Dreamers and disrupters zone in on public health at TEDxUofM

Wednesday, February 8, 2017 - 8:45pm

Stamps School of Art and Design Assistant Professor Sophia Brueckner presents on the ethical design of new technologies at TEDxUofM at the Power Center on Wednesday.

Stamps School of Art and Design Assistant Professor Sophia Brueckner presents on the ethical design of new technologies at TEDxUofM at the Power Center on Wednesday. Buy this photo
Arnold Zhou/Daily

Wednesday night at the Power Center, eight diverse speakers — including University of Michigan professors and international artists — discussed their unique visions for societal change and growth as a part of the annual student-run TEDxUofM event.

More than 1,000 students and residents filled the auditorium to hear the speakers’ ideas regarding the conference theme: dreamers and disruptors. The speakers covered a wide array of topics including cancer research, multiculturalism in a globalized world and educational reform.

One event organizer, LSA sophomore Hannah French, noted the theme’s aim is to cause introspection among the audience.

“So basically what we were thinking is when you’re setting out with an idea and you’re trying to make this positive change in the world, people are doing this usually in one of two ways — they’re either dreaming big or they’re trying to disrupt the status quo,” French said. “The theme encourages the audience to question whether they are a dreamer or a disruptor and how they can use that in their everyday lives.”

Among event attendees, it was this exposure to new ideas and the opportunity to engage in self-reflection on their applicability in daily life that attracted many to go to TEDxUofM.

One such event-goer, Engineering senior Rachel Wallace, said events like TEDx bring people together and promote the sharing of different ideas, experiences and cultures. She further explained that the conference prompts people to break out of their social groups, and spend time face-to-face with new people.

“I think events like this are great because it gives you an opportunity to hear about a lot of different ideas, often different from your own,” Wallace said. “… Also the interaction around you and collaborating, you know people tend to stay within their own groups, and it’s a way to break out of that shell and interact with people face to face who are different than you, meet new people, which I think we don’t do that enough, so TEDx really leverages all the cool ideas, research and experiences.”

The event led off with a talk by Koen Vanmechelen, a Belgian conceptual artist who pioneered the Cosmopolitan Chicken Research Project — an artistic and scientific study that works to cross-breed different species chickens from around the world. According to Vanmechelen, the chicken is a metaphor for the phenomenon of globalization and diversity.

Vanmechelen noted that he believes his message will hold more relevance with an American audience than a Belgian one, because of the country’s current state of racial division.

“In the beginning, the talk is all chickens,” Vanmechelen said. “You know, it can be funny, then the talk is built up, and after a little while everyone realize how serious it is. What is happening with this country is the content of my talk, and I like it.”

Caitlin Holman, game designer and co-founder of GradeCraft, centered her talk around diversity of a different kind — the issue of intellectual diversity, and how educators can better improve their classrooms.

Holman said she was inspired to create GradeCraft because of her background in game design and her observations that people work longer and harder on problems when they are presented in a game-like environment.

Several of the topics at the event dealt with issues pertaining to public health. Dr. Erika Newman, a pediatric surgical oncologist at the University C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, spoke about the fight against childhood cancer — in particular, the neuroblastoma, a form of cancer that manifests primarily on the adrenal glands.

For Newman, cancer has always been a part of her life. When she was young, she lost her mother and two uncles to the disease. Newman said she was personally inspired to find a cure for neuroblastoma after removing a large tumor from the chest of a 10-year-old boy, who then asked why a cure did not exist already.

At that moment, Newman said she asked herself, “Why aren't we aspiring for the extraordinary? Couldn't we at least try?” She then described how these sort of moments in people’s experiences lead them to their purpose in life.

“Our personal and professional experiences, they shape our dreams,” Newman said. “They lead us to our destiny. Our challenge is to be open to the clues, the quiet nudge that leads us to our life’s purpose.”

Furthering the discussion on public health, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, the director of the Detroit Health Department and specialist in epidemiology, focused on his work in Detroit tackling public health issues such as heart disease, childhood asthma and accidental pregnancy.

In his talk, El-Sayed stressed the importance of “thinking upstream” — or considering all aspects that contribute to public health crises. In particular, El-Sayed discussed the role poverty plays in the frequency of heart attacks.

"It's about poor diet, lack of exercise, smog and poverty,” El-Sayed said. “… And we cannot ignore the fact of race. We have concentrated the poor and minorities in certain areas.”

Documentary filmmaker Sophia Kruz discussed her work with human rights abuses, as well as women’s health issues in Africa. She explained how art can affect social change in a way that most people never anticipated.

“Culture has the profound power to act on social change,” Kruz said. “They’re using culture to create change around issues that people previously didn’t think possible.”

However, health experts were not the only ones who talked about medical concerns. University alum Scott Matzka, a former varsity hockey player, spoke about his struggles with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease — a neurodegenerative disease that has a 100 percent mortality rate.

Matzka, who founded MyTurn — an organization to benefit families of those affected by ALS — after his diagnosis, spoke candidly about the personal impact that a fatal disease can have. 

"Five years ago, I was in peak physical condition,” Matzka said. “I was an athlete, but I was more than that: I am a husband, a father. … Over the next couple of years (after ALS diagnosis), we traveled a lot, we said yes to everything, but my condition worsened."

Matzka told the audience that living with a fatal disease can be both empowering because you can choose how you spend your remaining years, but also difficult knowing that you will miss seeing key milestones in your family’s life.

The audience gave Matzka, who was one of the final speakers, a standing ovation when he stood from his chair and called upon the audience to help take action against ALS.

"I have been given a choice, to lie down, or to stand up.” Matzka said. “And I have chosen to stand up. It's your turn to show compassion."