Virtual Hancock Symposium to Feature Experts in Space, Infectious Diseases, Warfare, and More

Westminster College’s Annual Fall Symposium Will Focus on “Vision and Values”

NASA’s chief scientist, the director of Missouri’s Public Health Laboratory who is battling to stop COVID-19 in its tracks, noted writers and historians, and leading experts in humanitarian efforts, the military, and sustainability are among more than a dozen professionals participating in Westminster College’s 15th Annual Hancock Symposium in mid-September.

The day-long event will start at 9 a.m., Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. All of the distinguished speakers will be presenting remotely from their homes and offices across the country. Meanwhile, physically distanced and masked Westminster students, faculty, and staff will engage with the virtual lecturers from more than 25 campus classrooms, auditoriums, and other spaces, including the historic Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, part of America’s National Churchill Museum on the Westminster campus.

“The theme of this year’s Symposium — Vision & Values: Charting Our Paths to the Future — is well-suited to our unique period in history,” said Symposium Co-Chair Dr. Jeremy Straughn, director of Westminster’s Churchill Institute for Global Engagement. “So, we have invited leading minds from many disciplines to engage us in tackling the vital questions of our times. This kind of exploration is right at the heart of a Westminster education.”

The Symposium is designed to encourage the Westminster College community to explore new ideas and capitalize on insights from leaders across a wide spectrum. In 2019, the Symposium had engaged the theme “Breakthrough” across different realms of human experience.

While all of the Symposium’s speakers’ presentations will be livestreamed to students, faculty, staff, and alumni, Westminster also will open several sessions to the public via livestream. Speakers will include:

Dr. James Green, NASA Chief Scientist, Green has been NASA’s chief scientist since May 2018. During his 18 years with the space flight organization, he has served as director of the Planetary Science Division and led several space missions, including the New Horizons spacecraft flyby of Pluto, the Messenger spacecraft to Mercury, the Juno spacecraft to Jupiter, the Grail-A and B spacecraft to the Moon, the Dawn spacecraft to Vesta and Ceres, and the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Susannah Cahalan, New York Times best-selling author of Brain on Fire, My Month of Madness: In 2009, Cahalan was a healthy 24-year-old reporter for the New York Post when she began to experience numbness, paranoia, seizures, hallucinations, and increasingly psychotic behavior. Her journey led her to discover she suffered from anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a rare autoimmune disease that attacks the brain. Her doctors believe the disease may be the cause of “demonic possessions” throughout history.

Bill Whitmar, laboratory director for the State Public Health Laboratory, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services: Whitmar will discuss Missouri’s COVID-19 Response from the Perspective of the People Who Live It Daily. He oversees 100 professionals who test for infectious diseases and all emerging novel diseases such as SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19), Ebola, and various influenzas. Whitmar is also President of the Association for Public Health Laboratories, an international organization that advocates for quality lab services globally.

Laurie R. Blank, clinical professor of Law and the director of the International Humanitarian Law Clinic at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta: Blank teaches the law of armed conflict and counsels international tribunals, non-governmental organizations, and militaries around the world on cutting-edge humanitarian law and human rights issues. Blank also is the author of numerous articles and opinion pieces on armed conflict, targeted killing and drone strikes, armed conflict during military operations, and cyberwar.

Gunnar Shaffer, founder and CEO of Agrowponics, which specializes in sustainable farming and gardening technologies, and a power systems engineer with Southwest Power Pool near Little Rock: Shaffer, a native of Friendship, AR, will discuss the Grid of the Future, Finding a Way Forward! He has developed international leadership skills that have led to many rewarding life experiences in renewable energy, energy storage, and urban farming methodologies in the hopes of solving global environmental, economic, social, and engineering challenges.

Amy Brady, deputy publisher of Guernica magazine and editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books: Brady will discuss Imagining Climate Change Through Fiction. A native of Topeka, KS, Brady also writes a monthly column about how contemporary fiction addresses issues of climate change. Her work has been published in many national publications, and she is a co-editor of the anthology House on Fire: Dispatches from a Climate-Changed World, which will be published next year.

Omar El Akkad, author and journalist: El Akkad’s journalism earned a National Newspaper Award for investigative journalism and the Goff Penny Award for young journalists. His fiction and non-fiction writing has appeared in The Guardian, Le Monde, Guernica, GQ, and many other newspapers and magazines. His debut novel, American War, is an international bestseller, has been translated into 13 languages, and was selected by the BBC as one of 100 novels that changed our world.

Ms. Tshering Yangzom, communications and program manager for the Bhutan Foundation in Washington, DC: Yangzom is a 2010 Westminster graduate pursuing a master’s degree at George Washington University. A former reporter with the Bhutan Times, a national newspaper, she will discuss Bhutan: Gross National Happiness & Development with Values. At Westminster, she was actively involved with the Missouri School for the Deaf and the Reading is Fun (RIF) program. In Washington, she has volunteered at local hospitals and interned on Capitol Hill and with the Center for Teaching Peace.

Betsy Lynch, attorney and philanthropist: Lynch, a 2002 Westminster graduate and a Sikeston, MO, native, will lecture on Non-linear Paths for the Nonconformist. A graduate from the UMKC School of Law, Lynch is in private law practice and represents small businesses and their owners in business law, debtor-creditor rights, and bankruptcy law. She has been widely recognized for her legal skills and volunteer service in greater Kansas City. She serves on the board of the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Foundation and is chair of the board for Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

Jeanne L. Narum, founding principal of the Learning Spaces Collaboratory (LSC), Washington, DC: Narum has mixed education, architecture, and creative design to envision and plan undergraduate learning environments for the 21st century. Her lecture, Making a Difference: Shaping the Future, is designed to build awareness of how space matters when it comes to learning. Her goal is to ensure all college students have access to physical learning environments that enable them to become engaged learners.

Noelia Cerna, a performance poet based in Fayetteville, AR: A 2009 Westminster alumna, Cerna is poetry feedback editor of the Tinderbox Poetry Journal, a writing mentor for Pen America’s Prison Writing Mentorship Program, board president of the Ozark Poets and Writers Collective, and an associate editor with Sibling Rivalry Press. She is currently working on a book of poems discussing the experience of being a first-generation immigrant from Costa Rica and a book of essays about the Arkansas prison system.

Dr. Mary Nestor, a private practice pediatrician and occupational therapist in the Kansas City area: Nestor, a 2010 Westminster graduate, helps clients realize their own vision and values by engaging in everyday activities. Nestor completed her Doctorate of Occupational Therapy at Belmont University in Nashville, TN, and has since completed additional trainings and specializations. They include identifying, evaluating, and treating sensory processing disorder in children and using hippotherapy as a treatment strategy. She will discuss Finding Your Vision in Your Values: An Occupational Therapist’s Perspective.

Jacob Marsh, entrepreneur and novelist: A 2008 Westminster graduate, Marsh founded two successful businesses: Bite Back Bed Bug Removal in Denver, CO, a multi-city pest-control service that relies on steam instead of chemicals, and Fully Human SEO, a search engine optimization company geared to small businesses. He will discuss The New American Dream – Vanlife, Social Entrepreneurship, and the Rehabilitation from Expectation. Marsh also is the author of In the Weeds, a narrative nonfiction detailing the author’s journey through three ecologically oriented living communities.

Alexis Lowery, co-founder of Mary’s House of Hope Project and a fierce advocate for justice and victim’s rights: A junior at Webster University in suburban St. Louis, Lowery is a victim advocate for women and children escaping domestic violence. She will lecture on Building Hope, Building Homes. Lowery and her family partnered with a larger agency to build transitional housing for women and children called Mary’s House of Hope at A Safe Place in Festus, MO.

The 15th Annual Hancock Symposium symbolizes the finest aspects of a Westminster education: the development of the critical mind and the ability to look beyond the present to envision a meaningful future. The Symposium presents engaging presentations and panel discussions by nationally and internationally renowned experts, many of whom are Westminster alumni. Instead of endorsing a single point of view, the Hancock Symposium embraces ideas from many different traditions and disciplines in the common pursuit of new knowledge. The Symposium is funded in perpetuity by a generous gift from alumnus David Hancock, ’67 FIJI, of Kansas City, MO.


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Sarah Rummel Backer

Sarah Rummel Backer is the Director of Media Relations and Senior Writer at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. A proud Westminster graduate, Sarah has more than 20 years of experience in marketing and strategic communications in the areas of higher education, medicine, agriculture, and the private business sector.