TEDxStanford’s 'In the Moment' theme encourages reflection amidst tumult

Speakers at the sixth annual TEDxStanford conference addressed pressing issues, including foreign policy crises, the nation’s opioid epidemic and affordable health care. The event inspired attendees to make a difference in the lives of others.

A centrifuge that costs 20 cents. A “bromance” between the leaders of the United States and Russia. Dealing with multiple sclerosis through art. These were some of the topics discussed at the sixth-annual TEDxStanford on Sunday at CEMEX Auditorium.

The theme of this year’s conference was “In the Moment,” which was meant to encourage audience members to engage in self-reflection during a tumultuous time.

“With so much of our world in flux – from political and cultural shifts to issues around climate, race and globalization – we wanted to stop and examine where we are today,” said Melinda Sacks, director of media initiatives for Stanford University Communications and executive producer of TEDxStanford. “The TEDxStanford platform allows us to do that across disciplines and topics. This theme seemed the perfect avenue to explore where we are at this moment, how we got here and where we are going.”

Stanford’s TEDx event is an independent offspring of the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference held annually in Monterey, Calif., since 1984. The nonprofit has dedicated itself to “ideas worth spreading” by inviting people from around the world to give the talks of their lives in less than 20 minutes. TED has helped to democratize the information by posting all its talks free online.

Stanford’s event kicked off with a spirited performance by the Cardinal Calypso Steelpan Ensemble, a student group that brought a Caribbean flair to the proceedings and energized the packed crowd for a day full of stimulating ideas.

Medicine takes center stage

Challenges and innovations in medicine took the lead in the day’s opening session. Manu Prakash, assistant professor of bioengineering, explained how he and his students developed the “foldscope,” a paper microscope that costs only $1. He began his talk showing images of children in Madagascar inspecting each other for lice, followed by photos of those same children curiously studying those tiny organisms through the “foldscope.”

His latest invention is a centrifuge for testing blood, based on the whirligig, a toy made of paper and string. By pulling the string back and forth, the circular-shaped paper – which has pockets that contain blood vials– spins frenetically around 100,000 revolutions per minute. The enclosed blood can be separated in 1.5 minutes, assisting in the identification of malaria, African sleeping sickness and other diseases. While some centrifuges can cost up to $5,000, Prakash’s centrifuge costs only 20 cents.

Prakash’s inspiration for these low-cost innovations is his concern and those of his students for the 1 billion people worldwide who live in poverty and have no access to health care. He also sees lasting benefits to encouraging people to be curious by making technology cheap and accessible.

“The sense of wonder is so powerful,” he said. “Science turns curiosity into questions, and can help distinguish fact from fiction.”

Anna Lembke, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, began her talk with a sobering statement: the U.S. is in the midst of its worst opioid epidemic ever.

Lembke said there was an unlikely driving force behind this epidemic – doctors overprescribing opioids.

“By the 1990s, doctors were dispensing opioids like vending machines,” she said.

Lemke cited “invisible forces” that are perpetuating this epidemic, including an “assembly-line style of medicine.” Doctors, she believes, are not given the resources to deal with patients’ socioeconomic hardships, as well as their medical challenges.

Lembke recommends changing the nature of the doctor-patient relationship, allowing doctors to spend more time with patients and rethinking the concept of pain. Lembke said it may be time to bring back the narrative of 150 years ago, when patients’ pain was not feared, but regarded as a regular part of care and treatment. The belief that pain has to be completely eradicated for a positive medical result has led to overprescription of opioids.

Former-attorney-turned artist Elizabeth Jameson, who graduated from Stanford in 1973, invited the audience to a party to celebrate and embrace the imperfect body.

Jameson’s body has deteriorated over the past decade due to her battle with multiple sclerosis. Once an active lawyer practicing public interest law, Jameson is now a quadriplegic, needing care for the most basic of functions. She has found solace in art, creating colorful pieces from images depicting debilitating illness and disease.

Jameson’s hope is to provide a forum to alleviate the awkwardness that people feel when faced with illness and disability.

“I want to try to create spaces to tell our stories of illness and listen to those stories and learn from each other in hopes of developing further empathy for people’s illness and disabilities,” she said.

True grit

PhD candidate Cody Coleman shared his story of overcoming obstacles, including poverty, to pursue a degree in computer science at Stanford.

Coleman, a New Jersey native and first-generation student, was born while his mother was incarcerated. His father left the family before he was born. His mother battled mental illness after she was released from prison, and he said the police were regular visitors to his home.

Coleman received help from his older brother, high school teachers and professors at MIT, where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He describes their contributions to his life as “inflection points.” As a result of their help, Coleman excelled academically and socially and has sought ways where he could create inflection points for others.

“You don’t need a grand gesture to make an inflection point in someone’s life,” said Coleman, who implored the audience to engage with people around them to make these pivotal differences.

Michael McFaul, professor of political science, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, analyzed the “bromance” between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

McFaul, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2012-14, outlined why the two leaders have high regard for each other, noting alignments on political issues and Trump’s admiration of Putin’s leadership style. But what the future holds between the countries in terms of foreign policy is anyone’s guess.

“I’m unable to predict where U.S.-Russia relations are going because of the erratic nature of our president,” said McFaul, who categorized Trump as a “wild card.”

Productive in your pajamas

Economics professor Nick Bloom had heard the negative connotations connected to working from home for years: unfocused people dressed in their pajamas and watching television.

He set out to learn if there was, indeed, a difference in productivity between working at home and in the office. His study of workers at a Chinese online travel agency showed that employees working from home were 13.5 percent more productive than their colleagues who remained in the office, equaling roughly an extra day’s worth of work per week.

Bloom, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, attributed the productivity boost to the quieter environment a home setting brings. Employees working from home also tend to work full shifts and are not impeded by time-consuming  commutes.

Marily Oppezzo, who is pursuing her post-doctoral fellowship at Stanford’s Prevention Research Center, encouraged members of the audience to include a simple activity – walking – to generate their next big idea.

“Creativity,” said Oppezzo, “is a choice.”

Her research examines creativity in people performing the same mental task while sitting or walking on a treadmill. Those walking outperformed their sedentary counterparts by a 2 to 1 margin. Oppezzo, who earned a PhD from Stanford’s Graduate School of Education in 2013, then provided a simple, five-step procedure people should follow to come up with that new idea.

TEDxStanford also welcomed virtual reality artist Kelly Vicars; multimedia journalist Sahar Habib Ghazi; Dustin Schroeder, assistant professor of geophysics; alumnus and comedy writer Kevin Bleyer; alumna Susan Stellin and Graham Macindoe; Kori Schake, research fellow at the Hoover Institution; Caroline Winterer, professor of history and director of the Stanford Humanities Center; alumna and social entrepreneur Jessica Jackley and Reza Aslan; journalist Mary Ellen Hannibal; Bill Burnett, executive director of the Design Program at Stanford; Beverly Daniel Tatum, president emerita at Spelman College and the 2017 Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor at the Haas Center for Public Service; Jennifer Granick, director of civil liberties at the Center for Internet and Society; and alumnus and author Jack Bowen.

Other performers were bassist Zachary Ostroff, jazz singer Samantha Williams, Alliance Streedance, and Benjamin Williams, Monyett Crump, Jr., and Jasmin Williams, who collaborated for a hip hop-spoken word performance.

The TEDxStanford event was made possible by these sponsors and partners. Videos of Sunday’s performances will be posted later on tedx.stanford.edu.