Tropical Ecology Institute: Meet the Team

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2023 Belize Institute Participants

  Jose Acosta 
Science Teacher
Cape Fear High School, Cumberland County
Hobbies: I am a very active person and enjoy doing the following: going on long walks with my dog (Harley), swimming, kayaking, photography, running, biking, and spending time with my family and boyfriend.
Looking forward to: I am looking forward to exploring science phenomena and creatively thinking of new ways to incorporate my experiences into the classroom. I really enjoy learning about other latin cultures that are somewhat similar and different than that of my own (my family is form Puerto Rico). I am really looking forward to spending this time with other teachers in NC and being able to collaborate with like minded people.
  Dana Almengor
Biology Instructor
Lenoir Community College, Lenoir County
Hobbies: I love sports (especially football), reading, nature, traveling, and animals!
Looking forward to: I am looking forward to experiencing the flora and fauna in Belize as well as the food and cultural traditions of the local populations.
  Neysy Barrientos
Belize Elementary School, Belize City, Belize
Hobbies: Swimming, sewing, reading, cooking, trying new coffee places.
Looking forward to: Literally everything!
  Erin Carroll
Outdoor Learning Specialist
Durham Public Schools- Central Office, Durham County
Hobbies: reading, getting distracted by birds, finding new restaurants.
Looking forward to: I love traveling to new places to discover new ecosystems. I find it so refreshing! I am also looking forward to just getting to swim and hike as a way to explore a new country.
  Samantha Duke
Doctoral Student, Teacher Education and Learning Sciences
North Carolina State University, Wake County
Hobbies: In my free time, I enjoy reading, practicing yoga, and playing in a handbell choir.
Looking forward to: Beyond exploring the beautiful environs of Belize, I am most excited for all the amazing educators that I will get to meet and travel with during this trip.
  Meredith Fish
Environmental Educator and Outreach Specialist
NC Aquariums at Jeanette’s Pier, Dare County
Hobbies: Going to the beach, surfing, & spending time with friends and family.
Looking forward to: Experiencing and learning about new ecosystems and cultures.
  Kaylie Forbes
Liberty Community Preschool, Ladyville, Belize
Hobbies: Dancing, cooking, spending time with family and friends.
Looking forward to: Learning more about the rich cultures in Belize and exploring more about the different tourist attractions.
  Jane Greene
Social Studies Teacher
Beulaville Elementary, Duplin County
Hobbies: Running, hiking, volunteering and traveling.
Looking forward to: Experiencing a new country, it’s food, geography, and people
  Corinne Jenkins
Media Coordinator
Atkins STEM Magnet High School, Forsyth County
Hobbies: Reading, hiking, yoga.
Looking forward to: Seeing the country and meeting new folks!
  Scarlett Joyner
Agricultural Sciences Teacher
Southern Wayne High School, Wayne County
Hobbies: Kayaking, hiking, acro yoga, soap making.
Looking forward to: It is difficult to choose between the ruins of Xunantunich and the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve. I have always been passionate about ethnobotany and rituals, so seeing the ruins would be amazing. However, I find Felidae to be majestic and beautiful so they too would be amazing to see. I eagerly look forward to experiencing everything the Institute has designed for us.
  Jeffrey Rudnik
Art Teacher
East Columbus Junior/Senior High School, Columbus County
Hobbies: Pottery, Drawing, Technical Theatre, Set design and construction.
Looking forward to: I am looking forward to all the wildlife, as birds and wildlife are an important part of my artistic practice.
  Shawna Scipione
2nd Grade Teacher
The Exploris School, Wake County
Hobbies: I enjoy a variety of arts and crafts, spending time outdoors with my family and two dogs.
Looking forward to: I am looking forward to experiencing and learning more about the rich Mayan culture and history of Belize and exploring the jungles and rainforests, and marine life!
  Rustina Sharpe
PreK Teacher
Efland Cheeks Global Elementary School, Orange County
Hobbies: photography, reading, hiking.
Looking forward to: Expanding my global experiences, meeting new people and cultures, experience new adventures and sharing my adventures with students, their families and my district.
  Mary Wray
ArtSpace Charter School, Buncombe County
Hobbies: Reading, hiking, swimming, camping, and cooking.
Looking forward to: I am looking forward to it all, but am especially excited about the cave tubing (hope that is still happening), the snorkeling, the Mayan ruins, and the nature walks (both day and evening). I am also looking forward to learning new ways/ideas of teaching the natural sciences and creating community, along with meeting like minded teachers and creating connections.


Alternates attend orientation and step in if a participant is unable to go. Additionally, they are guaranteed a spot the next time this Institute is offered.

  Kathy Trost
K-5 Art Teacher
Columbus County Schools, Columbus County
Hobbies: Photography, visual arts ministry and art techniques, researching grants, massage modalities.
Looking forward to: Mayan art history and religious aspects, the people and how they experience daily life, the underwater experience.
  Michelle LeRoy
4th Grade Teacher
Pine Springs Preparatory Academy, Wake County
Hobbies: Reading, cooking, hiking, kayaking, being a GiGi to my two year old grandson.
Looking forward to: the diversity of wildlife.

Museum Staff Leaders

  Melissa Dowland
Manager of Teacher Education
NC Museum of Natural Sciences
Hobbies: Camping, hiking, reading, nature photography
Looking forward to: Exploring and learning about the amazing diversity of Belize alongside a fantastic group of educators including learning tropical bird species, listening to the sounds of the jungle at night, and snorkeling the reef and mangrove habitats.
  Megan Davis
Coordinator of Teacher Education
NC Museum of Natural Sciences
Hobbies: I love exploring the world with fresh eyes alongside my curious and energetic 1.5 year old. She keeps me busy these days! We love gardening, baking/cooking, and getting outside as much as possible.
Looking forward to: I’m especially looking forward to night hikes in the forest and snorkeling along the coral reefs. I’m looking forward to listening to all the tropical birds and amphibians and insects as they sing into the world (e.g. red-eyed treefrogs!!!). I can’t wait to learn alongside our phenomenal NC and Belizean teachers in such an incredible country full of natural and cultural history!
  Andy Kauffman
Curator of the Living Conservatory
NC Museum of Natural Sciences
Hobbies: Exploring the flora and fauna near my home, biking, cooking, fishing, traveling (whenever I get a chance to!).
Looking forward to: Many things but I’ll pick 2: Exploring the amazing marine ecosystems (via snorkeling) and night walks in the jungle!
  Nathan Forbes
Naturalist, Certified Guide
Belize City, Belize
Looking forward to: Sharing my country with a new group of teachers and visiting with my friends from North Carolina.