Published on 06/29/23

CAES Ratcliffe Scholars deepen classroom learning with immersive experiences

By Claire Sanders Kinnard
Image of Pamplona, Spain, from above
The Ratcliffe Scholars Program, part of the college’s experiential learning programming, supports undergraduate students as they deepen their understanding of their chosen fields through internships, immersive learning experiences, and study abroad and exchange programs like the one with Universidad Pública de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain.

In the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES), students are exposed to new ideas, concepts and methods in classrooms and labs every day. By the time they leave those labs and classrooms, students have gained experiences that can transform not only their college years, but the trajectory of their careers.

The Ratcliffe Scholars Program, part of the college’s experiential learning programming, supports undergraduate students as they deepen their understanding of their chosen fields through internships, study abroad programs and other immersive learning experiences. Five CAES students were chosen for the 2022-23 class of Ratcliffe Scholars and were awarded a $5,000 scholarship: Chloe Dela Cerna, Ariana Cohen, Abby Lauterbach, Taylor Pearson and Alexandra Thompson.

Dela Cerna, a fourth-year student studying both agriscience and environmental systems and agricultural and applied economics, says that her time working in Ali Missaoui’s forage and bioenergy crop breeding lab helped her put classroom theory into practice.

“Conducting undergraduate research solidified my understanding of many of the concepts I was already studying in my classes, as I was able to utilize the knowledge I have gained across my years of coursework and apply it to my own independent research project,” Dela Cerna said. “I learned that I really love being a scientist. I discovered that I find a sense of fulfillment in the frustration that comes with experimenting, the independence you develop with it, and the satisfaction of knowing that your work will make a difference someday.”

As a result of her work in the Missaoui lab, Dela Cerna has been offered a graduate assistantship and plans to continue working with tall fescue endophytes as she pursues a doctorate in integrated plant sciences at UGA.

Ariana Cohen, a third-year biological science student from Cumming, Georgia, participated in an exchange program with the Universidad Pública de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, during spring semester.

“It’s unbelievable to me how much I have grown as a person through this exchange. I have gained a ton of independence and confidence as I’ve faced both the triumphs and challenges of living abroad,” Cohen said. “My experiences this past semester have opened my eyes to a world I never knew existed before, and they’ve motivated me to continue stepping outside of my comfort zone and exploring new things in the future.”

Clockwise from left, Chloe Cerna, Ariana Cohen, Abby Lauterbach, Taylor Pearson and Alexandra Thompson
Five CAES students were chosen as this year's Ratcliffe Scholars: (clockwise from top left) Chloe Dela Cerna, Ariana Cohen, Abby Lauterbach, Taylor Pearson and Alexandra Thompson.

Beyond providing funds for housing, food and transportation for her study abroad experience, Cohen said the Ratcliffe Scholars Program enabled her to rethink her perspective on life, exploring new environments and forming meaningful relationships as she continues to pursue a future in the medical field.

Fifth-year horticulture major and Atlanta native Abby Lauterbach traveled to Spain for a faculty-led May session course called Food Production, Culture and the Environment. She said the experience has had a significant impact on her college experience in CAES.

“Experiential learning has given me countless incredible opportunities to explore different fields and collect information that has influenced my career pathway. Experiential learning in the past has guided me to change my major entirely, led me to some incredible friends and mentorships, and given me the chance to grow in my independence,” Lauterbach said. “This study abroad experience specifically has given me new cultural perspectives to apply to my role in growing food to feed the world.”

Along with a desire to travel more following her time in Spain, Lauterbach said she came home with a more holistic view of international agriculture and sustainable production, all of which she plans to take with her into further studies and career.

Taylor Pearson, who graduated in May with degrees in entomology and applied biotechnology, completed a research internship studying tick-borne disease with the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine and the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study (SCWDS) as a Ratcliffe Scholar.

“Every day of walking into that research lab showed me how much I belonged in the field, and my fellow graduate and undergraduate students reminded me that all our hard work never goes unnoticed, despite how some of our experiments may turn out,” Pearson said. “I learned so much about the field of wildlife disease through my research experience with SCWDS. This experience truly broadened my perspectives of entomology and enriched my undergraduate education immensely.”

Because of her work with SCWDS, Pearson was offered a place in the doctoral program with the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine and learned invaluable research methods she plans to use during her doctoral program.

Alexandra Thompson, an animal science major from Orcutt, California, traveled to Uruguay as part of the International Agribusiness in Diversified Livestock and Grain Production study abroad program offered by CAES. Thompson was able to tour Uruguayan production facilities and have conversations with local producers, which sparked an interest in global agricultural research. 

“Studying abroad allowed me to immerse myself into a culture I had no experience with prior to the trip. I made lifelong friends on the trip and broadened my perspectives of international agriculture and the standards of production in different countries,” Thompson said. “I hope to educate myself further on another country or region’s agricultural endeavors to further gain perspective on international agriculture.”

Though their experiences varied, all of the 2023 Ratcliffe Scholars agree that the funding provided by the Ratcliffe Scholars Program made those experiences possible.

The Ratcliffe Scholars Program honors Thomas Jackson Ratcliffe Jr., who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in plant physiology at UGA. Following graduation, Ratcliffe served as the UGA Cooperative Extension agent in Lanier County, where he met and married Mary Frances Moore of Lanier County, Georgia. The two moved to Tifton, Georgia, in 1945, and he went to work at the Georgia Department of Entomology, which later became part of the Georgia Department of Agriculture. To learn more about the Ratcliffe Scholars Program, visit

Claire Sanders is the senior public relations specialist in the CAES Dean and Director's Office.