On a late afternoon in September, Michelle Elise Spicer ’12 ’14G, assistant professor of earth and environmental science at Lehigh, donned a white hard hat and harness as she hoisted herself up into a thick, sturdy tree on the Asa Packer campus near Packard Lab.
A slight breeze rustled the leaves beginning to fall from the grove of trees that diluted the sunlight. Mosquitos swarmed.
Spicer, whose community ecology research focuses on understanding the patterns and drivers of plant diversity across the world, brought two students with her on this day to help train them in tree-climbing safety–and have them test out what it feels like to climb—should they decide to incorporate climbing into their future research projects. Field technician Laurel Renee Humphreys provided support.
A skilled tree climber, Spicer studies epiphytes (non-parasitic plant organisms growing on another plant) in different ecosystems, among her projects.
“I very closely mentor students, and especially when people are new at climbing with me, I'm climbing with them,” said Spicer. “So I am assisting and just getting up in the tree. I'm with them the whole time.”
Joining her was first-time climber Rheanna Patterson ‘25, who is helping to conduct research with both Spicer and Robert Booth, also a professor of environmental and earth sciences at Lehigh. Under Spicer’s supervision, Patterson climbed about midway up a tree to get a feel for climbing.
“At first I was really nervous, because I’m scared of heights—terrified of heights—so I'm surprised I went that far,” said Patterson, after coming back down. “But I felt secure because [Spicer] explained the harness is supposed to support you and your back.”