Belize: Research and Extension Experiential Learning for Undergraduates Fellowship Program

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One of the most complex agricultural and natural resources challenges of our time is sustainably feeding the world while at the same time conserving biodiversity and the natural environment. We are working in Belize with community agriculture and conservation partners to improve understanding of sustainable approaches to address this challenge.


To develop leaders in agriculture and natural resources research and extension who can synthesize the complexity of agricultural systems to keep US agriculture at the forefront of addressing sustainable global food security. 


Our 3-year experiential research and extension project brings together 14 undergraduate students and 10 mentors to investigate smallholder farms practicing conservation, adjacent to the Vaca Forest Reserve in Belize. Through the project, we train students through one-on-one student-mentor focused projects, which have both a research and extension component. Selected students conduct research in their first summer in Belize and follow this with outreach and extension of their research in Belize in their second summer on the project. We are conducting projects on crop production and soils, social and economic systems, wildlife, forestry, and ecosystem services. For more information, read the March 2017 UT press release.


A highly trained corps of skilled undergraduates, equipped with technical ​and cultural competency to solve challenges facing global and domestic agriculture and natural resources.


USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA): Agriculture and F​ood Research Initiative (AFRI) Research and Extension Experiential Learning for Undergraduates Fellowship Program, Grant #2016-06392.


The funded period of the project is January 1, 2017 – December 31, 2019.

Students and Projects

2018 – 2019 Student Fellows

Erin Butikofer

Erin Butikofer – a junior at Utah State University majoring in Wildlife Ecology & Management minoring in Spanish and Cello. She has a diverse set of academic and research interests including human-wildlife interaction, animal behavior, and military working dogs. She plans on pursuing both a Masters and a PhD in a wildlife related field. Butikofer is being mentored by Dr. Adam Willcox.

Xenabeth Lazaro

Xenabeth Lazaro – a 4th year student at the University of Florida pursuing a dual degree in wildlife ecology & conservation and psychology. Her career goal is to study behavioral ecology, specializing in mammals and birds. She loves to travel abroad, immerse herself in different cultures, and learn about natural ecosystems that she has never been exposed to. Her ultimate goal is to conduct wildlife ecology research abroad in a way that connects with the local people. Her interests include reading, eating tacos, and doing yoga. Lazaro is being mentored by Dr. Emma Willcox.

Karson Leonard

Karson Leonard – A junior in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida majoring in Forest Resources and Conservation with a focus on Recreation Resource Management. I am broadly interested in land management, sustainable agriculture, and the management of recreational lands and development of sustainable tourism practices. Leonard is being mentored by Dr. Michael Andreu.

Graziella Pilato

Graziella Pilato – a freshman attending Penn State University majoring in Plant Science, with an agroecology focus, and minoring in Spanish. She enjoys being in nature and knowing that her career will aid in the natural world. Graziella is being mentored by Dr. David Butler.​

Kate Rose

Kate Rose – a sophomore at the University of Florida studying marine science. Her early introduction to scuba diving solidified her passion in ocean studies but since attending UF she has become interested in the human dimension of her field. In addition to her work on habitat restoration in the Florida Keys, Kate serves as the program associate for the Challenge 2050 Project on the UF campus. When not working, she can be found nearly anywhere outside or inside decorating her apartment! Kate is mentored by Dr. Cortney Ohs.

Katie Thorp

Katie Thorp – a third year student at the University of Florida studying environmental engineering. She is interested in studying water quality and remediation of impaired water bodies. After working as an environmental biotechnology intern in the Netherlands last summer, she is looking forward to gaining more international experience in Belize. In her free time, she enjoys exploring the outdoors, videography, and spending time with friends. Thorp is being mentored by Dr. John Stier.

Shania Walker

Shaina Walker – a first year student attending Penn State Mont Alto is majoring in Forest Technology. She enjoys spending time outdoors, participating on the Mont Alto Woodsmen Team, and traveling. Walker is being mentored by Dr. Don Hodges.

2017 – 2018 Student Fellows

Elizabeth Becker

Elizabeth Becker – a sophomore attending SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She is majoring in Environmental Analysis and minoring in Chemistry. She has an interest in ecological restoration and traditional agroforestry systems. Liz is mentored by Dr. David Butler.

Andrew Franks

Andrew Franks – a sophomore majoring in Forestry with a concentration in Restoration and Conservation Science along with an International Agriculture and Natural Resources minor at UT. He enjoys spending time outdoors, studying the environment, and traveling to new places. Andrew is mentored by Dr. Don Hodges.

Jesse Frazier

Jesse Frazier – a junior in the school of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida majoring in natural resource management and conservation. He is particularly interested in acquisition and active management of conservation land with an emphasis on endangered ecosystems. He is also interested in working with people to develop more sustainable approaches to land use to meet diverse needs. Jesse is mentored by Dr. Michael Andreu.

Sarah Ottinger

Sarah Ottinger – a junior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. She is pursuing a degree in environmental soil science and is passionate about soil ecology and living systems. Sarah is mentored by Dr. John Stier and Dr. Tom Gill.

Hannah Shapiro

Hannah Shapiro – is a junior at North Carolina State University majoring in Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, with a minor in Agroecology. Her career goal is to become a researcher that develops community-based conservation plans. She has gained a variety of experiences in order to reach this goal, including conducting research in The Bahamas on children’s wildlife preferences, studying captive animal behavior at the Duke Lemur Center, and looking at the feasibility of camera traps as a long-term wildlife monitoring and outreach strategy for a local ecostation. Hannah is mentored by Dr. Adam Willcox and Dr. Amanda Kaeser.

Sarah Teman

Sarah Teman – a first year Wildlife Ecology and Conservation major from South Florida at the University of Florida. Her interests include conservation, tropical ecology, mammaling, hiking, swimming, and kayaking. Sarah is mentored by Lauren Watine and Dr. Emma Willcox.

Laura Vining

Laura Vining – a junior at the University of Tennessee majoring in Wildlife and Fisheries Science with a minor in International Agriculture and Natural Resources. Having studied abroad in Belize, she is very excited to head back for her next adventure!​ Laura is mentored by Dr. Emma Willcox​.

Group of faculty and students in Belize
Ruins in Belize
NIFA Faculty in Belize

News Updates!

June 2018: CLICK HERE to follow this year’s weekly field log

Summer 2017: Read about last year’s field log 

Dr. Emma Willcox and Lauren Watine working with Laura Vining
Mentors Dr. Emma Willcox and Lauren Watine working with Fellow Laura Vining to install a bat acoustic detector on a farm to investigate bat abundance and the potential for crop insect control by bats.
Morlet's crocodile in Vaca River
Photographed during week 3, this is Morlet’s crocodile in the Vaca River.
Sarah Orringer and Laura Vining at The Belize Zoo
Sarah Ottinger (UT) and Laura Vining (UT) watching wildlife at the Belize Zoo. The Belize Zoo only has native wildlife and all the species in the zoo also occur in the Vaca Forest Reserve.