Each week, University of Michigan Business students enrolled in the class Business and Leaders: The Positive Differences are required to attend an evening event to learn from visiting industry leaders and experts. Last Wednesday, students congregated in the Hill Auditorium to see Neri Oxman’s lecture, “The Krebs Cycle of Creativity.” Oxman is an architect, designer and associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her work has been showcased at world-renowned institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian Design Museum.
As I waited for the lecture to start, looking at the stage where three big screens had been set up with moving black and white images, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Her photo, which had been posted around the Ross School of Business along with the lecture details, cut her as an intimidating figure — her makeup perfectly applied and her hair styled in that masterful “I didn’t try but it still looks great” kind of way I myself have never been able to accomplish. She smolders at the camera in a way that exudes confidence. I was expecting her to be like all the other speakers that business school people love: suave and charming, with enough humor to offset any possible criticism about being too dry.
However, when she walked on stage after an enthusiastic introduction by Business School Dean Scott DeRue, she was so unlike the image I had painted in my head that I had a hard time reconciling the Oxman I had seen in the posters with the woman on stage. She spoke to the audience like she was entertaining old friends in her living room rather than giving a lecture to thousands of strangers (many of whom were probably snobby intellectuals), and her warmth was clearly visible when she affectionately acknowledged the students who had attended her Q&A session earlier in the day.
The lecture was fascinating. She spoke about the work she does at the MIT Media Lab and introduced a process she calls the Krebs Cycle of creativity. She explained how she and her students combine biology, fashion, architecture, design and more in order to spawn fantastic and almost otherworldly creations based in both the real world and the imagination. She spoke of the importance of using the word “and” rather than “or”— of realizing instead of arguing about what discipline or invention is more important than the other, it’s more productive to engage with both and recognize the contributions that each brings to the world. Oxman also spoke about some of the many projects she’s worked on, including creating a structure for 6,500 silkworms to use as a base for their silk production and putting half a million bees into an artificial urban habitat.
Despite the obvious genius that exuded from her and her passion for difficult, intricate work, Oxman maintained the same level of humor and relatability with which she started the lecture off as she delved deeper into the intricacies of her work. She told everyone to not use their phones or laptops, laughingly saying, “It pisses me off.” She asked questions of the audience, teasing them like she would a close friend when no one knew the answer (“This is rudimentary information!”). While she did have carefully prepared slides, she made it clear she had no intention of following any strict plan and simply let her enthusiasm direct her path. During the Q&A session that followed her lecture, she sat down on the stage with crisscrossed legs and listened intently to the questions that audience members asked. And, her parting words to an audience filled with Business students when asked how students can be like her and produce powerful, creative work? “Don’t do budgets.”
Oxman’s lecture was profoundly organic and intimate in the best way possible — though I know that some of my peers, who are used to buttoned-down men giving lectures (while throwing in the occasional obligatory joke, of course) were taken aback by her eccentricity. The almost uncomfortably casual way in which she presented her lecture was a direct contrast to the perfect image of being professional but affable that so many professors believe they have to exude when they present. Oxman was unapologetically unpolished. She stuttered and punctuated her statements with laughs and “ums” and “uhs,” and she paced and waved her hands around in a way that some would probably criticize as being too distracting. All of this only added to her charisma and charm; her behavior showed she doesn’t care about proper presentation decorum and her paramount focus was to show off her work on her own terms. This kind of candor made her lecture much more effective than any carefully timed jokes and seamless transition between slides.
To be completely honest, I didn’t understand much of what she spoke about, and I know that was the case for many people in her audience. Despite this, I found what I did understand incredible, and as I left, I was struck by how, for perhaps the first time ever, I actually enjoyed a science lecture. It was amazing to see an obviously brilliant, incredibly talented woman toss away the stuffy presentation guidelines set by professionals who believe they have to always present the best version of themselves in order to appeal to their audience. And while it’s true that appearance means everything in some cases, I prefer Oxman’s wonderfully disjointed and invigorating method of lecturing.
Krystal Hur can be reached at email@example.com.