Our Staff

National Office Staff

Lisa Thomson — President & CEO

The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) appointed Lisa Thomson as President & CEO in January 2015. A lifelong conservationist, Lisa’s previous experience includes 28 years at The Nature Conservancy, serving in leadership capacities in conservation land management and fundraising. In 2010 she was recruited as Associate Vice President for Development at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, she helped lead their recently launched capital campaign and built major gifts and planned giving teams. Lisa earned her B.A. at Stetson University, with a degree in Biology and Art, and an M.S .from Florida State University in Design. Lisa relocated to Asheville, North Carolina after living in Central Florida for 45 years.

Phone: (828) 281-0047 x1109

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Lesley Heiser — Grants Manager

Lesley Heiser began her career in grants at Johns Hopkins University, where she was a staff writer/senior writer for 5 years and helped win awards from the National Science Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and others. More recently, as Director of Development and Communications at Cultivating Community of Maine, an organization focused on implementing regenerative agriculture to heal the land and increase healthy food access, she helped achieve several high six-figure grant awards from the USDA while quintupling private grant support. Lesley has a B.A. from William and Mary, an M.A. from Indiana University, and an M.F.A. in Writing from the University of Maine. She lives in the Five Points neighborhood of Asheville with her husband, Bob, and their dog, Dudley.

Phone: (828) 281-0047 x1103

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Cherin Marmon-Saxe — Director of Operations

Cherin joined TACF in May 2017 after relocating back to the United States from England, where she lived for 14 years. Her professional career spans more than 30+ years, specializing in project management, process improvement and systems integration across a multitude of countries and markets. Prior to joining TACF, she owned a hotel in the beautiful Northern Lake District of The United Kingdom, one of her bucket list items.

Cherin holds a B.S. in Hotel and Restaurant Management with a secondary degree in Human Resources. She joins the TACF family with great enthusiasm to expand her involvement and experience within the nonprofit sector.

Phone:  (828) 281-0047  x1105

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Cara Parker — Office Administrator

Cara joins TACF with 20+ years of experience in small business management, primarily as an innkeeper on the Outer Banks and in Asheville. She specializes in the creation and improvement of operations processes and procedures and small business marketing. In 2022, she completed a B.S. in Political Science with a concentration in American Politics at Appalachian State University with the intention of transitioning to the nonprofit sector as a way to achieve meaningful work. Cara grew up in Ohio and Pennsylvania and has lived in Key West, Panama, and Central New York between stints in North Carolina. She looks forward to future travels with her family.

Phone: (828) 281-0047 x1101

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Carrie Plaxco — Gifts and Records Specialist

Carrie comes to TACF with 15 years of experience working with data in higher education. She has a B.S. in Environmental Studies, and has completed coursework for a Masters in Conservation Biology. She is a self-proclaimed bird nerd, and has worked on research projects with Least Terns and Black Skimmers in both Florida and Brazil. In her free time she is an avid mountain biker and leads several group rides throughout Western North Carolina.

Phone: (828) 281-0047 x1104

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Jules Smith — Director of Communications

Though originally from eastern Tennessee, Jules moved to Asheville in 2010 from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she was the Communications Associate at Episcopal Divinity School. Prior to accepting the job at TACF, she was the Webmaster and Communications Specialist at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville. Before switching career paths, Jules worked as a videographer and editor in the television news industry. She loves living in Asheville because of its mountains, progressive values, farm-to-table eateries, and support of local businesses and nonprofits. Jules has a B.A. in Communication Arts with an emphasis in Television Broadcasting.

Phone:  (828) 281-0047 x1102

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Dr. Jared Westbrook — Director of Science

Jared joined TACF in January 2015 as the organization’s new quantitative geneticist. Originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Jared earned a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Michigan, an M.S. in Botany, and a PhD in Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Florida. His dissertation research studied the genetic enhancement of resin production in loblolly pine stems for use in liquid biofuels. Jared works extensively with the Meadowview Research Farms Laboratory and commutes from Asheville to take TACF’s breeding program to the next level.

Phone:  (828) 281-0047 x1106

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Anna Whitmire-Ewing — Communications Coordinator

Anna moved to Western North Carolina in 2017 after graduating with a B.S. in Archaeology from the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse. Before joining TACF, Anna worked as the Outreach Associate for an outdoor education science nonprofit, Muddy Sneakers. Anna has always held a passion for the outdoors and conservation. When growing up in the Midwest, you would most likely find her running through cornfields, climbing a tree, or playing in a creek. Her deep-seeded love of nature and nonprofit communications experience is what drew her to TACF’s mission.

Phone:  (828) 281-0047  x1112

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Paul Wingenfeld — Chief Financial Officer

Paul joined TACF during 2020. He earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in Accounting at the University of Central Florida. Paul began his career working at a regional accounting firm for 10 years. Paul has always enjoyed the outdoors and is an avid mountain biker, which is why he chose to move to Asheville in 1998. It is this love of the outdoors that drew him towards TACF’s environmental conservation mission.

Prior to joining TACF, Paul worked for several companies in the private sector in Asheville and was directly involved in the sale of two of these companies for a combined $100 million dollars. When not working at TACF, Paul enjoys spending time with his wife, Heather, son, Nathan, and their dog, Oliver (and of course going mountain biking).

Phone: (828) 281-0047 x1110

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Barbara Wood — Membership Coordinator

A passion for nature and conservation drew Barbara to western North Carolina, after living in Atlanta for many years. Barb brings 15 years of nonprofit experience in donor cultivation, fundraising, and database management to her TACF role as Membership Coordinator. When she is not advocating for forest conservation and restoration, Barb enjoys spending time outdoors hiking, kayaking, and gardening.

Phone: (828) 281-0047 x1108

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Shana Zimnoch — Director of Donor Engagement

Shana comes to TACF with expertise in donor databases and a deep understanding of the challenges and inner workings of nonprofits. Before joining TACF in October 2017, she worked at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center and the Noyes Museum of Art in southern New Jersey. Shana has a sincere interest in conservation, human emotion and working towards a common goal. As someone who loves to hike and all things nature, she looks forward to being an integral part of TACF’s work. Shana holds a B.S. in Literature with a secondary degree in Art and Anthropology from Stockton University in New Jersey.

Phone:  (828) 281-0047 x1111

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Regional Science Coordinators

Kendra Collins — Regional Science Coordinator Manager, New England Regional Science Coordinator

Kendra joined TACF in 2008 as Regional Science Coordinator for the New England region, which includes the Connecticut, Massachusetts/Rhode Island, Maine, and Vermont/New Hampshire state chapters of TACF. She received a B.S. degree in Environmental Conservation Science from the University of New Hampshire and an M.S. in Natural Resources: Forestry from the University of Vermont. Her Masters research focused on American chestnut restoration, which led her to become involved with TACF and the formation of the VT/NH Chapter. Kendra worked previously with citizen scientists through New Hampshire’s Volunteer Lake Assessment Program.

Phone: (802) 999-8706

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Sara Fitzsimmons — Chief Conservation Officer, North Central Regional Science Coordinator

Sara Fern Fitzsimmons has worked with The American Chestnut Foundation at Penn State University since 2003, assisting chestnut growers and researchers throughout the Appalachian Mountains. Born and raised in southern West Virginia (Hinton), Sara studied Biology at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. She then received an M.S. in Forest Ecology and Resource Management from Duke University’s Nicholas School. After a short stint as an editorial assistant at All About Beer Magazine, Sara returned to the forestry field where she has been ever since. Sara hopes her research and professional work will facilitate long-term conservation and restoration of native tree species at risk from exotic pests and diseases.

Sara serves the North Central region as Regional Science Coordinator, which consists of the Ohio, Pennsylvania/New Jersey,  New York, and Indiana state chapters of TACF.

Phone: (814) 404-6013

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Brianna Heath — Mid Atlantic Regional Science Coordinator

Brianna, born and raised in Madison, Virginia, joined TACF in August of 2022 as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Science Coordinator, which covers Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and Kentucky. She received her B.S. degree in Environmental Science from the University of Lynchburg along with minors in History and Environmental Studies. After graduation, she worked with the Virginia Department of Natural Resources as an Aquatic Resources Technician to protect freshwater mussels and other non-game species. She later worked as a water plant operator and lab analyst.

Phone: (540) 718-9236

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Jamie Van Clief — Southern Regional Science Coordinator

Jamie joined TACF full-time in 2021 as the Regional Science Coordinator for the Southern region that covers North Carolina/South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama, and is based out of the national office in Asheville.

Jamie began her journey with TACF when she interned for the New England Science Coordinator for two seasons while completing her B.S. in both Forestry and Environmental Science from the University of Vermont. She then spent the next two years as an agriculture volunteer with Peace Corps Panama, where she supported a remote community’s cacao and coffee farmers. After the successful completion of her service, she spent the next two years at the USDA as an International Program Specialist managing and coordinating large natural resource projects.

Phone: (828) 281 – 0047 x1109

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Meadowview Research Farms Staff

Eric Jenkins — Meadowview Research Farms Tree Breeding Coordinator

Eric joined Meadowview Research Farms in April 2014. He received his M.S. in Forest Resources from the University of Georgia and a B.S. in Biology from East Tennessee State University. As a Tennessee native, his interest in the American chestnut tree developed early in life. His father lived in a house made of wormy chestnut. It was built around the time the blight killed most of the chestnut trees in eastern Tennessee.

Eric has experience with land conservation programs as well as GIS-based planning and analysis. His primary responsibility at Meadowview is managing the production of containerized chestnut trees for research purposes, as well as establishing and assessing progeny tests.

Phone: (276) 944-4631

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Vasiliy Lakoba — Director of Research, Meadowview Research Farms

Vasiliy joined TACF in June 2021 as Director of Research at Meadowview Research Farms. He works with the staff at Meadowview, the Science Leadership Team, and TACF’s Science and Technology Committee to plan and implement breeding studies, orchard and forestry trials, and external research collaborations.

His past work includes forest restoration at the Arboretum at Penn State and a science policy fellowship with the Weed Science Society of America. He holds a PhD in Plant Ecology from Virginia Tech, where he studied invasive species’ interactions with land use and climate change.

Phone: (276) 696-9142

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Dan McKinnon — Director of Land Management, Meadowview Research Farms

Dan joined TACF in 2014 as Seed Orchard Supervisor at Meadowview Research Farms. He has a long history of agriculture and Appalachian forest work, ranging from trail conservation to forest management. As a local native from Marion, Virginia, much of his experience was acquired working in the mountains in the surrounding areas. His expertise covers farm and facilities maintenance, field crew training and supervision, with an emphasis on workplace safety, and coordinating volunteer groups.

Dan holds a degree from the Virginia Highlands Community College in Horticulture Technology and Landscape Management. He has held positions with the U.S. Forest Service, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the U.S. Marine Corps.

Phone: (276) 944-4631

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Cassie Stark — Laboratory Manager, Meadowview Research Farms

Cassie joined TACF as the Laboratory Manager at Meadowview Research Farms in 2022. She is originally from Virginia and previously attended James Madison University (JMU). At JMU, Cassie studied the American chestnut tree; specifically, her research pertained to forest management strategies for increasing the success of hybrid chestnuts in the Appalachian cove. Following JMU, she attended Pennsylvania State University where she received her an M.S. in Forest Resources and studied ramp/wild leek habitat to better understand the conservation and cultivation of ramps. She is passionate about both forest ecology and botany.

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James E. Tolton — Maintenance Technician, Meadowview Research Farms

Jim joined TACF in April 2017 after retiring from Ball Corporation where he was employed for more than 30 years as a line technician. Prior to Ball, Jim was employed at Cape Hatteras National Seashore for 4 years as a lifeguard/park technician. After that, he served as a recreational forester for the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado. Jim has a B..S in Recreation from Radford University. Jim has a B..S in Recreation from Radford University.

Being an avid outdoorsman and having an enduring love for nature and its sustainability, Jim joined TACF in Meadowview, Virginia where he assists staff at Meadowview Research Farms in developing blight-tolerant American chestnut trees. Jim aids in maintaining the farm through equipment operation and maintenance, seed and pollen collection, and processing. He enjoys his role as an advocate for American chestnut restoration and believes in the ecological benefits it will bring to an entire ecosystem.

Phone: (276) 944-4631

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Ciera Wilbur — Nursery Manager, Meadowview Research Farms

Ciera grew up in California where they gained love and respect for the natural world. Growing up in the California foothills, a story about American chestnut breeding inspired them to pursue their passion for the environment as a career. A graduate of Cal Poly Humboldt, Ciera has been following this passion ever since, including working to restore endangered species habitat, natural interpretation, and recycling/compost diversion in the San Francisco Bay Area before moving to Virginia in 2020.

Since arriving in the Commonwealth, Ciera has worked with landowners to implement agroforestry techniques, specifically forest farming with a focus on Appalachian forest botanical species, and experienced the new industry of commercial cannabis production. She now draws from her past experience and passion for growing and for native plants as the Nursery Manager at Meadowview Research Farms, eager to continue the mission of eastern hardwood forest restoration with the great American chestnut.

Phone: (276) 944-4631

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