People to know around Pittsburgh in the New Year


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As we begin a new year, complete with a new mayor, optimism is running high in Pittsburgh. There are many reasons why it should, and these are some of them. We've selected a group of 14 outstanding individuals from a variety of fields who we believe will do much to shape the future of the region and, in some cases, the world. They may not be household names yet, but their intelligence, ambition, creativity, activism and vision are what it will take to propel us forward in fresh directions. These bright stars are shining just beneath the radar -- but not for long!

Rick DeShantz, chef

DeShantz

Chef Rick DeShantz is changing the city's dining landscape with his focus on design, compelling menus and terrific cocktails. The stylish Butcher and the Rye, which opened in October, has raised the bar for restaurant interiors. And a fleet of the city's best bartenders pours a range of interesting drinks, from modern to classics. This spring, Mr. DeShantz will open a taqueria next door, followed by another restaurant in East Liberty. The brisk clip at which he's opening restaurants points to the ambition he shares with his partner, Tolga Sevdik. Although Mr. DeShantz had been honing his skills in kitchens around town for many years, things really got cooking for him when he left the helm of Nine on Nine Downtown to open Meat & Potatoes in the summer of 2011. Two years later, the restaurant still garners a long wait for a table, as customers line up for great drinks, a meat-centric menu and a terrific place for people-watching. -- Melissa McCart

 

Dr. Mark W. Perlin, founder, Cybergenetics

Perlin

Mark Perlin is someone the courts and law enforcement already know based on his computer method of analyzing DNA, especially to sort out identities in mixed DNA samples. With a medical degree and doctoral degrees in math and computer science, Dr. Perlin founded Cybergenetics in Oakland. His TrueAllele math-based methodology, now used worldwide, has helped convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent in cases human analysis couldn't solve. On average, it provides a million times more information than human analysis and was used to help identify victims of the World Trade Center disaster. To date, Dr. Perlin and Cybergenetics have analyzed DNA in more than 100 criminal cases worldwide, with Dr. Perlin testifying in 20, including a growing number of local cases. He is not only changing the face of criminal investigations but also writing his own rock music, often with lyrics about DNA analysis. -- David Templeton

 

Ed Piskor, cartoonist

Piskor

Ed Piskor has drawn comics and graphic novels that celebrate the history of the Beat generation of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and the origins of the computer hacker and "phone phreak" culture of the 1970s. Both generated buzz among the comic subculture. This past year, Mr. Piskor of Munhall focused his considerable talent on a completely unrelated section of society: hip-hop music. In the first of what he projects as a five-volume graphic novel, Mr. Piskor did in 112 pages what dozens of much longer history books had failed to do: depict the flavor as well as the facts of one of the most significant eras in American music history. Within a month of its October release, the initial 20,000 copies of "The Hip-Hop Family Tree" were sold out. His publisher, Fantagraphics Books, is rushing a second printing even as it awaits the second volume, expected to be released in August. -- Sean Hamill

 

Matt Merriman-Preston, political consultant

Merriman-Preston

The name of one of Pittsburgh's biggest political winners of the past year didn't appear on any ballot. Matt Merriman-Preston was the general consultant and key strategist for Bill Peduto's mayoral campaign. In the Democratic primary and November election, he also helped guide the winning campaigns of city Councilman-elect Dan Gilman, the longtime Peduto aide who will succeed his old boss, and city Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, who defended her council seat in the political backyard of Mr. Peduto's chief rival, Jack Wagner. He was also a consultant on Deb Gross' winning campaign in a special election for another city council seat. A native of Florida, Mr. Merriman-Preston earned his doctorate in chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and stayed in Pittsburgh because of his interest in politics. After Mr. Peduto's primary victory, he said of his colleague: "The old machine doesn't understand the new Pittsburgh. Matt Merriman-Preston does." -- James O'Toole

 

Todd Owens, executive recruiter

Owens

Todd Owens will help you find the right job, if you want to do right in the world. After more than a decade in the nonprofit consulting world, most recently with Dewey & Kaye, Mr. Owens recently co-founded Nonprofit Talent with Michelle Pagano Heck, also an experienced consultant for nonprofits. One of the company's first high-profile tasks was to work with Talent-City.com, the collaboration between The Pittsburgh Foundation and Mayor Bill Peduto to fill senior leadership roles in the new city government. A graduate of Bethany College in West Virginia, Mr. Owens came to Pittsburgh to manage the popular rock band Brownie Mary in 1994. He went on to earn a master's degree at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and was propelled into Pittsburgh's nonprofit sphere after a fellowship with Coro. Local chair for the Jefferson Awards for Public Service, Mr. Owens is also a dynamo in Pittsburgh's cultural world, chairing Attack Theatre's board. The former chair of Venture Outdoors, he can be found defying gravity on mountain bikes throughout the region. -- John Allison

 

Molly Blasier, developer

Blasier

Molly Blasier may not be the most well-known name in Pittsburgh development circles, but her impact has been unmistakable. Ms. Blasier identified the property and was the visionary for the site plan for the Eastside I and II development in East Liberty and introduced Whole Foods Market to the project, helping to trigger that neighborhood's rebirth. She was a consultant to Washington County developer Millcraft Investments in the planning that led to the conversion of the former G.C. Murphy's store Downtown and other properties into apartment, retail and fitness space, and the planned construction of a new office, hotel and retail complex on the south side of Forbes Avenue. Now Ms. Blasier, principal of Blasier Urban LLC, is in the midst of another bold adventure -- construction of a multiscreen movie theater, 56 apartments and a cafe and bar at the corner of Penn and South Highland avenues in East Liberty. Ms. Blasier, who lives in Point Breeze, is in the process of buying four buildings at the corner to make way for the $20 million development. She is working with the Boston-based Davis Cos. on the project and hopes to break ground in the fall. She is negotiating with a national movie theater chain to be the anchor. -- Mark Belko

 

Thommy Conroy, artist, florist, event architect

Conroy

Originally from Connecticut, Thommy Conroy moved to Pittsburgh 15 years ago to study fine art and theater direction at Carnegie Mellon University. A talented painter who exhibits every spring at Mendelson Gallery, Mr. Conroy's interest in theater led to his work in event design. For eight years he orchestrated the Sprout Fund's massive bash, which attracted more than 2,500 guests and was a Seen best party perennial. He's also done the Cultural Trust's Cosmopolitan Pittsburgh and other nonprofit benefits as well as weddings and private parties. When his local library was threatened with closure, Mr. Conroy started Friends of the Lawrenceville Library and organized a benefit to save it. As a florist he's participated twice in Carnegie Museum's Art in Bloom and serves as the visual manager and buyer at Roxanne's in the Strip. His flair for fashion makes him the Beau Brummell of Pittsburgh, yet another form of artistic expression. "My work and focus, more than painting or floristry, is storytelling," he says. Next up is a show Feb. 7 at Artisan Gallery of silk-screened valentines featuring lyrics from monster rock ballads. Last year it was Shakespeare's sonnets. -- Marylynn Uricchio

 

Dr. Karen Ann Hacker, director, Allegheny County Health Department

Hacker

Dr. Karen Hacker, who was brought in from Boston in 2013 to head the county's Health Department, has initiated an anti-obesity program aimed at reshaping and reducing the profile of county residents, especially school children. The former associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director at the Institute for Community Health in Boston brings energy and a strong, community-based public health background to her new job. She's worked on effective obesity prevention programs in California and Massachusetts over the past decade that included school-based education and activity efforts, workplace weight-loss initiatives, and strategies to reduce television and computer screen time and increase physical activity. -- Don Hopey

 

Luis von Ahn, founder, Duolingo.com

von Ahn

A Carnegie Mellon University associate professor and local entrepreneur, Luis von Ahn was already well known in the computer world before last year. As a student, he helped invent reCaptcha, the anti-spam portal that makes you type in scanned letters from books to prove you're a human when you enter websites; later he won a MacArthur "genius" grant among other honors. But late last year, his impact reached a whole new level when another idea of his -- creating an app, Duolingo, to help teach people how to speak another language for free -- was named 2013 App of the Year by Apple's iTunes App Store. It was the first educational app and the first non-Silicon Valley-produced app ever to win that honor. It also meant that Duolingo's popularity, which already had skyrocketed from 3 million users to 16 million users last year, was sure to explode even more. And that was just based on six languages the app let you learn. This year, the company, which employs 30 people in its Oakland office, hopes to add 44 additional languages. -- Sean Hamill

 

Jessie Ramey, visiting scholar in women's studies at the University of Pittsburgh

Ramey

Jessie Ramey, a Point Breeze parent of two Pittsburgh Public School students, is one of the faces of the grass-roots movement that began growing when state and federal funding for school districts took a hit after Gov. Tom Corbett took office in 2011. Ms. Ramey, who is an ACLS New Faculty Fellow in women's studies and history at Pitt, began writing the blog Yinzercation, which calls for more state funding and less student testing, and challenges school closings along with corporate-style reforms. In 2013, Yinzercation and five other groups -- Action United, One Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and SEIU Healthcare PA -- formed Great Public Schools-Pittsburgh. GPS hosted Diane Ravitch, author of "Reign of Error," in September and joined a demonstration outside Mr. Corbett's Downtown office last month. The Yinzercation blog lists the top 10 local education justice victories in 2013, including the election of new members to the Pittsburgh Board of Public Education, which resulted in reversals of earlier votes to use Teach for America and start the process to close Pittsburgh Woolslair K-5. -- Eleanor Chute

 

Bobby Zappala, CEO of Thrill Mill

Zappala

Bobby Zappala, co-founder and CEO of Pittsburgh's latest startup incubator Thrill Mill, is a graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He is the cousin of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. Mr. Zappala was an associate attorney with Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney PC Pittsburgh office before 2012, when he and College Prowler CEO Luke Skurman began to create Thrill Mill, part of a regional effort to bring Pittsburgh's startup scene to the national mainstream. The incubator hosted the first Thrival Music + Innovation Festival in October and is using its Business Bout competition to find the next class of startups. Thrill Mill recently introduced a "Startup in Residence" program that provides free rent to early-stage businesses in exchange for their services as mentors to newer businesses. -- Deborah Todd

 

Michael Young, Pitt Panthers freshman forward

Young

Michael Young, a highly touted 6-foot-8 freshman forward for the Pitt basketball team, is looking to make a big impact for the Panthers in 2014. He starred for St. Benedict Prep in Newark, N.J., finishing the 2012-13 season with the No. 2 national ranking by USA Today. Mr. Young, a native of Duquesne, possesses a combination of strength and athleticism that allows him to excel on the perimeter and in the post. He is averaging 6.0 points and 5.4 rebounds per game in his debut season and is already averaging more than 20 minutes of playing time per game. Mr. Young looks to be a fixture in the Panthers lineup for years to come. -- Jordan Greer

 

Tammy Ryan, playwright

Ryan

Pittsburgh is awash in theater talent, on stages, behind the scenes and on the faculties of our colleges, and it's one of our chief exports as well. Tammy Ryan is making it happen here, there and everywhere. The playwright's work has been produced all over the world, and she won the 2012 Francesca Primus Prize awarded by the American Theater Critics Association for her play "Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods," written and set here and premiered as a co-production at Premiere Stages and Playwrights Theater of New Jersey. Her most recent play, "Soldier's Heart," debuted last year at Playhouse Rep, the professional company of Point Park University, where she is an adjunct professor. Among her plays for young audiences, "The Music Lesson" received the National Playwriting for Youth Bonderman Award and the American Alliance of Theatre in Education's Distinguished Play Award. The Pittsburgh regional representative for the Dramatists Guild of America also collaborated last year on the "Gun Control Theater Action" at Bricolage Theater, with readings of plays by local and international playwrights. -- Sharon Eberson

 

Lisa Scales, CEO Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank

Scales

Lisa Scales was appointed CEO of the region's largest food bank in July 2012, a time when all the arrows were headed in the wrong directions: Funding from governments was down, food donations were dropping, and demand for food was rising. But Ms. Scales, a Wilkinsburg native, stepped up to the challenge that figures to only get tougher this year. After working 16 years at the food bank, starting as supervisor of its Green Harvest program, she knew the best way to help the food bank was to get the word out. She did that by expanding outreach, which resulted in increased donations, which helped buy more food, which meant even more meals were served. -- Sean Hamill


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