Local Organizers

Zechariah Pfaffenberger (Chair)

Zechariah Pfaffenberger is a graduate student at the University of Michigan studying physical chemistry in the lab of Dr. Julie Biteen. He grew up in Indiana near South Bend and attended Indiana Wesleyan University, graduating with his Bachelors in Chemistry in 2018. His current research interests are single-molecule microscopy and spectroscopy, which means he spends his days shooting bacteria with lasers! From his liberal arts background, Zechariah gained a deep appreciation for the intersection of philosophy and science. His sci comm endeavors include writing the U of M chemistry website, the MiSciWriters blog, and science outreach and local middle and high schools. While not in his lab, he enjoys reading, podcasts, running, and consuming Oreos. You can find him on twitter.




Jeremy Rapp (co-chair) 

Jeremy is a 4th year MS student in the MSU Hydrogeology Lab within the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Michigan State University. His work focuses on exploring the nexus of food, water, and energy over the lower 48 United States and how it is impacted by the development or changes in irrigated agricultural land. This work has resulted in the generation of many visual data products that have been derived from various satellite and numerical inputs. Jeremy found a passion in communicating the importance of these products in ways that are understandable for diverse audiences, which largely has fueled his continued involvement in science communication and specifically in ComSciCon-MI. 




Azam Ali Sher

Azam Ali Sher is a dual major Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Medicine and Integrative Biology (CMIB) & Environmental Sciences and Integrative Toxicology (EITS) at Michigan State University. By profession, he is a veterinarian and infectious diseases epidemiologist. His Ph.D. research focuses on studying the emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance among commensal and multi-drug resistant bacteria in the human gut microbiome. Besides his Ph.D. commitments, Azam is regularly dedicating time to educate the public and students from cross-disciplinary backgrounds about science and public health, particularly emerging infectious diseases, through videos, invited talks, and blogs. Recently, he organized an eight-weeks virtual training program for undergrad students of Pakistan, “Student Leaders in Public Health,” by engaging US graduate students with the collaboration of US Mission to Pakistan and Kher-Kun organization (founded by Azam in 2019). In his free time, Azam loves to play cricket, badminton, watch movies, and travel worldwide-aiming to finish check-in on all seven continents soon. 



Ellie Darling

Elisabeth “Ellie” Darling is a PhD student in the Applied Nematology laboratory, within the Department of Entomology at Michigan State University. She works with plant-parasitic nematodes of carrot, wheat, and hop. Plant-parasitic nematodes are tiny organisms that live in the soil and consume plant cells. Ellie hopes that her involvement in scientific communication and outreach will expand the public’s knowledge of the many important aspects of nematology research. She is an administrator for a worldwide slack network called Active Plant Nematologists, which seeks to connect nematology graduate students worldwide and advocate for multinational collaboration in the field. She enjoys writing and creating nematode-themed art, and can usually be found working on her small sticker business that is centered around nematodes and insects. In her free time, Ellie enjoys going on adventures with her two beagles, painting, road-tripping around the country and beyond. 



Marina David

Marina is a physics doctoral student and NSF Graduate Research Fellow in the high energy theory group at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on studying aspects of quantum gravity via holography, specifically the AdS/CFT correspondence, and is particularly interested in black hole physics. She is passionate about science communication and has delved into multiple forms of communication as a graduate student. This includes being part of the science communication organization RELATE, teaching workshops throughout the University of Michigan and beyond. She is also one of the authors of ParticleBites, explaining cutting edge research in particle physics to undergraduates who are interested in pursuing the field. Other writing oriented science communication includes MiSciWriters and Massive Science. She also regularly participates in outreach via the University of Michigan's Science Communication Fellowship program and finds ways to reach a younger audience via the Skype-a-Scientist Program and Adopt-a-Physicist. She is deeply passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in STEM and is pursuing the Rackham Professional Development DEI Certificate with her efforts geared towards building a more inclusive climate in STEM



Monika Franco

Monika is a 4th year PhD Candidate in the Program on Biology (PCB) at University of Michigan. Her thesis work focuses on the consequences of uridine mRNA modifications on translation. She is also part of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Certificate program, where she learns about the intersect of science tech and public policy. Monika also participates in student organizations such as ESPA (Engaging Scientists in Policy and Advocacy) and is part of the PCB  Operating Committee. She is passionate about science communication and policy.  Her dream job would enable her to work with people from different backgrounds and work together to form better policy around health/biotechnology. She would also love to be active in communicating science to the general public, and breaking down the stigma that science is only for “experts.” In her spare time, she loves hiking, binging TV shows, and learning Japanese. 



Brenna Friday

Brenna is a 2nd year PhD student in the Kashian Ecotoxicology Lab in the Department of Biological Sciences at Wayne State University. Brenna graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019 with a bachelor’s of science in Ecology and Evolution and a determination to help conserve vulnerable amphibian populations across the U.S. Since then, she has woven her interests in herpetology, toxicology, and genomics into her dissertation designed to examine the toxic effects of harmful algal blooms on amphibian species in inland lakes and ponds across Michigan. Additionally, Brenna has enjoyed applied her knowledge through the lens of community building through the Transformative Research in Urban Sustainability Training (T-RUST) program at WSU. Here she is working with an interdisciplinary group of graduate students to develop a vulnerability assessment that will uncover the impacts of climate change on Detroit’s local food system in the coming decades. All of her projects have been strengthened immensely through collaboration with government and community science organizations like the Michigan Office of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy and Friends of the Rouge. One day Brenna hopes to repay the favor through a position in government research focused broadly on the intersection of public and ecosystem health. These partnerships have taught Brenna so much about the importance of science communication and she hopes to share and learn alongside more students and mentors through ComSciCon-MI in 2021.



Elana Goldenkoff

Elana is a 2nd year PhD student in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Michigan. She uses transcranial magnetic stimulation (a strong magnet that is held next to the brain) that can non-invasively excite neurons to study connections between brain regions. Specifically, she uses this technique to explore how the motor network controls reach-and-grasp movements. She is also getting a certificate from the Ford School in Science, Technology, and Public Policy. She enjoys learning about the relationship between science and the government and wants to support policymakers as they make science-related legislative decisions. Outside of school, Elana enjoys ballroom dancing and exploring her new home state, Michigan.





Prashant Hariharan  

 Prashant Hariharan is a 3rd year PhD candidate in Biomedical Engineering at Wayne State University. For his dissertation research Prashant tries to understand the process of fluid production in the brain by creating microscopic working dioramas using a technique called “organ-on-a-chip”. He is dedicated to making science accessible and familiar, allowing people of diverse backgrounds to participate in research. Attending the AIMBE Policy Institute in 2019 motivated Prashant to explore the real world implications of science outside the sterile lab environment. He is deeply passionate about the shared duty of the scientific community to inform and engage the public in discussions of current affairs with scientific perspectives. Outside the lab, Prashant enjoys biking, cooking and playing the guitar. You can follow him on Twitter.



Sara Hugentobler 

Sara is a 4th year PhD student in the Integrative Biology program, pursuing a dual degree in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior and a specialization in Environmental Science and Public Policy at MSU. She is a member of the Meek Lab, looking at how anthropogenic change affects genetic diversity in Chinook Salmon. Before she started her PhD, she worked in all manner of science jobs, including work as lab technician at Myriad Genetics, a School Outreach Educator with the Living Planet Aquarium, and an academic advisor at Utah Valley University. She got her MA in Marine Conservation and Policy at Stony Brook University in New York. Sara occasionally tweets her scientific thoughts and hopes to use her science communication skills to one day affect national fishing policy.


Joseph Mastron

Joseph is a 3rd year Postdoctoral Research Fellow at UM, joint between the Kubarych Group in LSA Chemistry and the Ogilvie Group in LSA Physics. Joseph uses Infrared, Visible, and Ultraviolet laser pulses between 25 and 100 millionths of a billionth of a second long to put together a molecular movie of how chemical structures change in time and how they relax in energy. Some of his projects include studying inorganic catalysts that react carbon dioxide into renewable fuels, and studying polaritonic systems, where light can be used to tune a chemical reaction. Joseph graduated from USC and got his PhD at the University of Chicago, and is also a co-president of the UM Postdoctoral Association. You can find Joseph on twitter @OhYeahLasers and on linkedin.





Ti’Air Riggins


Ti’Air is a current Biomedical Engineering PhD candidate at Michigan State University. She received her bachelors in BiomedicalTRiggins Headshot Engineering from The Ohio State University in 2011 as the first black undergraduate BME student, and proceeded to earn a master’s from the University of Cincinnati in 2013. Beginning her PhD at Purdue, she transferred to Michigan State in January 2019. Her research focus is integrating tissue engineering with implantable electrodes to tune immune response in the brain, in the REIL lab under the direction of Dr. Erin Purcell. She is a co-founder for Black In Neuro, the Academia Chair for the Health Innovations special interest group of the National Society of Black Engineers,  and is in the speaker’s bureau for the Rape And Incest National Network. She has also served in the community under her platforms of sexual assault awareness and exposing underrepresented students to STEM as Miss Indiana United States 2015 and has received awards for her Social Justice in 2016 and Humanitarianism in 2018. She was named a fellow in the Society for Neuroscience from 2016 – 2018 and is also a NIH F99/K00 fellowship awardee. Her future goals include managing her own lab and being a successful entrepreneur and mentor for students who are underrepresented students in neuroscience and engineering. You can follow her on Twitter and connect on Linkedin.




Ilka Rodriguez-Calero

Ilka is an engineer, researcher, and Ph.D. candidate in Design Science at the University of Michigan. Her studies focus on engineering design processes and behavioral, social, and cognitive sciences. Ilka's work explores design practitioners' prototyping approaches to engage stakeholders during the early phases of design processes. You can find Ilka on Twitter and LinkedIn.




Lirong Shi

Lirong Shi is a graduate student in Chemistry at University of Michigan. She is pursuing a PhD degree and a graduate certificate in Science, Technology and Public Policy (STPP). Besides lab work, Lirong has a variety of research interests especially in science communication and diplomacy. She participated in many sci-comm related events hosted by organizations such as U-M Museum of Natural History, Engaging Scientists in Policy and Advocacy, Union of Concerned Scientists, National Science Policy Network, etc. In her free time, Lirong likes listening to music, playing the piano, reading, travelling and running around with her dog!






Gary Wilkins 

Gary Wilkins is a Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon University studying computational biology in the lab of Dr. Robert F. Murphy. A proud Southern Tar Heel, he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating with a Bachelors of Mathematics in 2010. Interests are widely varied, but include math, of course, physics, machine learning, neuroscience, and bourbon. A typical day is spent building models of protein-protein interactions and programming robots to run experiments. Having witnessed a growing disregard and contempt for scientific knowledge and expertise, Gary has re-committed himself to clearer communication amenable to public digestion. In addition to his efforts within ComSciCon, he’s also a Graduate Teaching Fellow with Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation. You can find him on Twitter or on his personal website.



Tony Zhang

Tony Zhang is currently pursuing a Ph.D. degree with the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He received the M.S. degree in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Michigan in 2019. His research interests include machine learning, computer vision, air quality, and data science. Outside of research, he currently is part of the student ambassador program for the Electrical and Computer Engineering department, where he helps with student panels, information sessions, and other events within the department. Also, he is the vice president of the Computer Science and Engineering Graduate (CSEG) student organization. In his spare time, Tony likes to play card games and board games, play tennis, and browse content about personal development.