperature on the outcome of competition between various coral species. On a larger scale, this could enable us to predict which species will dominate the reefs over the coming years, so that we can better anticipate their conservation.

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Viviane G. Alí Suarez, MSc.

Universidad Austral de Chile

I’m a master’s student in genetics with two main interests: First, the study of tropical marine ecosystem’s diversity through molecular techniques and, second, the study of host – microbe interactions and their impact in evolutionary trajectories. At the symbiosis and resilience lab I have applied eDNA sequencing techniques to study the composition of coral reefs at the Tropical Eastern Pacific (TEP) of Panama specifically looking at corals and elasmobranchs. During my research I have employed DNA barcoding to identify corals, I have designed novel primers specific to Pocillopora species inhabiting panamanian reefs, and I have helped assess the distribution of sharks and rays in the Panama TEP. My aim is to expand existing knowledge about Panama reefs and their unique evolutionary history. 

Bachelor

Claudia Unique Berry, BSc. 

Washington State University & NSF RaMP-UP fellow

I am working as a post-baccalaureate research fellow. My career is centered around captive bred species and species of concern. While currently my project at STRI focuses on the dietary adaptations of coral reef fish during seasonal shifts throughout Panamá’s TEP. I aim to study the adaptive traits that help wildlife acclimate to an ever-changing environment; then create conservation strategies and identify how genetic manipulation can assist in the rehabilitation or conservation of endangered species

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Analía Guerrero, BSc. 

Universidad Marítima Internacional de Panamá

I’m finishing my undergraduate degree in Marine Biology. I’m very interested in using molecular tools to understand the symbiosis between corals and their algal and bacterial associates. For my research project, I am isolating and sequencing the DNA of the dinoflagellate algae and the bacteria associated with Pocillopora corals to understand their resilience to climate change. 

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Luis E. Bernal R., BSc.

Universidad Maritima Internacional de Panamá

Marine Biologist graduated from the International Maritime University of Panama, where with the good results of my thesis, I was able to create the foundation Reef Restoration Panama. I am currently working on creating efficient methodologies for the cultivation, monitoring and restoration of corals in Panama in areas where they are needed in the country. I would like to focus on the area of genetics and conservation of coral reefs.

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Marcelina Lekawska, BSc.

Associate Scholar of the University of St Andrews

Through my bachelor’s studies in marine biology, and personal passion for scuba diving, I am interested in coral reef ecosystems, most specifically how they are impacted by anthropogenic impacts and what we can do to address such challenges. As an intern at STRI, I am working on a project exploring how different feeding strategies impact coral resilience to thermal stress. This involves testing whether supplying coral colonies with food enriched in antioxidants increases their resistance to a subsequent period of exposure to thermal stress. The findings of this research can provide crucial information for global coral reef restoration efforts. 

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Angelica E. Estrada, BSc. Student

Universidad Latina de Panamá

Among my interests are the study of species of marine origin, the understanding of symbiotic relationships between organisms, as well as the development of possible techniques for the preservation and restoration of species and habitats affected by anthropogenic activities or climate change.

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Carlos Murillo, BSc. Student

Universidad de Panamá

I am a Panamanian undergraduate student in Biology studying fish community diversity patterns along coral reef ecosystems of the Tropical Eastern Pacific of Panama using environmental DNA analyses.  I am focused on understanding how fish communities might adapt to seasonal upwelling and non-upwelling natural phenomena and their effects on coral reefs’ resilience.

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Maria Andrea Lacayo, BSc. Student

Universidad Latina de Panamá

I am an undergraduate biotechnology student with extensive understanding in molecular and synthetic biology, with a passion for science communication and arts. My course work revolves around biosensing and toxicology in elasmobranchs from the TEP.  I am currently working on mapping the distribution and ecology of sharks using environmental DNA, alongside the eCSI team. I enjoy creating vlogs about laboratory and field work, as well as discussing different perspectives with my peers.

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Rodnyel Arosemena, BSc.

Universidad Marítima Internacional de Panamá

Studies in which I have been a part include the resilience of coral reefs in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, the distribution and ecology of sharks in Panama, and changes in the trophic level of species separated by the Isthmus of Panama. I am interested in studying how species in reef ecosystems (corals, fish, etc.) adapt and respond to environmental changes.

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E. Catalina Rodríguez Guerra, BSc.

Universidad de Cundinamarca

I am especially interested in studying the different environmental stressors that affect corals and their symbiotic algae in the Eastern Tropical Pacific and the Panamanian Caribbean. Through experiments in controlled environments and ecotoxicological analyses, I seek to understand how corals cope with environmental challenges and anthropogenic stressors. I am also interested in exploring how nutritional supplements (“Superfoods”) can increase the resilience of corals in order to conserve the fragile and valuable coastal ecosystems they form.

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Yaliana Chichaco, BSc. Student

Universidad Marítima Internacional de Panamá

I am an undergraduate student and STRI intern studying shark genetics and conservation in the Tropical Eastern Pacific of Panama. I am primarily interested in using molecular tools to understand the population structure of endangered marine species such as sawfishes and tiger sharks. My objective is to conduct research that contributes to the conservation and management of these species by identifying important habitats, migration patterns, and potential threats they may face in the Pacific region of Panama.

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Javiera Mora, BSc. Student

Universidad de Panamá

I am an undergraduate student and I am studying the diet composition of two pairs of sister species of coral reef fish and the influence of environmental parameters on it, after the rise of the Isthmus of Panama. I am very interested in knowing their dietary plasticity and when I finish my degree I would like to study a PhD related to this topic.

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Lucía Morales, BSc. Student

Universidad Marítima Internacional de Panamá

I am a undergraduate student from the International Maritime University of Panamá currently focusing on the evolution of feeding characters in reef fishes – such as angelfish, damselfish, surgeonfish, butterflyfish, groupers, among others. In this research project, I conduct dissections and take morphometric data. I also have a strong interest in fish physiology and underwater bioacoustics to learn how natural and anthropogenic sounds affect the abundance and proliferation of coral reefs and reef fish.

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