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Get to Know the 2018 SciSpark Speakers

Find out more about the 2018 SciSpark speakers including their backgrounds, bios, what inspires them and more!

  • Denise Young

    Role: Executive Director Bell Museum

    Denise Young is the Executive Director of the Bell Museum. She holds degrees in Early Childhood Education, Educational Leadership, and Curriculum and Instruction, all from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Prior to her current role, she was the director of education and planning at UNC's Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, where she did things like produce planetarium shows, create exhibits, and start science festivals – all with the participation of university researchers and students. As the Bell Museum's executive director, she is continuing her career of bringing attention and excitement to the role science plays in all of our lives.

    Why do you study what you study?
    I am intrigued by some recent research by my colleagues that suggests that even short interactions between scientists and the general public increase awareness of science, interest in science and science careers, science learning, and motivation to do science. These outcomes motivate me to facilitate as many scientist-public interactions as possible through the Bell Museum!

  • Caitlin Barale Potter

    Role: Education and Outreach Coordinator Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve

    Caitlin Barale Potter is the education and community engagement coordinator at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. Her background is in wildlife ecology, and she holds a B.S. in Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology from the University of California, Davis as well as a masters and Ph.D in ecology and evolutionary biology from Princeton University. She studied wildlife and animal behavior all over the world (mostly gelada monkeys in Ethiopia) before finding her true passion doing environmental education! Now, she runs school field trips and public events at Cedar Creek, works with scientists to get their results into the hands of students, and organizes a variety of onsite and virtual citizen science projects.

    Who inspires you?

    I've been lucky to work with female scientists and mentors at every stage of my career. Jane Goodall was one of my early inspirations as a middle-schooler working at the Oakland Zoo and participating in Roots and Shoots and JGI Youth Leadership Council groups. In graduate school, I was mentored by Jeanne Altmann and Jacinta Beehner, two trailblazing and inspiring behavior ecologists. In my current job, I am inspired by the many female scientists affiliated with Cedar Creek: from established researchers like Sarah Hobbie to up-and-coming scientists like Elena West all the way to the grad-school scientists I work work through programs like SciGirls, GeraniuMania and our high school and undergrad summer research programs.

  • Trinity Hamilton

    Role: Assistant Professor, Plant and Microbial Biology

  • Sehoya Cotner

    Role: Associate Professor, Biology Teaching and Learning

  • Heather Zierhut

    Role: Assistant Professor, Genetics, Cell Biology and Development Associate Director, Genetic Counseling Graduate Program

    Dr. Heather Zierhut is the associate director of the graduate program of study in genetic counseling. Her research focuses on the education and clinical preparation of genetic counseling professionals as well as the psychosocial and public health implications involved in the provision of genetic counseling. Heather is an active member in the National Society of Genetic Counseling and has been recognized by her peers as a recipient of the New Leader Award in 2009, Outstanding Volunteer in 2014, and Strategic Leader in 2017. When she’s not researching, you will find her at the Guthrie, walking the lakes, or hoping on a plan to experience a new destination.

    What was your first discovery?
    My first “discoveries” came in my undergraduate biology labs and research at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. The instructors were instrumental in sparking my interest in science especially Dr. Galbraith who introduced me to genetics.  My first significant discovery came from research at a local clinic. I examined 100s of newborn medical records looking for referrals to specific medical procedures for babies with hearing loss.  I identified that many of the children were not receiving proper referrals. This discovery led to an educational effort to get more pediatricians referring these newborns for additional services.

    Who inspires you?
    The field of genetic counseling was built by female leaders and it arose out of the women’s rights movement. I have a profound respect for individuals like Audrey Heimler, the first president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors, who faced what seemed like insurmountable obstacles and broke down barriers to pave the path for myself and the current generation of genetic counselors. My mentor, Bonnie LeRoy, is also a pioneer in the field and has given me endless amounts of insight. My hope is to do the same for my students and the next generation of our profession.

  • Carrie Wilmot

    Role: Professor, Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics

  • Sujaya Rao

    Role: Professor and Department Head, Entomology

    Sujaya Rao, an alumnus, returned to the University of Minnesota last fall as Professor and Department Head for Entomology. Over her professional career, she has engaged in basic and applied research related to native bees and invasive pests associated with agricultural crop production, and has integrated her research into university and K-12 educational programs. In her prior role as Director for Undergraduate Research at Oregon State University, she developed programs for enhancing access to research opportunities to students across campus. She studies insects because she finds their diversity, biology, and behaviors fascinating and intriguing - she thinks bugs are cool!

  • Mary Rogers

    Role: Assistant Professor, Horticultural Science

    Dr. Mary Rogers is an Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Horticultural Science at the UMN. Her PhD is in Plants, Soils, and Insects with a specialization in integrated pest management. Her research program investigates plant‐insect interactions and biological and environmental strategies to improve the production of organic vegetables and fruit in the upper Midwest. As a community-engaged Scholar, Rogers works closely with growers and community partners throughout her research and teaching program. She teaches undergraduate courses in Plant Sciences and Food Systems majors. Mary is a first generation college graduate.

    Why do you study what you study? Growing up, I spend many hours working at my grandparent's hobby farm in South Dakota. They grew a variety of fruits and vegetables for themselves and to market. As an undergrad, I took an entomology class and worked for a summer in the Dept. of Entomology, where I fell in love with insects. As a scientist, I work at the intersection of horticultural science and entomology. I enjoy observing nature and I get most excited when I observe something new in the environment that stimulates questions and research directions.

  • Valery Forbes, Ph.D.

    Role: Professor, Ecology, Evolution and Behavior Dean, College of Biological Sciences

    Valery Forbes is Dean of the College of Biological Sciences at University of Minnesota.  Previously, she served as Director of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and spent more than two decades at Roskilde University in Denmark where she was founding Head of the Department of Environmental, Social and Spatial Change. Forbes’ research extends across quantitative ecology and environmental management with particular focus on population ecology and modeling, fate and effects of toxic chemicals in aquatic systems, and ecological risk assessment. She received a doctorate in coastal oceanography and a master's degree in marine environmental science from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She serves on the editorial boards of several international journals and provides advice to a wide range of government and industry bodies.

    Who inspires you?
    All of the many determined women scientists and professionals who came before me. Thanks to them, I had things pretty easy.

    Why do you study what you study?
    Because I believe that (environmental) policy decisions that are informed by good science will be better decisions.

  • Danielle Drabek

    Role: Ph.D. Candidate, Ecology, Evolution and Behavior

    What was your first discovery?
    My first discovery was that elemental sodium explodes when exposed to water--- an exciting, slightly destructive, but absolutely captivating introduction to science. I was probably 10 years old, and I was hooked!

    Who inspires you?
    I have had so many mentors and inspirational role models to attribute my pursuit of science that it’s hard to pick one person. Folks that mentored me at Tulane and here have made a huge difference in my career trajectory. Right now though, when I look at who inspires me, it’s the next generation. Some of my own colleagues and the students that are coming after them, they are picking up the torch and running with it, they are saying--- it’s not good enough, we need more. That inspires me.

    Why do you study what you study?
    I think this comes down to simply being a curious person. I like to think about scientific questions and see if I can be creative in finding a way to answer them.

April, 2018