Michelle Elise Spicer ’12 ’14G, assistant professor of earth and environmental science, demonstrates to student mentees how to safely climb trees.

Michelle Elise Spicer ’12 ’14G, assistant professor of earth and environmental science, demonstrates to student mentees how to safely climb trees.

Michelle Spicer Trains Student Mentees in Tree Climbing Safety to Help in Research Work

A grove of trees on Lehigh’s Asa Packer campus provides a learning environment for students.

Photography by

Holly Fasching

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.”

Students learn to safely climb trees

Ph.D. student Naomi Miller, at left, said the tree climbing experience is very technical as one considers foot and hand placements on the ropes.

Ph.D. student Naomi Miller also practiced their skills. They said the tree climbing experience is very technical as one considers their foot and hand placement on the ropes.

“It's very strenuous, because you're taking all of your body weight and putting [the weight on] one leg, and trying at the same time to reach up and get as high as you can to gain as much vertical distance,” Miller said.

While they are currently working on a research proposal that doesn’t include many climbing opportunities, Miller said Spicer will conduct research in Washington over the summer to further study epiphytes. Overall lab research right now includes inspecting previously collected plant specimens, identifying rare plants, and lab work in which plants and microbes are identified with molecular methods.

Throughout the research process, Spicer said she conveys to students the importance of contextualizing the research.

“I make sure to sort of share some insights, and I want my mentees to think about what is the impact that their research is having—maybe it's on local communities,” Spicer said. “I do try to challenge my students to think about, sort of, the ethics of research.”

Spicer graduated from the Lehigh IDEAS program in 2012, with concentrations in chemical engineering and environmental sustainability with a minor in Spanish. Her lab focuses on understanding and maintaining forest diversity. She received her master’s from Lehigh in 2014 in earth and environmental sciences. She went on to get her doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh in biological science, with a graduate certificate in Latin American Studies.

Spicer’s interest in Latin America biodiversity was sparked on a study abroad trip in Costa Rica during her undergraduate education. She was able to delve deeper into the subject and began epiphyte research in Panama during her Ph.D. studies in 2017.

“I think it's only responsible to be able to have some sort of knowledge about countries that you're working in, especially if they're not your home country,” said Spicer. “And so I am bilingual, I can speak in Spanish mostly from learning from a relatively young age in school and then continuing to develop those skills in my research and personal life.”

Spicer said she’s prioritized working alongside Panamanian collaborators throughout her research.

“It's such a richer experience to be able to talk with people and learn from everybody that is around me,” Spicer said.

Students learn to safely climb trees

Spicer helps train student mentees in tree-climbing safety–to test out what it feels like to climb—should they decide to incorporate climbing into their future research projects.

An interdisciplinary education has enabled Spicer to unify her interests in her research. She joined Lehigh’s faculty in Fall 2023.

“I'm coming in as a forest ecologist so I'm really excited to bring a lot of new courses to EES (Earth and environmental science) and to the university,” Spicer said. “Some of the courses I'll be teaching are modified versions of things that have already been taught.”

On a broader scope, Spicer wants to expand access to STEM fields overall.

“There are a lot of barriers to being successful and feeling like you are good at STEM fields and I think many identities are still underrepresented in the STEM fields,” Spicer said. “I am a woman and a member of the LGBTQ+ community. …In addition to serving those personal identities, I want to make sure everyone can have access to the amazing world of science and nature that I’m so excited about.”

Spicer aims to build an inclusive research lab in which different perspectives and backgrounds come together.

“No matter if you're a business major, or a Ph.D student in psychology, there is some place to think about the natural ecosystem and our living planet in every single field,” Spicer said.

Story by Angie Bravo

Photography by

Holly Fasching

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