TEDxTerryTalks 2011. It’s a wrap!

Photo By Jamil Rhajik

UPDATE: Highlights from the 2011 TEDx Terry Talks are available as a podcast, available for download on iTunes (episode 6).

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Well, another TEDxTerryTalks has come and gone, and as always, it was a wonderful, inspiring, and altogether fun experience for me. Just to clarify, TEDxTerryTalks is a TEDx conference where the list of speakers is always populated by UBC students (specifically 7 undergraduate, 1 graduate, and one young alumni). Whilst the memory is still fresh in my mind (more so, as I got to MC the conference), I just wanted to take a moment to summarize the day.

And what a day! I had fun from the very moment I got on stage. Especially when I did my usual “must somehow reference Chewbacca” shtick (this is an ongoing tradition I have for all my public talks). Right from my introductory remarks, I could tell the audience was already into it: it had a nice, friendly and comfortable vibe. Plus, having Harrison Ford in the crowd also didn’t hurt.

"There he is..."

Francis Arevalo opened the proceedings with some of his slam poetry (one on “Vancouver” specifically). Since he also closed the conference, and I’ll talk about him at the bottom of this post, but for now, let’s just say that he “nailed it.”

I should also add that the talks did have a hiccup or two near the beginning. Apparently, all my decades of training as a molecular geneticist failed me in the A/V department, as somehow, I had not aligned the proper slides for Justin McElroy (our first speaker). He actually started off the talk with a fairly serious opening statement on the subject of how students generally get their media, only to be met with the first slide of the next talk. As luck would have it, that next talk revolved around the topic of zombies, and so… well there you have it. Justin, to his credit, took it in stride, and recovered brilliantly. His examination of the most popular stories in the Ubyssey was very cool: also a little sad, but that was kind of the point, as he talked about the things that the UBC student paper tries to do to circumvent this challenge. In the end, the opening talk and my snafu was kind of a appropriate mix: in that Justin gave an excellent talk that was both engaging and with serious points (we’re gonna come away with some important ideas today), but that this didn’t preclude the fact that “anything could happen” (cue in references to zombies, Han Solo, ghosts, alien abductions, and unicorns – all falling under the “you had to be there” category).

Next up, Laura Fukumoto took the stage. Her talk was a great reflective statement on how society unfairly judges the obese, and she used the occasional nod to zombie culture to make her points. There was one slide in particular, where she highlighted a quote from a William Campbell Douglass that drew some gasps from the audience: “Fat people have little brains… is that really surprising? You’d have to be missing some brain volume anyway to let yourself get that big and sloppy in the first place…you’ve done this to yourself.

Yikes! It was a great moment, because Laura then went on to show that despite the feeling of unease in the audience at this statement, it is nevertheless a sentiment that is strongly implied in our culture these days. Not surprisingly, Laura got a standing ovation when she was finished.

Here’s Laura describing how it felt to give a talk (Thanks to Angela Jung).

The next speaking block began with a TED video by Richard Wilkinson. This was particularly prevalent given the #occupy communities sprouting up around the world. Highly recommended that you watch the video yourself, if you haven’t already seen it.

Afterwards, we had Paige Zhang come on stage where she gave an impassioned plea to move beyond the stigma of HIV. You know, the one where a person has “to live with HIV.” What’s up with that? You don’t live with the flu, so why the different outlook to HIV? Doesn’t everyone know that HIV is no longer a death sentence (at least in the developed world), that (much like diabetes) it is “chronic manageable illness?” Apparently not. Suffice to say, she made it clear that you should get tested for HIV every year, because (1) it’s the smart thing to do, and (2) because if you do, it becomes much easier for you and your friends to look beyond the false pretenses that surround the disease.

Then we had Richard Kemick… Richard’s talk was one of those talks, where essentially I don’t think I could do any justice trying to explain it (other than to say that there was a standing ovation and that I really really want to watch our Dean of Arts watch his talk). Why don’t we just let the twitter feed tell you how it went:

The third speaking block began with a TED video from Malcolm Gladwell. Also worth checking out, especially if you’re a fan of his brand of writing where he connects multiple ideas into a single narrative.

And then we sang…

Actually, it was Hussein Janmohamed who sang first (whoa – that was cool), and then he went on to describe to the audience, how the act of singing in a choir is incredibly unifying. More so from his experience as a pioneer that has co-founded projects to bridge different religious cultures through the combining and mixing of diverse choral traditions. From this, we then had the extraordinary experience of watching the TEDxTerryTalks audience became a full-on choir. Here, Hussein led us through a singing exercise, and before you knew it, we were unified.

That's right... There was singing. And it sounded GREAT! Photo by Jamil Rhajik.

Then Ratib Islam was up on deck, and since he was going to talk about the importance of redefining the vernacular behind alternative medicine, this was something that I was especially looking forward to (being a sciencegeek and all). His main thesis was to examine why there is a certain language that accompanies aspects of alternative medicine. Because, ultimately whilst many of it is great and effective, lots of it is also frankly suspect. Ratib, in a very respectful and thought provoking way, asked why can’t the language simply revolve around whether the treatment, standard or alternative, is something that simply “works” (or not) and has the scientific evidence to back up this efficacy rubric.

Finally, we had reached the last speaking block, which began with a TED video by Kavita Ramdas – all the more pertinent because we’ve invited her out to UBC to give a talk next semester). After that, we were suppose to have Alex Lougheed give a talk about openness in the academic university world, but unfortunately, he was a no show (he’s o.k . – we checked up). In the end, this actually worked out alright, because it gave us some time to talk about the grant proposal exercise we had initiated earlier in my introductory remarks.

Oh wait, what is this you say?

Well, this year, we decided to try something new that would hopefully get the audience thinking about advocacy work throughout the day and also stay involved after the conference itself. At the time, this was something that we didn’t really have a good name for, but inevitably over the course of the day, it became known as the “3 Sentence Grant Proposal.” Basically, we had three $100 grants available, and what we wanted, was to engage the audience to come up with an action item that fell along the lines of social responsibility, environmental stewardship, or just something nice for others – and where $100 could help a little bit. As well, chosen grants would get access to folks like myself who could provide some mentoring (i.e. experience, connections, etc) that could help them in achieving that action item.

I have to admit that the idea was a longshot, and as the MC, I was fully prepared for it to crash and burn. Instead, by our 2:35pm deadline, we got 55 proposals!


Holy shit – that was way more than I had expected. Consequently, it was tricky to read them all properly, so we decided to fund three on the spot, but also commit to funding at least three others (where we can have a little more time to go over them). I should also add that this exercise is partly an excuse to try out some things as the Terry Projects prepares to design a UBC credit course around social activism (Faculty types, if you’re reading this and it sounds interesting to you, then do drop me a line).

Below are the three we chose right away, because we thought they were fun but also a good mix of easy and complicated to pull off (can’t just choose the easy ones right? – otherwise, how would we learn to do things better):

Anyway, I thought this whole exercise was pretty cool, and conference goers will definitely all be receiving an email from me about ways to stay involved.

At this point, we still had a few minutes to fill, so naturally because we had now obtained proper official “choir status,” Hussein, once again, led us in a choral piece. This time, the hall was separated into 4 sections, which were coordinated to produce something that was incredible (we will HAVE to put this up on the net when we get it – it was outstanding)!

When the hall got quiet again, a woman came up on stage, and introduced herself as Missy. She then began to explain that Laura Bain (our next speaker) could not make it because of her affliction with Bipolar Type II. This, of course, was a ruse to contrast the clinical take on the disorder with “Laura,” the person, who by all accounts is a vibrant, joyful, and complex individual. Using a great device that involved high heels and comfy slippers, Laura took the audience on a journey that described her experience with this mental illness, and how she has learnt to navigate it, incorporate it with conviction even, into her life. Her talk was very powerful. Another standing ovation, and by my count, a ton of people who wanted to connect with her afterwards.

Last, but not least, Francis took the stage again, and finished the conference up fittingly: that is, with a stirring, kinetic, and (frankly) awesome poem. The words really resonated, with one phrasing that especially got my attention.

“And never, ever, EVER, be afraid to speak!”


And then it was all over…

Hopefully, for those of you who came out, you did manage to enjoy yourself.  Even better is if this conference, in some small way, gave you some pause for thought, and maybe even enough of a pause to inspire you a little.

In any event, hope to see you next year.

Photo by Lu Zhang

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Many thanks goes to the Terry Team, especially the student staff, who were essentially responsible (seriously) for everything you saw. You know them as the younger looking folks with the green t-shirts, but in other circles, they are Gordon Katic, Mollie Deyong, and Jessika Baroi. Big thanks also go to Tina Sha and Ekaterina Dovjenko for the awesome stage design (seriously, you should hire them). Finally, the success of the TEDxTerryTalks ultimately rests on the speakers themselves. This speaking thing is not an easy thing to do – to lay your body, mind and heart out on the line – in front of several hundred people. They certainly delivered and should be applauded for what they shared with us.

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David (@ng_dave) is Faculty at the Michael Smith Labs. His writing has appeared in places such as McSweeney's, The Walrus, and boingboing.net. He plans on using Terry as another place to highlight the mostly science-y links he appreciates. In fact, if you liked this one, you might also like his main site generally - this can be found at popperfont.net.