Panels and Speakers

Keynote Speaker

Jorge Cham

Jorge is the creator of "PHD Comics", the ongoing comic strip about life (or the lack thereof) in Academia. He is also the co-founder of PHDtv, a video science and discovery outreach collaborative, and a founding board member of Endeavor College Prep, a non-profit school for kids in East L.A. He earned his Ph.D. in Robotics from Stanford University and was an Instructor and Research Associate at Caltech from 2003-2005. He is originally from Panama.




Panel 1: Science Improv

Zach Ward

Chief Optimist, YesAndLife (

Chief Optimist and founder of YesAndLife, owner and Artistic Director of DSI Comedy Theater, founder and Executive Producer of the NC Comedy Arts Festival, Zach Ward has been performing and directing comedy professionally for more than 20 years. Zach spends the majority of his day speaking and consulting on the use of applied improvisation for organizational development and communication, delivering improv-inspired programs internationally for clients including TEDx, Procter & Gamble, Comcast, Motorola, Biogen, Scynexis, Cisco, Old Navy, and the YMCA. He has been contracted as adjunct faculty at UNC Chapel Hill since 2008 and has recently started teaching improvisation as part of a 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training program. Zach practices “Yes, And” with his clients, his employees, and with his 4 year-old son, every day.

Panel 2: Science Policy and Communicating Science to Skeptical Audiences

Dr. John Hardin

Executive Director, Office of Science, Technology & Innovation (OSTI), NC Department of Commerce

John Hardin is the Executive Director Office of Science, Technology & Innovation in the North Carolina Department of Commerce. The Office advises and makes recommendations to the North Carolina Governor, General Assembly, Secretary of Commerce, and the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina on the role of science, technology and innovation in the economic growth and development of the state. From 1998 to 2005, he held an adjunct assistant professor position in the Department of Political Science at UNC-Chapel Hill; since 2005, he has held a lecturer position in the Department of Public Policy at UNC-Chapel Hill. A native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Hardin holds the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in political science from UNC-Chapel Hill, a B.A. in economics from Baylor University, and a certificate of completion for the Leadership Decision Making program, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.


Dr. Madhusudan Katti

Associate Professor, Department of Forestry and Environmental Science, NCSU

Dr. Katti is an Associate Professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Science and the Chancellor's Faculty Excellence Program for Leadership in Public Science at North Carolina State University. He is an evolutionary ecologist who discovered birds as an undergrad after growing up a nature-oblivious urban kid near Bombay, went chasing after vanishing wildernesses in the Himalaya and Western Ghats as a grad student, and returned to study cities grown up as a reconciliation ecologist. He studies animals and plants in cities with the goal of applying our understanding towards reconciling biodiversity conservation with human development. He writes for the Social Evolution Forum, The Nature of Cities, Network, and other outlets. He founded the Central Valley Café Scientifique and host an affiliated radio show, "Science: A Candle In The Dark" which airs on the 4th Tue of each month at 3:30PM (Pacific Time), and is also available as a podcast.

Dr. Jamie Vernon

DIrector of Science Communications and Publications, Editor-in-chief of American Scientist, Sigma Xi

Dr. Jamie L. Vernon is director of science communications and publications and editor-in-chief of American Scientist at Sigma Xi. Jamie came to Sigma Xi in 2014 after serving as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellow and an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Fellow at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), where he developed strategies to measure and communicate the economic impacts of the department’s investments in research and development of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. From 2012-2013, he was co-chair of digital media for the interagency climate communications working group within the White House’s U.S. Global Change Research Program. He earned a B.S. in zoology at North Carolina State University, M.S. in biotechnology at East Carolina University, and Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology at The University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. Richard Watkins

Program Coordinator, Chancellor's Science Scholars Program, UNC-CH

Richard earned his PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) in Microbiology and Immunology with a speciality in Virology. Richard's research focused on the factors that influence disease progression in HIV infected patients. Prior to attending UNC-CH, Richard earned a bachelor degree in science in Psychology with a minor in Sociology from Fayetteville State University, making him an extremely well rounded and dynamic scientist.  With a deep passion for service, Richard has extensive experience bridging the gap between the scientific enterprise and stake holders.

Richard is a member of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor and serves on the society's Board of Directors and is the President of UNC-CH Chapter of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honors Society.  Richard is also the founder and CEO of the North Carolina Public non-profit, The Science Policy Action Network, Inc.

Panel 3: Breakout Career Panels

A. Communicating Science as an Academic

Karl Leif Bates

Director of Research Communications, Duke University

Karl writes, produces and edits research news from all units of Duke in the Office of News and Communications. His work includes media relations, multimedia production, magazine stories, and online news from the Nicholas School of the Environment, the Pratt School of Engineering, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Duke Health and the School of Medicine.

He has been a science and medical journalist for 25 years, first as a newspaper reporter, now as a public information officer for a university that spends more than $1 billion on research each year.

Karl has won the AAAS science journalism award and serves on advisory boards for the EurekAlert! news service and UNC’s Science and Medical Journalism Program.

Dr. Caren Cooper

Associate Professor, NCSU Chancellor's Faculty Excellence Program in Leadership in Public Science

Caren Cooper, PhD, is an Associate Professor in Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University in the Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program in Leadership in Public Science, jointly appointed as Assistant Head of the Biodiversity Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

She is author of Citizen Science: How Ordinary People Are Changing the Face of Discovery (The Overlook Press, Dec 2016). Cooper is a blogger with SciStarter, syndicated to Discover Magazine (Citizen Science Salon) and the PLOS Blogging Network (Citizen Sci), and guest blogger at Scientific American. Cooper is founder and moderator of #CitSciChat, a Twitter discussion about citizen science, and @IamCitSci, an account with weekly rotating hosts. She can be followed on Twitter @CoopSciScoop. Cooper is an advisor for the Crowd & the Cloud, a public television mini-series about citizen science to air in early 2017.

Dr. Greg Gbur

Professor of Physics and Optical Science, UNC-Charlotte

Greg Gbur is a professor of physics and optical science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He writes the long-running blog ‘Skulls in the Stars’, which discusses classic horror fiction, physics and the history of science, as well as the curious intersections between the three topics. His science writing has been featured in ‘The Best Science Writing Online 2012,’ published by Scientific American, and recently wrote a chapter for Science Blogging: The Essential Guide, on "Blogging on the Tenure Track," published in 2016 by Yale University Press.



Dr. Marsha Penner

Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Research, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, UNC-Chapel Hill

Dr. Marsha Penner is a Lecturer and the Director of Undergraduate Research in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. She graduated from the University of Winnipeg in 1998 with an honors B.A. in Psychology, earned an M.Sc. in Pharmacology and Neuroscience from Dalhousie University in 2001, and then completed her Ph.D. in Neuroscience at the University of Arizona in 2008.

Dr. Penner serves as the faculty advisor for the Carolina Neuroscience Club and the UNC student reviewers for IMPULSE. She also directs Neural Connections, a group of talented undergraduate students who are committed to making neuroscience accessible to everyone through their outreach efforts in the community.

Dr. Penner is committed to using evidence-based teaching strategies in her classes, and has a scholarly interest in the science of learning and scholarship.

B. Communicating Science as a Non-Academic


Dr. Gretchen Chidester

Senior Medical Writer, MedThink SciCom

Gretchen earned her BS in Neuroscience from the University of Michigan and her MA and PhD in Psychology (Behavioral Neuroscience) from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Following her doctorate, Gretchen completed her postdoctoral training at the Duke University Medical Center in the Laboratory of Psychiatric Neuroengineering. As a senior medical writer, Gretchen is responsible for developing scientifically accurate content that may be used in a variety of formats, including training materials, publications, abstracts, and presentations. She has >10 years of experience in scientific communications across multiple platforms and has developed numerous poster presentations and peer-reviewed manuscripts. Additionally, she has a great deal of familiarity with grant writing and the development and presentation of scientific talks geared at diverse and nonscientific audiences.

Dr. Samuel Dyer

CEO / Chairman of the Board, Medical Science Liaison Society

Author, “The Medical Science Liaison Career Guide

Dr. Samuel Dyer is the CEO of the Medical Science Liaison Society-the only nonprofit organization dedicated to the global MSL career. He has over 17 years of international MSL experience and during his career, he has managed MSL teams and operations in over sixty countries

His insights and guidance have resulted in numerous candidates successfully breaking into their first MSL role

He has written extensively on the MSL role, including numerous published articles, and reports and has also been an invited speaker at numerous global conferences

Dr. Dyer has a Ph.D. in Health Sciences and did his medical training in Chicago. Dr. Dyer has a certificate in Executive Leadership and Strategy in Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology from the Harvard Business School.

Dr. Dyer is the author of the Amazon #1 Best Seller “The Medical Science Liaison Career Guide: How to Break into Your First Role”. The book is the first step-by-step guide on the MSL career: (


Dr. Jessica Pepper

Social Scientist, RTI International

Dr. Jessica Pepper received her MPH and PhD from the University of North Carolina (UNC) Gillings School of Global Public Health. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, she began working as a Social Scientist at RTI International in 2016. Both in her fellowship and at RTI, her research has focused on a variety of tobacco control topics, including the public’s understanding of the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke and the impact of graphic warning labels on cigarette packs. Her particular expertise is studying adolescents’ and adults’ use and perceptions of e-cigarettes and other electronic vaping products. Dr. Pepper has conducted webinars, served as an invited speaker at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, and won awards from professional academic societies for her work on e-cigarettes.


Sarah Council Windsor, PhD

US2020 STEM Mentoring Program Manager, Research Triangle Foundation

Sarah is the Program Manager of the US2020 STEM Mentoring Program at Research Triangle Foundation. She is responsible for the day to day management of US2020 RTP, which is a program aimed to increase access to and understanding of the STEM fields to underserved populations, specifically girls, students from low-income backgrounds, and underrepresented minorities.

Before her current position, she earned her PhD in area of oral microbiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and completed a postdoc fellowship in research, teaching and science outreach through NC Central University and the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. She was also the local president of Graduate Women in Science (GWIS), a group of women scientists who strive to increase the awareness of women’s impacts in science through mentoring, networking and science outreach.

Panel 4: Multimedia Science Communication

Dr. Christine Hawn 

Ecologist and Science Communicator, NC Museum of Natural Sciences

Dr. Hawn is an ecologist and science communicator at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. She develops citizen science projects for Students Discover, where researchers and teachers create lesson plans based on science with unknown answers. She is also an audio producer for

Walt Gurley

Visualization and Digital Media Librarian, NCSU Libraries

Walt is a Visualization and Digital Media Librarian at NCSU Libraries. He supports visualization activities on NC State’s campus through the facilitation of library events and programming, consultations on visualization tools and design, and digital development. He has designed web-based visualization content that has been incorporated into various digital displays including the James B. Hunt Jr. Library large-scale, public video walls. His recent work includes a tutorial on the open source scientific computing application Jupyter Notebooks and the development of eMammal Lite, a web application utilizing open source camera trap imagery to create a wildlife identification game and learning resource.
Walt has a Master’s of Science degree in Earth Science from NC State University. Prior to working at the NCSU Libraries he was the Co-coordinator of the Visual World Investigate Lab at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences where he communicated the use of visualization in scientific research.

Neil McCoy

Graphic Designer, NC State University

Neil McCoy is a graphic designer for the Department of Applied Ecology at NC State University, where he collaborates with researchers and educators to communicate science in creative and engaging ways to broad audiences. Neil explores science through visual mediums and designs websites, iBooks, infographics and print materials for the science community. In his spare time he illustrates and creates sciart for free-lance projects. Neil holds a bachelor’s degree in graphic design and general science from Oregon State University and the University of Oregon, and he earned a Master’s degree in zoology from NC State University, where he studied ants dispersing seeds in western Australia.

Rob Nelson

Director, Untamed Science

Rob Nelson is an ecologist, filmmaker, and educator. He has a B.S. in biology and marine science from the University of Miami, a M.S. degree in population and behavioral ecology from the University of Hawaii , and an M.F.A in science filmmaking from Montana State University.

Rob is the director of a non-profit, whose mission is to help explain the science of our world, with special attention to those that are not understood well by the public. Rob is also conducting a side research project on the rare white squirrel phenomenon in the US.

He has won several science filmmaking awards. Of note, he was awarded an Emmy award for his work on Mysteries of the Driftless, a documentary film he produced and hosted. His web series Untamed Science was also given the Science Media's special jury award for it's unique reality approach to science storytelling.  

Currently, Rob is the host of the Science Channel series, 'Secrets of the Underground.'