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story.lead_photo.caption Whitmar Photo by Contributed photo

This year's Hancock Symposium guests are grappling with the future — as complicated, difficult or triumphant as it may be.

Westminster College's 15th annual lecture series is Wednesday. The one-day symposium, held virtually for the first time ever due to the ongoing pandemic, will feature 17 guest lecturers. These experts include journalists, scientists, novelists, historians, engineers and more. This year's theme is "Vision & Values: Charting Our Paths to the Future."

One distinguished lecturer is Bill Whitmar, laboratory director for the State Public Health Laboratory with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, which provides lab services for both public and private entities. Whitmar lives in Millersburg; his daughter works at the National Churchill Museum at Westminster.

"As you might expect, the thing that's taking almost all of my time, as it is for most of administrative staff here is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic," he said during a phone interview Thursday. "I wouldn't say we're front and center, but we're certainly the tip of the spear as far as responding to the pandemic. Quite a few samples do come into our lab. We test them here and put out results. From those results mitigation efforts can take place."

Whitmar himself spends much of his day in virtual meetings with state leadership. As the president for the Association of Public Health Laboratories' board of directors — an international organization that advocates for quality lab services globally — he's also in regular contact with public health labs around the world. But, he said, he's quite willing to take time out of his busy schedule for the symposium.

"I'm more than happy to be a member of that group of speakers," he said.

During his talk, Whitmar will focus on the importance of forming a strategic plan when facing a challenge, rather than hopping from one shiny potential solution from another. Good leadership and a solid plan are especially important when facing a global pandemic, Whitmar said.

"What I'm going to offer is a vision of how this pandemic unfolded, globally, how the effects came and rolled through the country the challenges the public health lab faced, and how they overcame those changes," Whitmar said. "Sometimes those challenges came up again and again throughout the United States."

The annual Hancock Symposium is designed to encourage the Westminster College community to explore new ideas with the help of a wide spectrum of leaders.

"It 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," said Symposium Co-Chair Dr. Jeremy Straughn, director of Westminster's Churchill Institute for Global Engagement. "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, and we welcome everyone's participation."


Each of the Symposium sessions will be livestreamed to students, faculty, and staff. Five sessions also be open to viewing, free of charge, for the public and alumni. They can be accessed by visiting Questions can be submitted on all Westminster social media platforms by using #HancockSymposium2020.

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The five public sessions include:

9:15-10:15 a.m. — Dr. James Green, NASA chief scientist on "The Search for Life Beyond Earth in Space and Time." 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.

10:30-11:30 a.m. — Bill Whitmar, — 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.

1:15-2:15 p.m. — Susannah Cahalan, mental health advocate, on "How Illness Led to Insight: From Brain on Fire to The Great Pretender." Calahan is the 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.

2:30-3:30 p.m. — Amy Brady, editor-in-chief, Chicago Review of Books, expert on climate fiction, with Omar El Akkad, Egyptian-Canadian novelist, on "Imagining Climate Change Through Fiction." A native of Topeka, Kansas, 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.

El Akkad's journalism earned a National Newspaper Award for investigative journalism and the Goff Penny Award for young journalists. His fiction and nonfiction 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.

6:15-7:15 p.m. — Vision & Values Virtual Panel: Our Buildings Shape Us: A 2020 Vision for Two Fulton Monuments.

The panel will discuss The Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, and the George Washington Carver School, which was named for the African American scientist. The panel will examine these historic Fulton buildings, their cultural and economic impact, and the challenges they face. Panelists will be Carmen Brandt, president of George Washington Carver Cultural Center Board; Dr. Gary Kramer, executive director of the State Historical Society of Missouri; Victor B. Pasley, retired executive of Xerox Corporation; and Timothy Riley, Sandra L. and Monroe E. Trout director and chief curator of America's National Churchill Museum on Westminster's campus.

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