Article Category Archives: Alumni Profiles

A Way With Words

Shane Mecham is one of the most accomplished debaters in Truman’s history, and he has stayed close to the forensics community throughout his career.

By his own account, Shane Mecham (’01) is a “debate nerd.” He took up the activity in seventh grade and by high school was competing in national tournaments. As he was looking for a medium-sized, affordable school just far enough from his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, the forensics team is what sealed the deal for him to attend Truman.

“In college, I wanted to continue competing in forensics at the highest levels,” he said. “When they offered me a debate scholarship, it was an easy choice.”

In hindsight, Mecham owes more than just an education to his forensics experience. While he specialized in debate, he quickly added speech events. He thought he would enjoy it, in part because his future wife, Heather Helm Mecham, was one of the team leaders.

“I started competing in CEDA debate,” he said. “Heather and Sandy ran speech team practices twice a week that looked like so much fun that I added speech events to my repertoire. Plus, I had a big crush on Heather.”

Winning has a way of making things more enjoyable too, and during Mecham’s time on campus the forensics team was particularly dominant. Despite a carousal of coaches – three for debate and four for speech – the team enjoyed success on the state and national levels. Personally, Mecham was so versatile in both speech and debate he was entered in multiple events, which led to him single-handedly causing a two-hour delay at the state tournament his freshman year. By the next season, the rules had been altered to restrict how many events one person could enter.

Mecham was an All-American his senior year and got to debate against the Irish national team. In his junior year, the team won the national parliamentary debate championship and Mecham finished 15th overall at the National Forensics Association championships. The city of Kirksville declared a “Truman State Debate Team Day” and all of the members received keys to the city.

“Those keys cannot be redeemed for free drinks anywhere in town,” Mecham said. “We checked.”

As if contributing to his education and his future family were not enough, Mecham also used his forensics experiences as the foundation for his legal career. He attended the University of Texas School of Law, where he was a law review editor and earned his J.D. with honors in 2004.

“Forensics teaches you to construct arguments, evaluate arguments, see both sides and think on your feet. Those skills are essential to the practice of law,” he said. “Plus, litigators spend their whole careers fighting with people. That can get tiring, but debaters love the fight.”

Like his forensics career, Mecham’s legal expertise runs the gamut. He has worked at large-, medium- and small-sized firms gaining perspective in a variety of areas from personal cases to corporate litigation. He even served as an NFL agent for a period of time with one firm. The array of legal avenues is something he is prepared for thanks to his education, and specifically, forensics.

“I am a commercial litigator, which is a broad category,” he said. “It means I handle lots of different types of cases, and that’s something I learned from debate too. In parliamentary debate, the topic changed every round. One round we would be debating foreign policy in Africa, and the next round we would be debating civil rights. I am comfortable constantly learning, and then advocating, new material.”

For the past 12 years, Mecham has been with Levy Craig Law Firm in Kansas City, where he currently chairs the firm’s litigation group. Along with guiding associate attorneys, he gets to try his own cases, something that can be particularly rewarding.

“There is no feeling like winning a jury trial,” Mecham said. “Jury trials are exhausting, both mentally and physically. Then the jury comes back and announces its verdict just like on television. To win in that moment, after all the hard work, is exhilarating.”

Even though Mecham is well established in his legal career, he has stayed active in speech and debate circles. He has judged debate tournaments, and now he is watching as his son competes in high school tournaments under the direction of Tyler Unsell, a former college teammate. Mecham has also been a board member and past president of DEBATE-Kansas City, an urban debate league that supports teams from underfunded schools.

“Debate is an amazing activity that uses the power of competition to teach students critical academic skills in ways that they would never learn them in a classroom,” he said. “Many of the best times of my life are related to debate. I’m happy to do whatever I can to deliver that experience to a student who would not otherwise have it.” 

For all his efforts, Mecham was inducted into the National Forensic Association Hall of Fame in 2016. He is the first person in the history of Truman’s forensics program to achieve such an honor.

Heeding the Call

By being open to opportunities when they were presented, Marisa Stam is now in a position to help the global orphan crisis.

Fate has a funny way of accomplishing its goals.

Marisa (Starbard) Stam earned a communication degree with the hope of working as a foreign correspondent. After graduating in 1997, she ended up in corporate retail, first for Target and later with Starbucks. Working for the latter rekindled interests beyond balance sheets and profit margins.

“The coffee belt is in the strip of the world where there’s a lot of developing countries,” she said. “While I was at Starbucks, I got reintroduced to things that I appreciated in college, like international poverty issues, and kind of the world at large.”

In 2007, Starbucks sent Stam to the CARE Conference in Washington, D.C. With the mission of ending poverty, the conference offers opportunities for networking, and Stam met an affiliate of the Selamta Family Project. A unique organization based in Ethiopia, the Selamta Family Project brings hope and healing to orphaned and abandoned children by recreating and empowering families. Children in its care are placed with families and supported through a holistic, community integrated approach rooted in permanency. They do not age out, and they are supported through their first living-wage job.

Stam and two fellow Starbucks employees were invited to visit the Selamta Family Project on a trip the following year. Not only did they generate enough financial support to cover their trip, they were also able to provide funding to support a new forever family home in Ethiopia.

“It was incredible. I had never experienced so much generosity in my life. Through our store we ended up raising a total of $15,000,” she said. “That trip in 2008 radically changed my life. It was a very personal experience.”

After returning home, Stam stayed connected to the Selamta Family Project, serving on its board of directors. Feeling more connected to her faith, she also started working as the director of outreach and development for her church in Maine. Although she did not take that job for the experience, it would play a key role in her future. In 2014, not long after her husband Aaron (’97) accepted a job that relocated their family to Florida, the Selamta Family Project asked Stam to serve as executive director. She would be responsible for all aspects of the organization’s operations, including marketing, fundraising, business management, program oversight and strategic development.

“I learned a lot very quickly about leading a nonprofit,” Stam said, “My formal education through Truman obviously played a big part on the communication side, and then my practical experience in business through corporate retail and then nonprofit by working with the church for three-and-half years, it just all kind of culminated with a skillset that somewhat prepared me for this new role. I was definitely not fully prepared, but I feel like I’d been given an opportunity with all the assortment of things I’ve been privileged to learn in all that time and apply that to this new role.”

Stam is charged with meeting large goals with a small staff. She is one of three full-time, U.S.-based employees. There are two other part-time domestic employees, but more than 50 in Ethiopia. That is by design.

“This is not some Western mindset coming in saying, ‘hey, you guys are doing it wrong,’ This is really all about equipping exceptional people on the ground to do what they’ve been called to do with excellence,” she said.

Establishing a solid foundation should allow the organization to have greater impacts year after year. So far, Selamta has served more than 220 children and families in Ethiopia, of which 35 children have successfully launched to independence. New homes were established in 2019 and 2020, and 17 new children started with the program in 2021. 

“Just the outcomes that we’ve seen already are super humbling,” Stam said. “It’s been an amazing journey so far, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.”

In hindsight, it appears fate always put Stam in the proper place at just the right time. She’s found a calling that speaks to her passions, and while she realizes others might not be in a similar position, she feels like everyone can still make meaningful contributions.

“Not everyone is called to foster or adopt, but everyone can play a part somewhere in caring for orphaned and vulnerable kids and vulnerable families,” she said. “There are so many ways the gifts and talents that you’ve been given can bless somebody else, it’s just a matter of being willing.”

The Case of the Disappearing Disease

Greg Gerhardt has dedicated his career to improving the lives of patients with neurological diseases.

Now in his fifth decade as a neurological disease researcher, Greg Gerhardt is no stranger to the harsh realities of the field. He knows money and research flow to where they can serve the greatest good, however, those with rare conditions can often feel set adrift because it is not financially viable to invest in smaller patient markets. Just because he understands the logic, doesn’t mean he has to accept it.

For Gerhardt, his interest in finding cures for those left behind started at an early age. His grandfather passed away from a brain tumor before he was born, and he grew up hearing stories about how its manifestations and treatment changed him.

“Ultimately, that had more effects on my family than the actual death of him,” Gerhardt said. “It’s become kind of a Sherlock Holmes novel for me of reconstructing over the years exactly what happened.”

Looking at the progression of his career, Gerhardt does give the appearance of a detective doggedly doing whatever is necessary to track down a culprit. After graduating from the University with a degree in chemistry in 1979, he went on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas with further training in psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. He has had extensive training in chemistry, neuroscience, pharmacology, neurosurgery and psychiatry. At the University of Kentucky Health Sciences Center he holds the Charles D. Lucas, Jr. Professorship for Parkinson’s Disease Research. He is a professor in the departments of neuroscience, neurosurgery, neurology, psychiatry, pharmaceutical sciences and electrical engineering. From 1999-2012, Gerhardt served as director of the Morris K. Udall Parkinson’s Disease Research Center of Excellence at the Chandler Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky – one of 12 centers of that type in the U.S.  – and he is currently director of the Center for Microelectrode Technology and co-director of the Brain Restoration Center.

“It’s kind of one of those trains I jumped on and kept jumping on to another track. I got hooked on it, trying to solve these problems,” he said.

The next piece of the puzzle Gerhardt drops into place has the potential to be the most important. He recently co-founded Avast Therapeutics, a company designed to advance new treatments for neural disease. By building off of existing research and clinical trials, Gerhardt and his colleagues hope to fill a void in treatment.

“We feel that not every therapeutic has to be the barnstormer,” he said. “You have that niche of people to treat, and that’s what we’re going after.” 

Specifically, Gerhardt is drawing on decades of experience with Parkinson’s disease in an effort to provide a better quality of life for the 60,000 individuals diagnosed each year. As a founding member of the Michael J. Fox Foundation, Gerhardt knows as well as anyone how much progress has already been made. Not a week goes by where he isn’t participating in a surgical procedure to implant a deep brain stimulation electrode in a patient to help control tremors and rigidity. In a perfect world, he hopes to make more progress through less invasive means. Avast is researching nasal therapeutics and inhalers to administer medicine more efficiently. The company also plans to explore biomarkers to identify a disease’s progression and tailor a precise treatment for an individual.

“One of the major hurdles in my field of neurodegenerative diseases is that we too often treat these diseases as a single phenotypic disease, when in reality, it’s a spectrum of diseases,” Gerhardt said. “We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

To make the most of every research dollar, Avast develops therapies or devices that may have gone unexplored by bigger companies. When they have a product ready to go beyond their scope, they seek assistance to get it to scale.

“Really our business model is to develop the technology to the point where we can likely turn it over to a larger firm that has the pipeline and the resources to move in different directions than we can,” he said.

When coming up with the name for their company, Gerhardt and his co-founders settled on Avast because it is a nautical term that means stop, commonly associated with “Moby-Dick.” The goal is ideally to put an end to – or stop – all neurological disorders, but unlike Captain Ahab, Gerhardt has reasonable expectations in pursuit of his own white whale. Previously, Parkinson’s disease might take 10 years off of a patient’s life span, but through continued medical vigilance Gerhardt has seen it evolve from a death sentence to something that can be managed with proper treatments. Although he will continue to work toward eradication, that much progress can be its own reward.

“In the business of medicine, the big thing is to help our patients have a better quality of life,” he said. “We may not be able to cure something, but we can improve the quality of your life so you can live with it much better and have a fulfilling life.”

Sure, Why Not?

An optimistic approach to life has helped Shelley Washington establish a career doing what she loves.

When put on the spot to identify a composer, most people can name Bach or Beethoven. More refined listeners can cite other – usually long deceased – men often associated with classical music. Shelley Washington is one of the relatively few individuals who can claim composer as a job title, but she doesn’t buy into the perceived hoity-toity nature of the field.

“Anyone is a composer the second you intentionally make something up,” she said. “You don’t even have to write it down. If you make up some noise in your head that you intentionally assembled, that’s it. That’s the only thing it takes to be a composer, in my mind. Because I don’t think you have to have specialized training to be able to make stuff up that you like that you want to share.”

Washington (’13, ’14) has a relaxed approach to her profession, probably because she has the bona fides to back it up. Along with her two degrees from Truman, she has master’s degrees from NYU and Princeton, and she is a year away from earning a Ph.D. in music composition from the latter. Her experience goes beyond theory and into actual practice, having composed pieces for large and small ensembles, soloists and even musical theatre. Washington’s musical influences are vast and wide, making it difficult to categorize her creations.

“Making sound and noise in some capacity is just what I do, and it is also very convenient that it is my job,” she said. “It is hard for me to explain it because it’s the stuff I wrote.”

Growing up in Kansas City, Washington’s parents regularly took her to the symphony and opera, and her uncle was a prominent jazz musician. She learned how to play the English handbells through her involvement in church  ensembles, and on any given day she can be found listening to country, pop, folk, big band, rock or mambo. Making a living as a composer was never the original goal. She came to Truman with the intent to become a music teacher.

“I grew up listening to everything that was on and really just loving all of it, and I didn’t want that to go away,” she said.

The plan changed for Washington just before she started the MAE program at Truman, thanks to an interdisciplinary grant between the music and theatre departments. Two students – one from each program – were selected to spend the summer creating a musical theatre production. Washington got her first taste of composing original music, and it sparked an interest. After completing her degree, she visited family in New York City to check out prospective schools. She also researched contemporary composers, becoming a fan of Julia Wolfe. Washington got to meet Wolfe on her trip to New York and even sat in on one of her classes. When Wolfe expressed interest in Washington’s portfolio, her career trajectory changed immediately.

“That was all I needed, to hear one of my heroes saying, ‘hey, I like your stuff, and I think you should do it,’” Washington said.

Making a drastic career change and moving halfway across the country to one of the biggest cities in the world might seem overwhelming to some. For Washington, it fits right in with her philosophy on life, which pretty much boils down to “sure, why not?”

“That’s been 90% of my career thus far – ‘sure, why not?’ – and it’s been really fun. It’s really weird, but it’s really fun,” she said.

Keeping an open mind has opened doors for Washington. Her willingness to work with anyone, try anything and go wherever the job may take her has led to one experience after another. She’s played with nearly 20 different ensembles and recorded with countless artists, samples of which can be found on her website, Her work was even featured in an episode of the Netflix documentary series “Explained.”

As a performer, Washington specializes in the baritone saxophone. She is also proficient in the alto saxophone, flute, handbells and guitar, but surprisingly not the instrument most people associate with composers. She self identifies as a “garbage” piano player.

In addition to her composing career, Washington’s versatility as a performer helped her snag a spot in the Brooklyn-based band Good Looking Friends. The passion project checks a very specific item off of her bucket list.

“My childhood dream of playing in a rock band is being fulfilled, and I love it,” she said.

Washington is always looking for an opportunity, and she has already found her next project. She will spend the next three years writing and editing an opera in conjunction with a friend’s podcast based on the life of former model-turned-stalker Nell Theobald.

“This is a first for me, which is very scary and very exciting,” she said. “It’s hard learning new things, especially once you become a grown-up. However, I will never stop learning.”

New Man on the Minnesota Vikings

Tyler Williams was part of a Super Bowl-winning organization last year. Now he is using his exercise science degree to help a new team reach their peak potential.

It is a relatively small club of people who can claim the title of “world champion,” and Tyler Williams (’06) is one of the few. He joined the ranks in February when the Rams, an organization he has been affiliated with professionally for almost 20 years, hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. As the team’s director of sports science, the achievement was the product of a highly focused career.

“My whole life has been involved with sports and activity,” he said. “I always had a passion for understanding how the body functions and trying to understand the puzzle of what could be done to reduce injury risk and also gain a competitive advantage.”

Williams came to Truman because he saw a well-respected school that could help him reach his goals. The athletic training program offered hands-on experiences and talented instructors that supported the students.

“The Health and Exercise Science Department was impressive in their process of operation, structure and faculty,” he said. “There was a passion for the industry that was unmatched from my visits with other universities.”

As a student, Williams was encouraged to pursue internship opportunities. Following his passion, he sent his resume to all 32 NFL organizations, eventually landing a position with the St. Louis Rams, just up the road from his hometown of Crystal City, Missouri. Williams worked summer internships with the club for three years, followed by three yearlong internships while he completed a master’s degree from California University of Pennsylvania. In 2010 he joined the team full-time as an athletic trainer for four years. He would go on to serve as the team’s sports science coordinator/manager for three years before taking on the role of director of sports science in 2019.

The NFL’s regular season may run 18 weeks, but that does not mean Williams spends the rest of the year on the golf course. Along with getting players ready for the weekly demands of a physically grueling game, he and his fellow trainers: coordinate post-season surgeries and rehabs; attend the annual NFL combine to medically assess and evaluate potential draft picks; and participate in numerous meetings to understand research on topics such as helmet testing, biomechanical assessments, performance assessments, internal medical injuries and orthopedic injuries all designed with an eye toward developing new safety protocols.

“The essence of an athletic trainer is really being a caregiver,” Williams said. “The biggest misconception is that we work the games and practices during the season and then have time off in the off season.”

In the best of circumstances, being responsible for the health and wellness of an NFL roster is challenging. Adding a pandemic on top did not make things any easier.

“Everything became individualized and spaced out in a world of group settings and tight spaces in athletics, which created hurdles on top of the everyday workload,” Williams said. “We had to think outside the box from what was traditionally done and become problem solvers in order to maintain efficient and effective training methods for our athletes.”

Williams gained some experience in dealing with disruptive events several years before the pandemic hit. Following the 2015 season, the Rams relocated from St. Louis to Los Angeles. Along with coaches and players, staff members had a decision to make. Williams chose to take the 1,800-mile trip west, not just because he loved his job or needed a paycheck.

“Being from the Midwest it was difficult to take that leap, but our vice president of sports medicine and performance, Reggie Scott, is an industry leader in sports medicine,” he said. “It made for an easier move knowing I could continue to develop under him.”

Along with his own professional development, Williams saw his athletes reach their full potential on the field. The Rams went to the Super Bowl in 2019 and won it 2022.

“It was an absolutely phenomenal experience,” he said. “Going through it, you really realize how many things have to go right and how important it is to work with amazing people. The entire organization has to be working in lockstep in the same direction, not just the players and coaches, but the medical staff, strength staff, sports science, nutrition, front office, equipment and operations.”

Williams ended his time with the Rams on the highest of notes. Following the season, he took a job with the Minnesota Vikings as the executive director of player health and safety. The change gets him a little closer to his Midwestern roots, and he is excited to work with new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O’Connell.

“I have always tried to go where I am led. The Vikings are an amazing organization with phenomenal ownership that prioritizes their people and the care of their athletes,” Williams said. “The opportunity to work with people like that and build something together is what drew me to Minnesota – the people.”