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General Sessions

The 2020 AZA Virtual Annual Conference features seven exciting General Sessions, including the Honors & Awards General Session to celebrate excellence in the zoo and aquarium community. Check back often as new panel discussions and speakers will be added soon. In addition to the daily General Sessions, join us for informative conversations with these invited guest speakers.

Monday, September 14
Opening General Session
Keynote Speaker
3:00 – 3:45 p.m. EDT
Mark Plotkin, Ph.D. is an ethnobotanist who serves as the President of The Amazon Conservation Team, which partners with indigenous peoples to protect traditional cultures and their rainforest homes. To date, ACT has partnered with over 60 tribes to map and improve management and protection of more than 80 million acres of ancestral rainforests. Though he has worked from Mexico to Argentina, most of his current research is focused on the northeast Amazon. The author of numerous books – including “Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice,” – his most recent publication is “The Amazon – What Everyone Needs to Know,” from Oxford University Press.

Educated at Harvard, Yale and Tufts, Plotkin is quick to point that his initial education in natural history was at the Audubon Park Zoo in his native New Orleans.

Dr. Plotkin’s books are available here for purchase.
Tuesday, September 15
General Session
Black Voices in Courageous Conversation on Racial Equity and Achieving our Mission
11:00 – 12:00 p.m. EDT
We are in a significant moment of time for racial and social justice that provides the opportunity for deep, meaningful progress toward a more equitable and inclusive profession, association, and world. Making that progress will require a sustained commitment to change and examination of how inequitable and exclusive our field and work may be now. We can only grow and do better by stepping into a place of listening and learning. This session will bring together Black Voices from across the zoo and aquarium and conservation field to engage in courageous conversation on how racial inequity and injustice shows up in our field and how a sustained commitment to diversity, equity, access, and inclusion is critical to our achieving our missions.
Denise Verret is the Chief Executive Officer and Director of the Los Angeles Zoo with over 20 years of executive leadership experience. Denise has been actively involved in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for 17 years, serving on a variety of committees, including Government Affairs and Diversity.  Denise is a member of the AZA Board of Directors and also serves on the Board of Directors for the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center.

Denise is committed to mentoring, coaching and giving back to people of color, and in particular women on their own leadership journeys, which enriches her own continued leadership growth and development.  Denise is passionate about conservation, as is committed to having a collective impact through engagement and racial, social and environmental justice.
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Symone is a proud Baltimore-born scientist and educator who began her journey in marine science as a high school Youth Exhibit Guide at National Aquarium. She has a B.S. from Hampton University in Marine and Environmental Science and an M.S. from Delaware State University in Natural Resources. After graduate school, Symone was placed in NOAA's Office of Education during her Sea Grant Knauss Fellowship. Currently, Symone manages Education Programs at National Aquarium with a special emphasis on providing environmental literacy to youth in Baltimore through MWEEs and out-of-school time programs.

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Corina Newsome is the Community Engagement Manager at Georgia Audubon and a Master's student in biology at Georgia Southern University. Corina, who began in the field of wildlife conservation as a zookeeper, currently conducts research to conserve the MacGillivray's Seaside Sparrow and connects people to birds around Georgia. Having experienced the hurdles faced by people of color interested in wildlife careers, she has founded several programs to encourage high school students from underrepresented demographics to consider careers in wildlife sciences. Corina’s mission is to eliminate the systemic barriers that have prevented people of color from participating in wildlife conservation and exploration of the great outdoors.

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Tony Smith is a Regional Vice President of Operations for SSA based out of Nashville, TN. Tony’s focus is on financial sustainability, overall high performance, operational innovation and people management for numerous SSA cultural attractions. He works closely with SSA’s partners and SSA’s general managers to activate revenue-driving entities at each location. With over 20 years of experience in the hospitality and cultural attraction industry, Tony’s professional path started off as a part-time summer job in high school and college working at the Cincinnati Zoo. It has grown into a career including several positions in leadership and a discovered passion for investing in and engaging with people. Tony’s relationships both within and outside of SSA are at his core. His friendships run deep and his dedication towards the development of future talent runs even deeper. This passion towards people has translated into a leadership position within SSA’s Diversity, Inclusion, Community, Engagement (D.I.C.E). As a founding member of SSA’s DICE and a key strategist, under Tony’s influence, DICE has successfully launched and managed:
• SSA’s Annual Mentorship Program;
• Their professional development series called SSAVVY;
• Cultureship program (which allows hourly employees an opportunity to spend a week at Headquarters, networking and meeting with SSA’s CEO and other key executives and leaders);
• And DICE Chapter – a platform for frontline employees to have a voice on SSA’s global DEAI. Tony continues to grow within SSA and you can always find him working right alongside tomorrow’s leaders.

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Lamar started as refuge manager at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in 2014, where he and refuge staff work with communities, community organizations, city partners, and conservation partners to strengthen connections and build new connections between their neighboring communities and the refuge. Prior to his time at John Heinz, he worked in the Northeast Regional Office as Assistant Refuge Supervisor, Chief of the Office of Diversity and Civil Rights, and Migratory Bird Biologist. He has also worked in the field as Assistant Regional Biologist, Assistant Refuge Biologist, and Biological Technician from Virginia to Vermont. Through his career, he worked on regional youth program development, diversity recruitment, urban program development, species and habitat restoration, and other projects. Lamar has a bachelor’s degree in Biology from Delaware State University and a master’s degree in wildlife biology from the University of Massachusetts.

Keynote Speaker
3:00 – 3:45 p.m. EDT
B.N. Horowitz, M.D., is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, the Harvard Department of Human Evolutionary Biology and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Her research focuses on the natural world as a source of insights into human pathology and developmental challenges. Her New York Times bestseller, Zoobiquity, was a Finalist in the American Association for the Advancement of Science Excellence in Science Books Award, a Smithsonian Top Book of 2012 and a Discover Magazine Best Book of the Year. It has been translated into seven languages and has been chosen as Common Read at universities across the country. The Nobel Assembly selected Zoobiquity’s theme of bio-inspired medicine for its 2019 Nobel Conference. Invited as Keynote Speaker, Dr. Natterson-Horowitz opened the conference with her address at the Nobel Forum in Stockholm, Sweden.

She is the founder of the Zoobiquity Conference series and President of the International Society for Evolution, Medicine and Public Health.

Her newly published book, Wildhood, uses evolutionary biology, neuroscience and animal behavior to explore the species-spanning challenges of growing up.
Thursday, September 17
General Session – Wildlife Trafficking and its Impacts on Animal and Human Health: Where Do We Go From Here?
Cristián Samper has served as President & Chief Executive Officer of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) since August 2012. WCS is one of the world’s preeminent science-based conservation organizations, established in 1895 whose mission is to save wildlife and wild places. WCS manages the largest network of urban wildlife parks including the Bronx Zoo, New York Aquarium, Central Park Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo and Queens Zoo which host four million visitors each year. WCS has long-term field conservation programs in more than 60 countries and in all of the world’s oceans.

Prior to joining WCS, Dr. Samper served as Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History for a decade, managing the largest museum collection in the world. He also served as Acting Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and Deputy Director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. He was the founding director of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute, the national biodiversity research institute for Colombia. For his contributions, Dr. Samper was awarded the National Medal of the Environment and the order of San Carlos by the president of Colombia.

Dr. Samper served as chair of the Subsidiary Body of Scientific, Technical & Technological Advice of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity where he helped develop a global strategy for plant conservation and launched the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. He also served as a Vice-Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission and as a member of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel of the Global Environment Facility (GEF). He has served on several non-profit boards, including the Harvard University Board of Overseers, World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and the American Alliance of Museums. Dr. Samper currently serves on the board of the Carnegie Institution for Science, the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT), and Science for Nature and People Partnerships (SNAPP). He is a member of the Council on Foreign Affairs and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Samper grew up in Colombia, studied Biology from the Universidad de Los Andes, and earned an MA and PhD from Harvard University where he was awarded the Derek C. Bok Award for Excellence in Teaching. He lives in New York with his wife and two children.
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As vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, Chelsea Clinton works alongside the Foundation’s leadership and partners to help create economic opportunity, improve public health, and inspire civic engagement and service across the United States and around the world. In particular, Chelsea focuses on promoting early brain and language development through the Too Small to Fail initiative, and uplifting/empowering female entrepreneurs and women-led businesses around the world through initiatives like the Caribbean-focused Women in Renewable Energy (WIRE) Network. She also serves on the boards of the Clinton Health Access Initiative and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

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Mr. Scanlon is currently the Special Envoy for African Parks, a nonprofit organization that takes on the responsibility for the rehabilitation and long-term management of national parks in partnership with governments and local communities. Prior to joining African Parks, John served as Secretary-General of CITES from 2010-2018. More recently, Mr. Scanlon has founded the End Wildlife Crime campaign, a global initiative aimed to combat wildlife trafficking and address wildlife trade laws to help reduce the risk of future pandemics. Since July, John has also served as Chair of the UK’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund and Special Adviser to the Elephant Protection Initiative Foundation. AZA was recently welcomed as the first member of the “International Network of Champions to End Wildlife Crime.”

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Maxi Pia Louis is the Director of the Namibian Association of CBNRM Support organizations (NACSO). Maxi’s background is tourism and conservation; in 1995 she co-founded the Namibia Community Based Tourism Association (NACOBTA) and was the Director of the association for 9years. Maxi joined NACSO in 2005 as the Secretariat Coordinator, current activities include coordinating the NACSO’s three main thematic working groups and 9 non-profit organisations, as well as researchers and consultants working in communication and creates linkages with partners and decision makers including parliamentarians, government ministries and other stakeholders. Maxi’s motto is to leave a legacy where people sustainably manage resources, and where women make a bigger contribution in the conservation industry.

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Dr. Jonathan Epstein (@epsteinjon) is the Vice President for Science and Outreach at EcoHealth Alliance (@EcoHealthnyc), a science-based NGO in New York City. A veterinarian and epidemiologist, his research focuses on the ecology of zoonotic viruses that impact animals and people, particularly those associated with bats, such as Nipah virus, Ebola, and emerging coronaviruses (SARS, MERS, and SARS-CoV-2 / COVID-19). In 2004, Dr. Epstein was part of the team that discovered that bats were the reservoir for SARS CoV in China and in 2012 he and colleagues first identified MERS CoV in bats and camels in Saudi Arabia. Dr. Epstein has served as a technical consultant for the World Health Organization, the OIE, FAO, the Institute of Medicine’s Forum on Microbial Threats and the Smithsonian Institute. He holds adjunct appointments at Tufts University, Columbia University, and Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. Dr. Epstein has published his research in leading journals including Science, Nature, PNAS, and Cell, and his work has been extensively featured in the news and other media, including the recent PBS documentary Spillover: Zika, Ebola & Beyond, NPR and 60 minutes.


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