Live from TED2018

Into the fray, undaunted: Notes from TED Fellows Session 2 at TED2018

Visual artist, musician, collector and thinker Paul Rucker shows off one of his talents as he opens TED Fellows Session 2 at TED2018: The Age of Amazement, April 10, 2018, in Vancouver. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED

To commence TED Fellows Session 2, multi-hyphenate Paul Rucker takes the stage with his cello. (Spoiler alert: you will see him later in this writeup showcasing another artform.) Inspired by his mother, who learned to play the organ through a mail-order course, Rucker taught himself how to play this instrument. But right here on the TED Fellows stage, he’s not playing his mama’s cello (we would guess). Starting with one of Bach’s stately cello suites, he turns it on its head. He records it, loops it, and then improvises the heck out of it — at times, yelling into the cello’s body, placing a pencil between the strings, and thumping the wood. The overall effect: unfamiliar, intriguing and fun.

Kotchakorn Voraakhom wants to help her city of Bangkok cope with climate change. Her contribution: an urban park that collects and cleans water, and adds much-needed green space too. She speaks during the TED Fellows Session 2. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Designing climate-resilient cities. Before Bangkok grew into a glass-and-steel agglomeration, seasonal flooding was a welcome event that people associated with fertile lands. Now, with natural waterways blocked, flooding is dreaded — and this attitudinal turnabout has happened in many cities in southeast Asia. Following a devastating 2011 flood that affected her family and millions of others in Thailand, Bangkok landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom resolved to help her sinking city become climate-resilient. Her first step: designing Chulalongkorn Centennial Park, which opened in 2017 and provides much more than recreational space. “Like a monkey holds food in its cheek and gradually eats it,” Voraakhom says, “the park is a place to hold overflow water when the ground is saturated.” Built on an incline to collect flood runoff, the urban refuge includes the biggest green roof in the country, a constructed wetland that cleans water, and a retention pond that stores it. It’s a powerful object lesson in both the potential of the landscape as a key part of a city’s climate infrastructure and in community-based design — because her park incorporated the feedback of those affected by global warming. “Climate is changing,” declares Voraakhom. “The real question is whether we are ready to change, too.”

Forecasting a future flu. A century ago, the Spanish Flu killed between 20 million and 40 million people worldwide, and the flu continues to be one of the planet’s most threatening diseases. Researchers and public-health officials have long wondered: how can we predict — and prevent — the next pandemic? The flu is difficult to study, it turns out, because so many different strains exist, and because outbreaks hit some places and people harder than others. London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine mathematician and researcher Adam Kucharski is attempting to separate the factors specific to a particular outbreak from the underlying principles that drive all outbreaks. He and his team retroactively studied the 2009 Hong Kong flu epidemic, coming up with 100 different forecasting mathematical models based on information about social behaviors and immunity. Out of the 100, “the most accurate one showed that if we want to predict infection patterns, we need data on physical contacts: things like handshakes and hugs,” he says. He and his team think their model might be applied to other countries if researchers have enough data about such physical contacts, so he and collaborators built an app to track these kinds of behaviors and launched a public-science project to recruit people in the UK. With the support of a BBC media campaign, more than 30,000 Brits have consented to participate. The subjects will be anonymous, and Kucharski plans to make the data publicly available to researchers. “With such data and our growing insights into how behavior shapes outbreaks,” he says, “we’ll be able to study flu pandemics in a whole new level of detail.”

Faith Osier fights the deadly scourge of malaria by studying people who’ve acquired immunity to the disease. What can we learn from their immune response? Photo: Lawrence Sumulong / TED

Creating a better malaria vaccine. Kenyan immunologist Faith Osier is another TED Fellow engaged in the fight against lethal diseases. Her foe: malaria. Every year, there are 200 million cases of malaria in Africa alone, and 500,000 of them result in death. But despite dramatic advances in technology that have revealed how complex the parasite behind the disease is, “the vaccines we have made to date are simply not good enough,” says Osier, a researcher at the Heidelberg University Hospital in Germany and founder of the South-South Malaria Antigen Research ParTnership network. She is trying to make a more effective vaccine by studying the antibody response of people who acquire immunity to the disease; in particular, she wants to understand how the proteins in a successful immune response interact with and kill the parasite. “Just like we can now see the parasite in greater definition, my team and I are focused on understanding how our bodies overcome this complexity,” says Osier.

Confronting a painful history through art. Paul Rucker (remember him?) is a multidisciplinary artist — the first artist-in-residence at the National Museum of African-American Culture, in fact — and a collector. But unlike most collectors, he accumulates artifacts without any positive connotations for him; his objects of choice are associated with America’s history of slavery. Having amassed everything from branding irons to postcards depicting lynchings, he decided — in the midst of researching the Ku Klux Klan — that he really needed to acquire a Klan robe. But “I couldn’t find the quality I was looking for,” he wryly says. “So, as a Black man in America, I decided I had no choice but to make the best-quality Klan robes.” Since 2015, the Baltimore-based artist has made 75 of these garments in non-traditional fabrics like denim, satin and kente cloth and in sizes that range from toddler to adult. Each one represents a reflection on the insidious nature of systemic racism. “I made this one in camouflage as a way to talk about the stealth aspect of racism,” Rucker says of one robe that he displays to the audience. “It blends in with its surroundings and is kept safe because it can hide.” The act of sewing these robes has proved to be cathartic for their maker. “I realized after making so many robes that they had lost their power over me,” he says. “If we can confront these objects of our history, we can diminish the power they hold over all of us.”

What can we learn when we listen to sea animals? Claire Simeone, of the Marine Mammal Center in Hawaii, introduces us to the concept of “zoognosis,” or learning between animals and humans. Photo: Lawrence Sumulong / TED

Shared knowledge can benefit humans and animals. A veterinarian, conservationist and director of the Marine Mammal Center in Hawaii, Claire Simeone calls for opening our minds to a new kind of learning: between humans and animals. Simeone has coined the term “zoognosis” to define this spread of knowledge. In one example of human-to-animal zoognosis, a combination of antibiotics and a human-intended medical gel were used by the vet to treat Carmella, a sea lion with a nasty eye ulcer. Similarly, in animal-to-animal zoognosis, humans can take the information gained from studying certain animals and apply it to other species. And, yes, animal knowledge can also be used to help humans. Sea lions, for instance, can warn us of ocean climate change if we’re willing to listen, according to Simeone. These mammals suffer seizures from algae bloom toxins, typically before the poison can be detected in water samples. As our oceans warm, the blooms are becoming more frequent. “Our health and the health of our oceans rests on us understanding the importance of sharing this zoognosis,” she concludes. “We must know our fauna to know ourselves.”

When the past texts us. History is written by the victors, as the saying goes, but what would it look like if it reflected the thoughts and experiences of everyone affected? Journalist and historian Mikhail Zygar has begun turning this “what if” scenario into reality in Russia — where many citizens believe their country has never or will never be truly democratic — by reframing its history through Project1917. For this effort, Zygar and his collaborators digitized the real diaries and letters of over 3,000 people who lived more than a century ago, created a user account for each person, and then updated their newsfeeds for every day of 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution. By allowing anyone on the Internet to read the daily thoughts and feelings of Igor Stravinsky, Leon Trotsky, Tsar Nicholas II and many less celebrated figures, the project contextualizes and rehumanizes history as it once was and as it could have been. Currently, Zygar and his team are working on a project centered on the year 1968, imagining what the year marked by monumental social change would have looked like if the main political actors had used smartphones (cue visual of Bobby Kennedy as an iPhone owner). “Knowing history and understanding how common people influenced history will help us create a better future,” says Zygar. “Ordinary people matter; ideas matter; journalists, media, philosophers, artists matter; we shape the society, we all make history.”

Did we humans evolve from monkeys, or from fish? Prosanta Chakrabarty asks a bigger question: Why do we humans think of ourselves as the end of a line, instead of part of a complex cycle? Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

A tiny speck in the ancient process of evolution. An expert on the fascinating lives of cavefish, ichthyologist Prosanta Chakrabarty teaches one of the largest evolutionary biology classes at Louisiana State University. With each fresh group of students, the TED Senior Fellow likes to start by dispelling common myths, such as the idea that we are monkeys (yes, according to the prof, we’re actually fish). “We learn plants and bacteria are primitive things, and fish give rise to amphibians, followed by reptiles and mammals, and then you get you — this perfectly evolved creature at the end of the line,” he explains. “But life doesn’t evolve in a line, and it doesn’t end with us.” He encourages us to remember we’re just a small part of a complex evolutionary process that has been happening for 4 billion years. “Perhaps it’s better still to think of us as a little fish out of water,” Chakrabarty says. “Yes, one that learned how to walk and talk, but one that still has a lot of learning to do about who we are and where we came from.”

Rethinking the hospital waiting room. In America, more than 90 percent of children, or 74 million kids, go to see a doctor at least once a year, which means countless hours spent in a waiting room for parents. Those hours are an unexploited opportunity, realized Boston pediatrician Lucy Marcil, and she’s turning the wasted time into monetary savings. In 2015, she cofounded StreetCred, which brings free financial services into clinics and hospitals. How it works: a hospital registers as a tax-preparation site, and prospective volunteers must study and pass an IRS exam in order to help patients there. Besides tax assistance, volunteers inform families about tax credits. For example, a family’s average return from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is $2000 to $3000 a year, but most of those who qualify are unaware that it’s available. In its first two years, StreetCred has returned $1.6 million to families in Boston, and it has expanded to nine sites in four states this year. These services are returning more than money to families, says Marcil. They’re giving back something just as valuable: hope.

Protecting all victims of gender violence. While federal civil-rights legislation is able to protect some victims of gender violence in the US, it doesn’t protect all of them. Many activists have focused their efforts on drafting and passing state or federal laws, but it’s not the most effective solution, contends Washington, DC, attorney Laura Dunn. She says, “it’s time to go to the Constitution — rather than institution to institution — for reform.” She explains that passage of the Equal Rights Amendment is the step we need to ensure full gender equality, and SurvJustice, her national nonprofit, is devoted to trying to make that happen. By ushering in sweeping change, says Dunn, “our legal systems can become a system of justice for survivors and #MeToo can finally become #NoMore.”

Essam Daod cofounded Humanity Crew, a consortium of psychiatrists who help refugees understand and reframe their experiences at every stage of their journey. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

The refugee crisis as mental-health crisis. In the last three years, more than 12,000 refugees in the world have lost their lives, and more 350,000 displaced children don’t have the psychological support to weather the traumas of dislocation and conflict. Essam Daod, a child psychiatrist based in Haifa, Israel, has devised short and powerful psychological interventions to help refugees reframe their experiences and establish a more positive narrative. He and his wife, Maria Jammal, cofounded Humanity Crew, a nonprofit organization which provides mental health support to refugees at every stage of their journeys. So far, the group’s therapists and trained volunteers have provided more than 26,000 hours of counseling to over 10,000 displaced people. “We need to acknowledge that first aid is not just needed for the body but also has to  include the mind, the soul,” says Daod. “The impact on the soul is hardly visible, but the damage can be there for life.”

Sarah Sandman shares Brick x Brick, a powerful art project that reclaims slurs and insults by means of 200 jumpsuits. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Put your body where your heart is. “Taking to the streets is an invaluable and necessary human act,” says Brooklyn-based artist and designer Sarah Sandman. “There is no greater affirmation of our communal values than physically showing up together.” The TED Senior Fellow designs her projects to harness these magical moments of public togetherness and emotional solidarity. Brick x Brick, one of her most recent works, was inspired by the need to fight against the rampant sexism present in American politics and to transform collective anger into action and healing. Created by Sandman and fellow artists and launched in 2016, it has spread across the country, with protesters wearing jumpsuits covered with colorful patches (each containing derogatory slang about women) and standing in a strong, silent human wall against misogyny. It has elicited reactions of emotional recognition and transformation, especially from women who’ve experienced sexual assault and harassment. “Perhaps collective pain can only be healed through collective public expression,” says Sandman. “When we get together and creatively organize, we feel ourselves acting as an organism larger than ourselves. We start to see the power that lies dormant when we are isolated.”

Sandman inspires one last magical moment at the session when she leads the audience into making noise — clapping and pounding to sound out the Morse code for “water,” the liquid that joins us and sustains us.

Sustained by that rousing activity and by the buoyant tunes of “Blinky Bill” Sellanga, the attendees shimmy out of the room. Hey, Fellows: nicely played.

Blinky Bill closes down TED Fellows Session 2 with a performance that got the audience up and dancing. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED