TEDxEmory’s ‘Solve for X’ Seeks Clarity Amidst Conflict

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Saturday’s TEDx event stayed true to everything for which TEDx stands — to spread and share ideas with communities in a diverse range of disciplines — succeeding even in the current tumultuous political climate..

Thirteen speakers, including two University students, gathered Feb. 24 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Woodruff Health Sciences Center Administration Building (WHSCAB) to present at the conference. Roughly 550 students and faculty attended the event, according to TEDxEmory Director of Marketing Jenna Sands (18C).

TEDxEmory is the University’s student-run chapter of the international nonprofit organization TED, which aims to share “Ideas Worth Spreading.” This year marks TEDxEmory’s eighth event and introduces its new partnership with a startup called Pnyka, an online platform based on prompts and discussion forums that allow audience members to continue conversation after the event. This year’s theme was “Solve for X,” which several speakers used to address the uncertainty of the 2018 political climate.

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“Our team was inspired by the multiplicity of problems, interesting conversations and new discoveries taking place around the world and here at home,” TEDxEmory President Mackenzie Aime (18C) said. “We wanted to create a theme that allowed for an exploration of the variety of ways people pursue their passions and contribute to larger social change.”

The first speaker, attorney Gerald Griggs, spoke about political uncertainty in the United States. He urged students to educate themselves in light of current events relating to racism, women’s rights and gun control and stressed the importance of community participation. Griggs concluded by challenging students to participate in a March 14 nationwide walkout in response to the recent mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Staying on the topic of race relations, the next two speakers related racial justice to their respective studies. University of the Pacific Associate Professor of Sociology Alison Alkon explained how racial prejudice continues to affect the distribution of farmland.

“I didn’t expect a talk on how food could relate to issues with race,” Aila Jiang (21C) said about Alkon’s speech. “It’s just something I wasn’t really aware of and never would have thought about if I hadn’t attended.”

Taking a different approach, Emory University Jimmy Carter Professor of History Joseph Crespino focused on black underrepresentation in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,applauding Atticus Finch’s pursuit for justice while criticizing the novel’s focus on an individual white man as the hero, with black people as a passive object of pity. In reality, Crespino noted, black people had a large active role in civil rights.

Shifting gears, Laura Briggs (19C) raised the subject of women and shaving, questioning why the majority of U.S. women partake in such a time-consuming and costly activity without intuitive benefit. Briggs analyzed the linked history of women and shaving and determined the activity to be a part of the infantilization of women in order for them appear more desirable to men.

Some speakers targeted the subject of social justice, while others explored music, scientific research and life lessons using personal anecdotes. Atlanta Opera Director Tomer Zvulun related opera to the iPhone and Wake Forest University Professor of Radiology Jonathan Burdette explained how the brain reacts differently to music based on preference. Bhargav Annigeri (19Ox, 21C), inspired by his love for both Hindustani styles and American genres, spoke about the power of using culturally diverse music in music sampling.

“Some of these things I’d never get to hear about on a day-to-day basis,” Florencia Zamora (21C) said. “Like just now, I barely ever think about opera, much less how it relates to an iPhone.”

Georgia Institute of Technology Professor of Fluid Mechanics David Hu, whose research was featured in “Saturday Night Live”’s Weekend Update in February 2015, garnered laughter from the audience when he introduced his study of different species’ average urination times, a study which Sen.Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., described as a waste of taxpayer funds. Hu’s research, however, sets a precedent for diagnosis standards for prostate diseases.

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“I wanted to talk about something that was timely, and the senator’s accusations just happened in 2016,” Hu said. “Doing seemingly strange research is a problem that a lot of scientists face. I was hoping this talk would bring science and the public together because recently they’ve become increasingly at odds.”

Other speakers shared lessons learned through personal anecdotes. Molly Welch, a motivational speaker and activist for ending distracted driving, received a standing ovation after she related her story of recovery from a head-on collision with a pick-up truck. Emory alumnus Yu-Kai Lin (01C), founder of contemporary art gallery Kai Lin Art and a professional pianist, shared his three secrets to a successful creative career: good mentorship, scheduled routines and networking.

Some audience members were drawn in by certain speakers, but ended up staying the entire event.

“I was mainly interested in the science-related talks but … I saw other speakers who I thought I wouldn’t be interested in but ended up liking,” Zamora said, adding that the event “kind of broadened my horizons [on] certain issues that I just wasn’t aware of.”

Though the event was designed for speakers to share their work to the audience, several speakers brought family and stayed to listen to other talks.

“I stayed for all the talks. … I also brought my family, including my wife and two kids,” Hu said. “It was only a day long, but it has provided my wife and I with several days of conversations. Since then, we watched Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play together, I showed her Molly Welch’s public service announcement about distracted driving and we plan to visit Yu Kai Lin’s art gallery.”

Though topics and opinions varied, the evening’s takeaway message remained clear: Conversation is important, especially between those of diverging views. In 2018’s sphere of ingroup bias and group polarization, this has become more difficult to accomplish but more important than ever, as Griggs said during his talk. For the eighth year in a row, TEDx has provided Emory with the platform to do so, uniting students and faculty to commune on the world’s innovations.