Our Leaders

Smithsonian Student Travel  |  Our Leaders

Every Smithsonian Student Travel program is led by a team of group leaders who are accomplished and distinguished in fields related to the themes of our programs. Group leaders are with students for the duration of the program, serving as guides, mentors, role models, and friends. They share a commitment to safety and helping students make their own discoveries along the way.

Our leaders represent the nation’s top educational institutions and have held positions with such reputed organizations as the Peace Corps, Teach for America, the Fulbright Program, and more. They are authors, researchers, engineers, designers, photographers, educators, and practicing professionals. They bring real-world experience, unique perspectives, and contagious enthusiasm for learning and for the world around us. In short, they are perfectly equipped to help our students experience the world through the Smithsonian lens. As such, our leaders are selected from a highly competitive pool of diverse and qualified candidates, each of whom holds exceptional experience in their fields, in youth engagement, and in travel.

All leaders hold bachelor’s degrees or have significant professional and teaching experience, are certified in CPR and first aid, and are background checked yearly.

Leaders are recruited, interviewed, and hired by our collaborating partner, Putney Student Travel. Learn more about leadership requirements, the hiring process, or to apply to lead.


Featured Leaders

Our distinguished instructors are selected not only for their impressive academic credentials, but also for their enthusiasm, passion, and proven capability to connect with and inspire students. They are dedicated, warm, dynamic, experienced, and caring individuals who return year after year. Read on to meet some of our instructors!

Leader Ravi smiling outside

Jimena Montane Azpiri

University of Manchester, Central European University, Lund University, M.Sc., Environmental Science, Policy and Management
Universidad Veracruzana, B.Sc., Biology

Jimena has worked extensively with environmental education and conservation since her undergraduate studies. In grad school, she spent two years living and studying in different countries, including Hungary, Greece, UK, and South Africa. She conducted her dissertation research in rural communities neighboring Kruger National Park, studying firewood trade among rural communities; traveling around the country, enjoying its vast wildlife; and getting immersed in its complex conservation challenges. Jimena then spent a year working at the Ramsar Convention Secretariat in Switzerland, and four years working in ecotourism and experiential education projects throughout Mexico. Currently she designs and leads experiential and outdoor education expeditions, and collaborates on sustainable tourism projects with rural and Indigenous communities in Mexico. She’s an outdoor and conservation enthusiast, nature lover, fun seeker, and voracious traveler. She is fluent in Spanish and English, and proficient in French. She has led our middle school service program in the Dominican Republic and our high school programs in Costa Rica.

Outdoor portrait of leader Dan

Nico Newman 

Montana State University, M.Arch., Architecture
Montana State University, B.A., Environmental Design

While completing his undergrad in environmental design, Nico lived in Rome studying urban design and architectural history. He continued on to receive a Master of Architecture degree, focusing on the role of methodology and representation in design and its history. This work also informed his time as a graduate teaching assistant in design fundamentals and systems theory for first-year design students. Nico then spent several years living in New England, where he invested himself in learning building practices in carpentry, building science, and sustainability as a certified PHIUS Passive House Consultant, and developed prefab, universally accessible dwelling units. Now back out West, Nico has continued his practice with a focus on resilient and emergent architecture in the rural environment. He has led our New York & Denmark program. This fall, Nico will be engaged in designing a new dormitory at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park.

Portrait of leader Sammy outside

Lisa Hornak

University of California, Berkeley, M.A., Journalism and Documentary Filmmaking
Boston University, B.A., English Literature

While at Boston University, Lisa studied English literature and photojournalism and served as a teaching assistant for photojournalism courses. She spent a semester abroad at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, where she volunteered for the Kayamandi Project, tutoring underprivileged primary school students, and for Cheetah Outreach, educating visitors about cheetah conservation. Since 2004, she has worked as a visual journalist for newspapers, magazines, and wire services worldwide. She focuses her work on women’s issues, human rights, and the impacts of climate change. Her photos have won numerous prizes, including first-place honors for the New England Associated Press News Association and the Boston Press Photographers Association. Lisa’s photographs have been published in The New York Times, Washington Post, Time, and many other publications. In 2019, she received her Master of Journalism degree in documentary filmmaking from the University of California, Berkeley, where she produced an intimate and provocative 30-minute documentary about sex-trafficking and domestic abuse told through the eyes of one survivor. She also received a grant to produce a film titled “Losing Ground” about climate change in the Indian Sundarbans, which was published by The Atlantic. She founded Film Farm Productions in 2021 and is currently directing her first documentary feature film titled “Forty One” about the first female Marines to train at a military base in San Diego that had been all male for over 100 years. Lisa enjoys working with young people and has led our programs for over a decade in Costa Rica, Tanzania, Maine, Alaska, India, Czech Republic, Fiji, Bali, Scotland, the Canadian Arctic, New Zealand, Cambodia, Croatia, and Iceland. Lisa is also a certified yoga instructor and avid surfer and rock climber.

Leader Monika smiling in front of trees

David Rodriguez-Mora

The University of Texas at San Antonio, Ph.D., Environmental Anthropology (candidate)
North Carolina State University, M.S., Plant Biology
National University of Colombia, B.S., Biology
Naples University Frederick II, Erasmus Mundus, Biological and Natural Sciences

During his undergraduate studies, David researched the traditional uses of plants by rural and Indigenous communities in Colombia and Panama. His passion for conserving the biocultural heritage of his homeland led David to document over 300 traditionally used plant species in the Colombian Andes mountain range for his final thesis. This work is now published as an illustrated field guide. After graduation, David led the restoration of a 10-acre tropical coastal village in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro, Panama. He led a team of 10 employees, propagating over 10,000 plants to design a sustainable tropical paradise with edible and medicinal gardens and fruit forests. Currently, David leads other Indigenous gardens and food forests in Mexico, Panama, and the U.S., through various nonprofit organizations. David has traveled to 19 different countries and is fluent in English, Spanish, and Italian. As part of the Duke University Talent Identification Program (TIP), David has taught ethnobiology in the cloud forests of Costa Rica, leading expeditions to remote Indigenous villages, where his students have the opportunity to learn the medicinal plant uses from local healers. As part of his master’s research, David studied the diversity of the sacred medicinal and psychoactive liana Yajé (a.k.a. Ayahuasca) with the A’i (a.k.a. Cofán) Indigenous people of southwestern Colombia. For his doctoral work, he is expanding his research with the A’i. David has led programs in Costa Rica, exploration programs in Ecuador and Belize, a public health-focused program in Peru, and climate change and public health youth summits at Harvard.

Leader Ariana smiling in front of green trees

Laura Larsen-Strecker

University of Texas at Austin, M.Ed., Kinesiology
Harvard University, B.A., Earth and Planetary Science

After finishing her studies in earth and planetary sciences at Harvard, Laura spent three years rowing with the US National Team and won two World Championships (2008 US Under 23 W8+ in Brandenburg, Germany; 2009 W8+ in Poznan, Poland). More recently, she has had the opportunity to coach rowing for high school, college, and adult masters rowers. As an undergrad, Laura studied abroad in Turkey, Hawaii, Canada, and the Marquesas. She loves learning about how the natural world works and her undergraduate thesis focused on understanding erosion patterns in the Waimea Canyon in Hawaii. Since then, she has also traveled to Denmark (where her mother is from), England, France, Spain, Italy, Iceland, Sweden, Switzerland, Greece, and the Netherlands. Laura is proficient in French and Danish. Laura has led our Washington D.C. & Houston program.

Leader Chahni smiling in front of green trees

Patrick McLaughlin

Drexel University, Ph.D., Environmental Science
St. Lawrence University, B.S., Biology & Environmental Studies

Patrick is a conservation biologist with over 15 years of experience as a researcher, field biologist, and educator. As an undergraduate at St. Lawrence he received grants allowing him to pursue research in the Bahamas, where he studied recruitment in juvenile fish populations. As a senior, Patrick studied at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, focusing on conservation and development in East Africa. This experience would lead him back to Africa in 2009 as a PhD student in environmental science at Drexel University, studying amphibians and primates in Equatorial Guinea. Across his career he has worked as a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Vermont, a marine ecology instructor in the Florida Keys, a guide and naturalist in Yellowstone National Park, an environmental education program director for the Grand Teton Lodge Company, and as an expedition leader/professor for Drexel University’s Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program. After graduating from Drexel in 2015, Patrick worked as a field specialist on a project to reintroduce captive-born pandas into the wild with the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding in China, and most recently as a post-doc with the Bristol Zoological Society leading a camera-trap monitoring program focused on gorillas and chimpanzees in Equatorial Guinea. Patrick has led programs in Australia, Bar Harbor Maine, Yellowstone and Montana, New Zealand, Tanzania, Namibia, the Pacific Northwest, Belize, Bali, Alaska, and Costa Rica.

Leader Erinn smiling in front of greenery

Lauren Stanton

University of Colorado, B.A., Social Studies Education and Community Leadership

While at University of Colorado, Lauren studied Social Studies secondary education and sailed around the world on Semester at Sea. After university, she led gap year semester programs in India, East Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America for Carpe Diem Education and Youth International. She was the student affairs manager for the School for Field Studies in Bhutan and led several summers of backcountry wilderness expeditions for high school students. Lauren then returned to teaching ancient history at international schools in Egypt, Honduras, and Guatemala. After teaching in Cairo, Lauren moved to Dahab, Egypt, to earn her PADI divemaster certification on the Red Sea. She has studied Spanish and Egyptian Arabic and is a Wilderness First Responder. Lauren has led our program in Greece and Italy. This fall, she will be returning to Chicago Public Schools teaching World Cultures for the exploratory program.

Outdoor portrait of leader Drew

Harrison Daubitz 

Iowa State University, B.A., History, Political Science, Education

While at Iowa State, Harry traveled to Italy with the world-renowned Iowa State Singers. He sang through Rome, Venice, and Florence, as well as Austria and Germany, becoming fascinated with the culture and history that surrounded him. In 2018, Harry published historical writing on Cold War Soviet politics. In 2020 and 2021 he was nominated for History Teacher of the Year. Harry now serves as the Head of History and teaches middle school history in Madrid, Spain, helping to bring excitement for the past to the present. He also continues to travel, visiting Belgium, Portugal, Malta, and Morocco this year alone. Beside history and teaching, Harry loves to cook, run, and triathlon, and is training to run his first marathon. He has led our program in Greece & Italy. This fall, he will be returning to the United States to continue teaching and hopefully pursue a master’s degree in history.

Outdoor portrait of leader Drew

Giulia Ciampini

Ryerson University, M.F.A., Documentary Photography
D’Youville College, M.Sc., Adolescent Education
University of Toronto, B.Sc., Biological Sciences (Honors)

Giulia works as a professional photographer, educator, and expedition leader and has led photography and biology programs for high school and college students in Panama, Ecuador and Galápagos Islands, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Germany, France, Switzerland, Vancouver and Vancouver Island, Australia, Bali, Cambodia, and Vietnam. She is deeply passionate about outdoor experiential education, photographic arts, biological sciences, and adventure travel. She has snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef, led photography tours in the Amazon, camped in the Andes beside an active volcano, swam in the Arctic ocean, watched sunrise over Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and more. Giulia is an Ontario Certified Teacher (OCT); holds a Wilderness First Responder Certificate (WFR); recently completed a certificate in conservation photography; and is currently working on a yoga teacher certification. She has led our program in Greece & Italy. This fall, Giulia will be going on her ninth road trip across Canada with her husband and geriatric beagle, Meatball.

Outdoor portrait of leader Drew

Dimitri Staszewski

Loyola University New Orleans, B.S., Music Industry Studies

After graduating from Loyola University New Orleans with a degree focused on audio engineering, Dimitri received a Fulbright-mtvU Fellowship to research and record traditional music performed by nomadic herders throughout Mongolia. In early 2017 he returned to Mongolia to work as the cinematographer for a documentary about the catastrophic pollution problem in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city. Dimitri is currently based in Austin, Texas, where he balances his own personal projects with work as a freelance photographer. Dimitri is interested in long-term projects that use intimate and specific storytelling to shed light on relatable and global issues. Cultural preservation is often at the core of his work and bookmaking has become essential to his practice. He aims to educate audiences through his work, which for him means making his work accessible to a broad range of viewers. Dimitri is fluent in Spanish and conversational in Mongolian. In addition to his pursuits as a photographer, Dimitri has wrangled horses in rural Colorado, worked as a bench jeweler in New Orleans, and enjoys finding time to explore and connect with the natural world. He has led student travel programs in Italy, Greece, Spain, Ecuador, and Yellowstone National Park.

Outdoor portrait of leader Drew

Michael Koutelos

Middlebury College, B.A., Italian

While at Middlebury, Michael studied Italian language and culture intensively. He studied in Ferrara, Italy, with the Middlebury C.V. Starr Schools Abroad program; during this time, he also worked at a Ferrara theater and performance space and as an English tutor to Italian children in Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy. He supplemented his Italian studies at the Middlebury Italian Language School. For his honors senior work, he researched queer, postmodern Italian literature and translated Pier Vittorio Tondelli’s short story, “Altri libertini,” into English. After graduating, Michael appeared in several musical theatre productions in the Hudson Valley, New York area, including a run as Monty in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. He also continued his volunteer translation work with @ferrara.says on Instagram, which presents the dialect of Ferrara using informal, humorous dictionary entries. When not acting or translating, Michael loves to cook and travel—he has traveled to France, Denmark, the Netherlands, England, Greece, and Turkey, in addition to Italy. This fall, Michael hopes to find work in nonfiction food publishing, go to graduate school for Translation and Interpretation, or debut on Broadway… whichever comes first!

Outdoor portrait of leader Drew

Holden Axtell 

Arizona State University, B.A., Sports Business, Business Law, Business Sustainability

While At Arizona State University, Holden focused on blending sustainability into the sports industry and now seeks to leverage the power of the industry to drive change for important social and environmental causes. Holden is an avid traveler, committed to broadening cultural awareness and gaining new perspectives and ideas on how to combat climate change and other critical sustainability issues. This fall, Holden will return to Arizona State to pursue a master’s degree in sports law and business with the goal of becoming a Chief Sustainability Officer for a professional sports franchise. Outside of sports, sustainability, and traveling, Holden enjoys playing guitar, trying new hobbies, and stepping outside his comfort zone with new experiences. Holden has led our program in Iceland.

Next Steps

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