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School of Arts and Sciences

TEDxTufts Sparks Conversations

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Speakers strike balance between research and personal experience

Ted Ex


Jimena Sanchez Gallego (center) with her speaker coaches Peter Bae and Miriam Hauptman (photo by Alberto Rivera, '18, and Mateo Galeano, '18).

by Dana Guth, '17

Over 400 thinkers, speakers, and innovators came together in Cohen Auditorium for TEDxTufts: Verge on April 17. The four-hour event provided a platform for students, professors, and members of the greater Tufts community to share their passions, each delivering a speech on their chosen topic in hopes of sparking meaningful discussion.

While most members of the Tufts community are familiar with TED Talks—the popular video speakers series that promotes active listening and the spread of new ideas—Tufts' version is a smaller, more close-knit operation. TEDx provides licenses to communities and universities seeking to organize their own experience using the TED name. TEDxTufts, says senior Mallory Feldman, the event's director of marketing and publicity, adds an additional tenet to TED's greater purpose: community.

"A reason I came to Tufts was because I perceived that, if you asked any Tufts students a few questions, they had a story to tell, and a deep passion that drives them and keeps them up at night," says Feldman. TEDxTufts gives people a chance to hear about the things their peers and teachers really care about." While the Tufts event accepts applications from faculty, staff, and more senior members of the community, Feldman says they make it a priority to accept undergraduate speakers.

Tufts Junior and club curator, Slide Kelly, revamped TEDxTufts from its former incarnation, Tufts Idea Exchange (TEX), with the help of senior Kit McDonnell. TEDxTufts is entirely student run—a point of pride for the organization. "Typically, at other schools, a faculty member helps to organize the event. With us, it's all students," Kelly says.

Thirty-five Tufts undergraduates plan and run the event, including logistics, ticketing, public relations, and production. This year, the team added a theme, "Verge"—"a name that encapsulates TEDxTufts, and catches people's attention," says Feldman. "'Verge' can mean we're on the verge of something great, an idea that's relevant for someone who is about to graduate or just beginning to explore a new passion," explains junior Mika Sanger, a speaker coach. "But it can also be attached to words like 'converge' or 'diverge,' that can inspire or embody a whole movement. Hopefully the theme revealed that TEDxTufts is a space where breakthroughs from corners of the Tufts community can reveal themselves."

The 2016 talk topics ranged from senior Maxwell Bennett's "Creating a better world through artificial intelligence" to Department of Drama and Dance lecturer Cristina Rosa's "What do our movements say about who we are?" to junior Sam Weiser's "Keeping the classical music story alive" to Neal Jawadekar, G14's "Food for thought: Empowering humans with data."

Senior Jimena Sanchez Gallego discussed refocusing the dialogue of mental illness around mental wellbeing, a topic she believes is especially pertinent to the lives of college students. "Many of my peers have struggled with mental illness, as I have, and yet we don't talk about it," says Gallego. "I want people to start talking about mental illness in the way we talk about other physical conditions, because they're no different."

Speaker selection for TEDxTufts is competitive: candidates undergo three rounds of interviews and applications, after which each club member voices their opinion and casts a vote. Each of this year's thirteen speakers was chosen from over fifty applicants for the originality of their ideas, their ability to tell a story and engage an audience, the connection of their speech to the "Verge" theme, and their perceived commitment to the event.

Speakers are trained by undergraduate coaches specifically for the TED model of public speaking, and before the event, the entire TEDxTufts team convenes to watch the speakers rehearse on stage and give feedback.

"We want speakers to focus on the logical structure and consistency of the talk," explains Slide Kelly, "and to use their personal experiences and anecdotes to generate authority on the subject, and their narrative to connect sincerely with and communicate ideas to audience members. Speaker coaches are trained to treat their speakers and their work with compassion and empathy, and to use these qualities to bring out the best in those they have the privilege of working with."

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Sam Weiser plays violin to demonstrate the idea of classical music as a narrative art form (photo by Alberto Rivera, '18, and Mateo Galeano, '18).

As a speaker coach, Mika Sanger says she practiced scripts, edited grammar, and worked on hand gestures, "but most importantly I connected with the person, learned who they are, and understood how their story fits into their own personal life narrative."

For senior Jordin Metz, whose talk focused on the usefulness of chemistry, a major hurdle was crafting a good speech that was not a lecture. "There's a good deal of lecturing in chemistry, and while that can work in a large classroom setting, it does not work on the TEDx stage," says Metz. "My coaches were incredible in helping me with this."

Gallego's coaches, first-year student Miriam Hauptman and sophomore Peter Bae helped her with simple tasks such as editing. "But they were also there for personal support," adds Gallego. "They believed that my ideas were worth sharing, and encouraged me when I was having doubts. The biggest challenge was balancing emotion with concrete ideas I could share with my audience. I didn't want my ideas to get lost in the emotional narrative, but I also needed to share my story to give validity to my statements, and that proved difficult at times."

Each speaker takes the stage for 18 minutes or less, with the option of including a visual component onscreen. Videos of the speeches are filmed and uploaded to YouTube, where viewers can comment on the novel ideas to push them even further.

Gallego says she learned so much from the experience, especially about the power of vulnerability. "I presented a personal story, and not a particularly happy one, in front of an audience of mostly strangers. Being vulnerable on stage gave me a strength I had never experienced before. I thought vulnerability was synonymous with weakness, but as I discovered through this experience, vulnerability is courage and strength."

"At the end of the day, it's a giving event," says Kelly. "These amazing people are coming out of the woodwork to share with others, and everyone on that stage is with Tufts in some way. They're all giving back to the community that inspired them."

TedXTufts 2016 School of Arts and Sciences Talks

The reconciliation of numbers & narratives
Soubhik Barari '16

Creating a better world through artificial intelligence
Maxwell Bennett '16

The subjectivity of truth
Laura Graham, Lecturer, Peace and Justice Studies Program

Food for thought: Empowering humans with data
Neal Jawadekar, G14

Chemistry is fun. No, seriously!
Jordin Metz '16

Using Motivated Empathy to Address Societal Issues
Jennifer Perry, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Psychology
Read about Jennifer Perry's TEDxTufts experiences on asegrad.tufts.edu >

What do our movements say about who we are?
Cristina Rosa, Lecturer, Department of Drama and Dance

Healthy mind, not just the absence of mental illness
Jimena Sanchez Gallego '16

Keeping the classical music story alive
Sam Weiser '17

Re-imagining the undergraduate experience
Howard Woolf, Director, Experimental College