UTIA Research Presence Expands in Belize

UTIA faculty have long supported the idea that integrating undergraduates into their research activities not only develops these young researchers’ professional skills, but also maintains and expands UTIA’s research footprint and reputation.

The USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA): Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Research and Extension Experiential Learning for Undergraduates Fellowship Program (Grant #2016-06392) has moved into its second year. This summer, the program has brought on seven additional NIFA Undergraduate Research and Extension Fellows to build on existing research projects in Belize, initiated by the first cohort of Fellows who began last year.

Uniquely, this program focuses on the development of research skills at the undergraduate level, as Fellows work hand-in-hand with their faculty mentor to design and implement a rigorous research study. Deliverables of the two-year fellowship program include the compilation of at least one manuscript ready for submission to a peer-reviewed journal and the development of extension programming in Belize related to their research findings.

The seven faculty mentors include Drs. Adam Willcox (UT), David Butler (UT), Don Hodges (UT), Emma Willcox (UT), John Stier (UT), Cortney Ohs (U. of Florida), and Michael Andreu (U. of Florida), with Dr. Tom Gill (UT) providing evaluation and program design support. All are investigating, through their respective disciplinary fields, the impacts of deforestation and agriculture intensification in and around the Vaca Forest Reserve, Belize, and identifying approaches to reduce the negative impacts of these activities. Community-based conservation, described as a framework to empower local residents to take charge of conservation efforts in and around their own communities, is central to these initiatives.

The seven research areas include (1) soil and water quality, (2) sustainable cropping systems, (3) attitudes toward conservation practices, (4) bat species identification and diet, (5) presence of wildlife on farms, (6) commercial tree inventory and tree crop evaluation, and (7) aquaculture.

For some faculty mentors and Fellows alike, this is their first “taste” of working in a tropical agriculture/natural resource context. While the majority of projects began at the onset of the NIFA grant in the summer of 2017, some are expected to extend past the original funding period. The presence of UTIA in Belize has allowed NIFA faculty to branch out on these projects. For example, Dr. Adam Willcox leveraged the bat research Dr. Emma Willcox and her Fellow began last summer to support a graduate student to assist with mentoring Fellows and conduct an independent research project on farmer attitudes toward bats and bat diets.

Research results for the seven different projects in Belize have been shared at ten scientific conferences thus far, supporting the research presence of UTIA across regional, national, and international levels. Additionally, research findings are being used to develop new extension material to use with local communities in Belize and to be shared in Belize Ag Report in August, the national Belizean agriculture publication.