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TEDxStanford presentations take audience 'above and beyond'

From tackling global warming to the art of saying goodbye, the third annual TEDxStanford conference on Saturday was a smorgasbord of food for thought. Even the music and dance performances were made for deep thinking.

Saturday's TEDxStanford conference, an eclectic mix of talks and performances, challenged the members of the audience to redefine their worldviews. Those who took the stage urged the sold-out Cemex Auditorium crowd to seek justice, save the planet, take risks and "reconsider beautiful."

The theme was "Above and Beyond." True to Stanford culture, the program included lots of data to digest. How do we attract high-achieving, low-income students to elite colleges and universities? First, we use data to find out how many there are, who they are and where they are.  

How do we slow down the pace of a warming planet? Look at the data. They don't lie.

How can biotech entrepreneurs create products that are in the best interests of patients? Synthesize the data.

But while the presentations were intellectually challenging, they were also accessible. You didn't have to be a scholar to benefit from TEDxStanford, said Lorena Weinstein, who has listened to many TED talks on YouTube and came from San Francisco to attend Saturday's event. "This is my favorite 'class,'" she said. 

The day began with Talisman's a capella rendition of a South African funeral song and ended with a medley of black sacred music that gave the audience a sample of a musical written by Stanford senior Jessica Anderson, in which performers took the audience from slavery to freedom.

The presentations throughout the day were uplifting. Even Noah Diffenbaugh, associate professor of Earth sciences, offered hope, after painting a grim picture of what our world will look like if we continue on our current trajectory of energy consumption.

"I'm often told that I'm a real downer, but I have hope. I believe that we can create a world where every person on planet Earth has access to the same level of well-being that I am enjoying," he said.

Beyond the Farm

Contributing to the well-being of those far beyond the privileged confines of the Farm was a running theme.

Economics Professor Caroline Hoxby talked about the genesis of a tool she and colleagues developed to address the dearth of high-achieving, low-income students applying to elite colleges and universities.

Using data to dispel many of the assumptions that have been used to explain away the low number of applications – that the students were unprepared for these elite schools, or that they could not afford them – Hoxby and her colleagues developed and tested customized outreach materials.

Their tool is now going to be used as a model by the College Board and the ACT test preparation organizations.

Julia Landauer, a Stanford senior and a NASCAR driver, used personal stories to talk about dispelling the gender stereotypes that she has faced as a racecar driver: Women aren't aggressive and girls are told that being aggressive is a bad thing; it is acceptable to take the victim role; women are fragile.

Landauer, who started out as a go-cart racer as a young girl, told of some of the stern talk her father gave her after difficult races, including, "You need to rip their livers out."

Landauer noted that while racing is "terrifying and amazing," it's not really scary. "Breaking down centuries of negative perceptions of women is daunting," she said.

At 14, Jackie Rotman, '12, founded Everybody Dance Now!, a nonprofit program for at-risk youth. The organization has served more than 5,000 youngsters in 12 cities. Rotman is currently the executive director of Spark, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that has invested $1.5 million in 150 grassroots women-led organizations around the world.

She began her talk with a slide that simply stated, "The way you think about young people is Dead Wrong." She talked about her desire for a "sense of meaning" as a 12-year-old growing up in Santa Barbara. "You don't have to be an adult to realize your dreams," she told the audience members, about half of whom had raised their hands when she asked for a count of millennials in the audience.

She capped off her talk with a live performance of a dance number by Everybody Dance Now! teachers and a seventh-grader from Hayward, California.

A family affair

The conference was a family affair. Gillian Raikes, a sophomore majoring in human biology, was in the audience with her parents and siblings, five of them in all. It was her second TEDxStanford event. She was inspired by the "diversity of speakers and the issues they are working on." At the end of the morning, she singled out Landauer's talk as one that she connected with the most: "It was interesting hearing Julia talk about being a female in a predominantly male sport."

Asked if she would consider giving a TEDxStanford talk, Raikes said, "I hope one day I have something cool enough to talk about."

Lucy Zimmerman, a sixth-grader at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto who has an interest in engineering, joined her father, Michael, for the afternoon session. She had just chatted with the Solar Car team that was out on the lawn with the car during the lunch break, and was eager to hear their presentation.

In introducing student Rachel Abril to talk about the car, David Hornik, who co-hosted the event with Sheila Dharmarajan, called the project a quintessential Stanford effort because it brings together students from diverse disciplines.

The student-run project designs and builds a solar-powered car every two years to race in the 1,864-mile World Solar Challenge across the Australian Outback. "We build cars," Abril said. "But we build something more than that. We build reasonable and responsible engineers."

While all the talks and performances were thought-provoking and awe-inspiring, some were also deeply moving. Speaker Isabel Stenzel Byrnes, who has lived with cystic fibrosis for 42 years and received a double-lung transplant 10 years ago at Stanford Hospital, also spoke at last year's TEDxStanford. At that event she shared the stage with her twin sister, Anabel, who died eight months ago of the lung disease that has taken so many of the people Stenzel Byrnes has known in the cystic fibrosis community.

Said Stenzel Byrnes, who sometimes struggled with her emotions during her talk: "I've spent my entire life practicing the art of saying goodbye. But no matter what I've lost, I've been given much more than has been taken away." 

She ended her presentation with a performance of Amazing Grace on the bagpipes in honor of the organ donor whose lungs she received. When she finished, several audience members murmured "wow" before the long applause.

Emotions also ran high when Jill Helms, a professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Stanford School of Medicine, talked about the concept of beauty and our perception of the face.

"Face-recognition is hard-wired in us," Helms said, noting that we prize symmetry, balance and proportion. That creates a challenge, though, for people whose faces don't fit our view of beauty.

When children whose faces don't fit the ideal realize that they're different, they turn inward, Helms said, her voice shaking.  She challenged the audience to look past appearances. "Let's reconsider beautiful," she said.

In the final challenge of the day, speaker Ben Henretig ended his talk, "The Happiest Place," by encouraging the audience to consider that the secret to happiness just might have three components: "slowing down, gathering with friends and loved ones as we've done today, and sharing gifts."

If that's true, attendees left TEDxStanford happy indeed.