Science Influencers Team
Leadership and mentors of the Science Influencers program maintain the shared focus of equipping students to become effective scientific communicators and thought leaders.
Holli Leggette, PhD
Dr. Holli Leggette has over 10 years’ experience teaching communications, professional skill development, and research; she is well-known for publishing with undergraduate and graduate students. She received her professional association’s Early Career Scholar Award in 2017, Texas A&M AgriLife’s Early Career Research Award in 2019, and North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture Bob Gough Teaching Tip Award in 2021.
Gary Wingenbach, PhD
Dr. Gary Wingenbach has over 30 years’ experience in agricultural science research and education. He has mentored over 1,000 undergraduates in research, education, and extension experiences in the past 10 years. He has received the college and university awards for Distinguished Achievement in Teaching Undergraduates at Texas A&M University.
Barbara Gastel, MD
Dr. Barbara Gastel has over 30 years’ experience in teaching science writing and coordinating science communication internships. She is author of the books Presenting Science to the Public, Teaching Science: A Guide for College and Professional School Instructors, and Health Writer’s Handbook. She has been awarded the Texas A&M University Distinguished Achievement Award in Extension, Outreach, Continuing Education, or Professional Development.
Science Influencers brings together more than 20 collaborating mentors and advisory board members. Collaborating mentors are experts in various science fields. They are well-known undergraduate research mentors who actively provide professional development opportunities for undergraduates. The following are mentors within the Texas A&M University System.
J. Rodolfo Valdez Barillas, Ph.D.
Dr. Valdez Barillas is an associate professor of biology in the department of Life Sciences at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. He currently teaches Plant and Ecology related courses. His research interests include Plant Ecological interactions (human-plant, plant-plant, plant-microbe, plant-animal) and aquatic ecology. Dr. Valdez is currently studying the role of microbes in the ecology of native vs. invasive grass competition and is assessing the efficacy of low impact methods for controlling KR Bluestem, primarily in riparian ecosystems. He also studies the effects that plants and plant related activities have on cognitive stress and mental wellbeing.
Jing Chen, Ph.D.
Dr. Jing Chen is an assistant professor in the department of Kinesiology at Texas A&M University-Texarkana. Chen’s research focuses on the exercise effect on enhancing procedural memory and non-invasive brain stimulation on enhancing procedural memory. Chen teaches courses on the foundations of kinesiology, motor development, kinesiology and biomechanics and exercise testing.
Steven “Boot” Chumbley, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Agricultural Education and Mechanics
Dr. Steven Chumbley is an associate professor in the department of Agriculture, Agribusiness and Environmental Sciences at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. His research focuses around STEM integration and leadership development within agricultural science. Currently, he is working on several grant projects, including developing agricultural communications curriculum for underrepresented students in agriculture, training teachers in wildlife and ecology through experiential learning and using augmented reality and live feedback training systems to teach students about metal fabrication.
Daniel J. Ebbole, Ph.D.
Professor, Fungal Development and Pathogenesis
Dr. Daniel J. Ebbole is a professor in the department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology at Texas A&M University. Ebbole’s research focuses on understanding the functions of pathogen effectors and their host targets. Currently, his laboratory is identifying and characterizing a gene family of putative effectors from Magnaporthe oryzae (rice blast fungus) and defining interactions with monocot hosts. He teaches courses in microbial processes in bioremediation, pathogen strategies in plant disease and leads a study abroad course in China.
Andrea Ettekal, Ph.D.
Dr. Andrea Ettekal is an assistant professor in the Department of Recreation, Park & Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M University. Ettekal’s research focuses on positive youth development (PYD) through out-of-school time programs. Some current projects include character development (e.g., empathy, gratitude) through service/volunteering among college students, character development (e.g., respect, fairness) through sport and the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on leisure activities during late adolescence/early adulthood.
Jamie Foster, Ph.D., P.A.S.
Professor, Forage Agronomy
Dr. Jamie Foster is a professor at the Texas A&M AgriLife Center at Corpus Christi. Foster’s research is focused on systems with the goal of enhancing resource use efficiency. Resource use efficiency can be improved through management, including integrating legumes or agricultural co-products into animal, food, and fiber systems. Currently, her laboratory is working with a transdisciplinary team of agronomists, geospatial and data scientists, and engineers to solve grassland management problems with remote sensors.
Steve Hague, Ph.D.
Professor, Cotton Breeding
Dr. Steve Hague is a professor in the department of Soil and Crop Science at Texas A&M University. Hague’s research focuses on cotton breeding and creating cotton cultivars and germplasm with high-yield potential, excellent water efficiency, and resistance to insects and pests endemic to Texas. He teaches courses at Texas A&M University in Plant Breeding and Genetics and Hemp Production and Utilization.
Kevin Ong, Ph.D
Professor and Associate Department Head (Extension)
Dr. Kevin Ong is a professor in the department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology at Texas A&M University. Ong is also the director of the Texas Plant Disease Diagnostic Laboratory. This laboratory provides diagnostic services to AgriLife Extension personnel, homeowners, farmers, greenhouse and nursery producers, consultants and others who need accurate identification of plant diseases. His current research interests include development and validation of existing and new plant disease diagnostic methodologies, including molecular diagnostics.
Mallory Pfeifer, M.S.
Mallory Pfeifer is a communications specialist at the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory. Pfeifer is responsible for promoting the agency’s testing services and their staff. She develops written and digital materials to advertise TVMDL’s service capabilities and educates clients on tests and diseases. She is currently working on communications that promotes the agency’s response to a recent chronic wasting disease (CWD) outbreak in captive white-tailed deer.
Ram L. Ray, Ph.D., P.E.
Dr. Ram L. Ray is an associate professor in the department of Agriculture, Nutrition and Human Ecology at Prairie View A&M University. Ray is also a research scientist at the Cooperative Agricultural Research Center. His research interests include water resources, ecohydrology, hyrdoclimatology and agriculture. Currently, he is working to quantify carbon sequestration potential of sorghum cultivars through field experiments and modeling and developing real-time, site-specific irrigation scheduling tools for crops and urban landscaping in Texas using a mobile web app.
Patricia Smith, Ph.D.
Professor, Associate Department Head and Director of BAEN Undergraduate Program
Dr. Patricia Smith is a professor and associate department head in the department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at Texas A&M University. Her research agenda includes improving hydrologic models, both physical and stochastic, using the latest techniques including machine learning, scaling of weather data, and uncertainty in measured and modeled data. This work has been applied to improving the Aquatic Life Index scores in Austin, improving rainfall/runoff modelling in Central Texas and improving the calculation of risk associated with bacterial exposure in fresh and estuarine systems.
Assistant Director of Communications
Brandon Webb is the assistant director of communications in the Office of the Provost at Texas A&M University. His team has recently completed communication projects and promotions for the new Texas A&M University Strategic Plan, launched the Office of Academic Innovation and promoted successes and recognitions of esteemed faculty at Texas A&M University. He has served in various writing and broadcasting communications and leadership positions for the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, Bryan Broadcasting, the University of Texas at Dallas, Blinn College and Bryan ISD.
Michelle Yeoman, M.S.
Michelle Yeoman is a lecturer in the department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences at Texas A&M University and pursuing her Ph.D. in Anthropology at Texas A&M University. Yeoman teaches undergraduate courses focused in writing and science journalism. She also leads a study abroad program that focuses on veterinary medicine in Thailand. Her research focuses on using narratives, medical melodramas, and social media to explore the sociocultural construction of professional identity in medical settings–and how these identities are culturally mediated through gender, power, and privilege.
The Advisory Board was established to represent scientific and public communications’ perspectives from industry and stakeholder groups. Advisory board members assist with programming ideas and may serve as mentors to undergraduates.
John Chivvis, M.A.
Virtual Engagement Specialist
John Chivvis (BA, MA Speech Communications, Texas A&M) is a Virtual Engagement Specialist for Texas A&M AgriLife and an Assistant Lecturer for the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications. Building on a 30-year career in marketing, branding, communications and education, John is passionate about learning, technology and the power of communication across traditional and new media. You will typically find him planning, producing or livestreaming events and seminars or teaching and training students, faculty and staff on topics ranging from hybrid event engagement to podcasting.
Whit Weems, Ed.D.
Whit Weems is the director of Organization at Texas Farm Bureau and is responsible for the young farmer and rancher, leadership development, educational outreach, youth outreach and urban outreach departments. Under his leadership, the division has expanded content, promotion, and efforts to reach agricultural and urban audiences. Weems began his professional career as a county AgriLife Extension agent and later went on to serve as an assistant professor in the Agricultural and Consumer Sciences department at Tarleton State University. He received a bachelor of science in Agricultural Services and Development, a master of science in Agricultural Education from Tarleton State University and a doctorate of education in Agricultural Education from Texas A&M University and Texas Tech University.
Vandana Suresh, Ph.D.
Senior Science Writer
Vandana Suresh has a diverse academic background, from a master’s in astronomy to a PhD in neuroscience. She is also trained in science writing and is currently the senior science writer at the College of Engineering at Texas A&M University. In her current role, Vandana leverages her academic training to write science-based articles on topics that include 3D printing, smart technology, self-healing materials and novel genetic engineering tools. She is also passionate about science outreach and mentoring students interested in a science journalism career.
Blair Fannin, B.S.
Blair Fannin works for Texas A&M AgriLife in executive and internal communications as part of Texas A&M AgriLife Marketing and Communications. He has been with the Texas A&M University System for more than two decades and is a Vice Chancellor’s Award recipient. He has served in a variety of roles within Texas A&M AgriLife involving news, media relations and public affairs serving the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and Texas A&M AgriLife Research. He has written extensively about agriculture and natural resources programming in agricultural economics, animal science, foreign animal diseases and production agriculture. He has a bachelors of science in journalism from Sam Houston State University.
This work is supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates program area, grant no. 2021-68018-34633/project accession no. 1026051, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture.