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Get to Know the 2019 SciSpark Speakers

Find out more about the 2019 SciSpark speakers including their backgrounds, bios, what inspires them and more!


Silvia BalboSilvia Balbo

Assistant Professor, School of Public Health, Division of Environmental Health Science, Masonic Cancer Center

Dr. Balbo’s work focuses on studying mechanisms of chemical carcinogenesis deriving from environmental and life-style related exposures. She is developing high resolution mass spectrometry based methods for exposure assessment and for the identification and quantitation of DNA addition products (DNA adducts). Dr Balbo is developing innovative analytical methods to investigate the interactions of the exposome with DNA in various animal and human specimens. The overall goal of her work is to develop biomarkers for the detection of specific DNA adducts which may give information about the mutagenic significance of the exposure and provide tools for a better understanding of mechanisms of carcinogenesis, for measuring biological effective doses, for quantifying effects of exposures in risk assessment and for identifying cancer risk susceptibility.

What was your first discovery?
My first discovery was that "it was Miss Scarlet, with the Candlestick in the Ball Room." Playing Clue made me fall in love with the process of having an hypothesis and doing experiments to test it. That kind of investigative work appealed to me as nothing before, and I figured later on that I could use that to do cancer research.

Watch Silvia's lightening talk here!


Erin CarlsonDr. Erin Carlson

Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry 

Why do you study what you study?
I study bacteria because they can be both good and bad things for our health and the environment. Bacterial infection is a major cause of death worldwide and I am passionate about using the power of nature, specifically other microbes, to fight back against these deadly diseases. Especially in developing nations, there are very few resources to discover new drugs and it is up to countries that do have resources for science, like the United States, to fight this very important battle for everyone.

Watch Erin's lightening talk here!


Atena HaghighattalabDr. Atena Haghighattalab

Plant Phenomics Lead, University of Minnesota

A native of Iran, Atena is an active yogi and an avid theatergoer. She enjoys hiking and traveling. Administratively, Atena is a member of the SBC team and will work very closely with University faculties and leaders, and industry partners. As the CFANS Phenomics Lead, Atena conducts a comprehensive assessment of the needs of plant scientists, emerging engineering technologies, and relevant informatics capacity at UMN; develops a model for delivery of phenomics resources through a core facility; creates opportunities for public-private partnerships in the phenomics space.

Who inspires you? 
As a woman in engineering and science I have faced many prejudicial obstacles. These obstacles were preceded by many more stemming from coming of age as an ethnic and religious minority, and female in Iran. Stanford mathematics Professor Maryam Mirzakhani, the first and to-date only female winner of the Fields Medal since its inception in 1936, died Friday, July 14, after a long battle with cancer. Mirzakhani was 40 years old. “Maryam is gone far too soon, but her impact will live on for the thousands of women she inspired to pursue math and science,” said Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne. “Maryam was a brilliant mathematical theorist, and also a humble person who accepted honors only with the hope that it might encourage others to follow her path. Her contributions as both a scholar and a role model are significant and enduring, and she will be dearly missed here at Stanford and around the world.”

Watch Atena's lightening talk here!


Holly MenningerDr. Holly Menninger

Director of Public Engagement & Science Learning, Bell Museum

An entomologist by training, Dr. Holly Menninger is a science communicator by passion and practice. She has worked at the intersection of science and society – in policy, natural resource management, and public engagement in science. She is currently the director of public engagement and science learning at the Bell Museum, leading the state's natural museum's interpretive efforts including K-12 education and public programs, exhibits and the planetarium. Menninger earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Denison University and her Ph.D. in behavior, ecology, evolution and systematics from the University of Maryland. 

Who inspires you? 
SO MANY PEOPLE! Take a look at #WomeninScience hashtag on twitter and you'll meet an outstanding crew of scientists across multiple generations who are doing important, cutting edge research but also making a point to share that science and engage public audiences in their work EVERY DAY.

As a high school student working at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History (now Cincinnati Museum Center), I was inspired by the Museum's bat biologist, Dr. Jackie Belwood -- she was the first person I ever met with a PhD and I was floored by learning that she got paid to go spelunking in caves and study bats. How cool was that?!

My dissertation advisor, Dr. Margaret Palmer, was a wonderful mentor and role model -- she led a big lab, did important research on stream ecosystems and their restoration, and made it a priority to connect natural resource managers and policy makers to the outcomes of her work. She juggled lots of balls --  her science, students, service to professional societies, policy and advocacy work, her family -- with strength and grace.

Watch Holly's lightening talk here!


Laurie ParkerDr. Laurie Parker

Associate Professor, Director of Graduate Studies, BMBB Graduate Program, Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics

Watch Laurie's lightening talk here!






Christine SalomonDr. Christine Salomon

Associate Professor, Center for Drug Design

Christine Salomon received her BSc. in marine biology from Long Island University and PhD from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD.  After completing a postdoctoral fellowship in microbiology at the University of Minnesota, she started her research program at the Center for Drug Design at UMN. Her lab is focused on the discovery and characterization of new natural products to treat microbial disease in humans, animals and in agriculture.  One major area of focus is the discovery of potential biocontrol microbes from subterranean environments to develop treatments for white nose syndrome (WNS) in bats. 

Why do you study what you study?
I love applied science. Nature is an amazing chemist, and I study fascinating, complex compounds made by living organisms. I then apply these discoveries towards real world problems, like treating infectious disease in bats, or humans, or plants. I also really enjoy field work, and appreciate projects that start with a microbe collected from a rock deep underground and go all the way to studying the molecular structure and mechanism of a new antibiotic.  

Watch Christine's lightening talk here!


Cara SantellDr. Cara Santelli

Assistant Professor, Earth Sciences, College of Science and Engineering, MnDRIVE Environment

Cara Santelli is an assistant professor of geomicrobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences and the BioTechnology Institute at the University of Minnesota.  Prior to arriving at UMN, she was a research geologist and curator of the exquisite minerals and gems collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, which is where she cultivated a passion for communicating science.  Cara's research examines how the biological world shapes our planet and our environment.  Her interest in the earth sciences started at a young age, where she would spend summers swimming in the pristine lakes of northern Minnesota and collecting as many rocks as possible on family trips to the north shore of Lake Superior.

Who inspires you? 
I recognized as an undergraduate student working in a university research lab that I needed to surround myself by female peers and mentors that could help guide and motivate me to succeed as a  woman in science.   I'm fortunate to have an incredible squad of women, from students to grad school friends to direct mentors and collaborators that inspire me every day - I learn from them, learn with them, and continue to grow as scientist and person.  My single most influential person has been my mom - she has taught me the most about perseverance,  resilience, how to lead a team, and how to be a successful working mom.

Watch Cara's lightening talk here!


Elena WestDr. Elena West

Postdoctoral Researcher, Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology

Dr. Elena West is an avian ecologist and conservation biologist with broad research and teaching interests in animal foraging and movement behavior, and quantitative wildlife population ecology. Dr. West completed her M.S. in Natural Resource Ecology and Management at the University of Michigan where she also received a graduate certificate in GIS and Spatial Analysis. She completed her PhD in Zoology at the University of Wisconsin- Madison where she examined the influence of anthropogenic food subsidies on the behavior and ecology of Steller’s jays in California state parks. Dr. West began work with the Red-headed Woodpecker Recovery Project (Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis) in 2017 and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota where she is examining the annual cycle demography, habitat associations, and migration ecology of red-headed woodpeckers. Dr. West is a graduate of South High School in Minneapolis and is thrilled to be a part of research and citizen science in her home state.

What was your first discovery?
My love of donuts started at an early age when I started experimenting with different baking ingredients. I “discovered” very quickly that pickle juice doesn’t create the best donut! The science of baking was a great launching pad for my interest in research.

Watch Elena's lightening talk here!


Marlene ZukDr. Marlene Zuk

Professor, Associate Dean for Faculty, Ecology, Evolution and Behavior

Dr. Marlene Zuk is a biologist and writer who researches animal behavior and evolution, mostly using insects as subjects. Zuk is interested in the ways that people use animal behavior to think about human behavior, and vice versa, as well as in the public's understanding of evolution. She is a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior in the College of Biological Sciences, and has written several books, most recently Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live.

Watch Marlene's lightening talk here!



Valery ForbesDr. Valery Forbes

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.


Sehoya CotnerDr. Sehoya Cotner

Associate Professor, Biology Teaching and Learning

Originally from North Carolina, Sehoya earned her PhD in Conservation Biology at the U of Minnesota. After a few years teaching at Penn State, she returned to UMN and formed part of the original team in the new Department of Biology Teaching and Learning. Sehoya is particularly interested in studying and applying evidence-based teaching in the service of STEM equity--lowering barriers to full participation in STEM for women, underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in the sciences, and first-generation college students, among others.

What was your first discovery?
The most salient discoveries are personal. I learned about the greenhouse effect when a much-beloved pet boll weevil (this was the South, after all) cooked to death in its Mason-jar terrarium during a family car trip to Charleston, SC. These days, some of my work on gender and inclusion helps me to better understand what I experienced as a PhD student, and one of the only female herpetologists studying frogs and snakes in the Amazon.


Erin TreiberDr. Erin Treiber

Post-Doctoral Associate, CFANS Entomology