TED Fellows Talks: A full recap of Monday’s sessions

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Greg Gage, onstage at TED Fellows Talks. Photo: Ryan Lash

On the afternoon before TED2012 mainstage sessions begin, the Center Theater was packed to the rafters for two sessions of TED Fellows talks. Here’s what happened …

Christine Marie, shadow artist
With a clap of thunder and a flash of light, the TED2012 Fellows talks open with Christine Marie’s larger-than-life puppet show. Figures writhe, walk and shake between hand-manipulated lights and a massive screen, while analogue sound adds a cinematic dimension to a live performance that explores the spaces between light and dark, the manmade and organic.

Ayah Bdeir, engineer + artist
Ayah wanted to make learning about electronics fun, easy and creative. So she invented littleBits, an open-source system of modular circuits that snap together with magnets – Lego for the electronically curious. With libraries of different modules, including screens, lights and dimmers, littleBits lets everyone from kids to designers and artists play with electronics without having to understand circuitry. Designers at RISD made a moving Play-Doh lobster! “Electronics become just another material, opening the medium up to everyone.”

Jean-Baptiste Michel, cultural scientist
Jean-Baptiste, who uses very large datasets to quantitatively investigate the evolution of culture (see how this works at his Google Books Ngram Viewer:, says mathematics is a powerful language, belying the adage that “History cannot be measured.” He gives examples of how mathematics can help identify historical and cultural trends – mapping everything from changes in language (say, English in the period between the King of England in the 9th century to the king of hip-hop: Jay-Z) to numbers of casualties in war over time. “As the stuff of historical record gets rapidly digitized,” he says, “it will become ever easier for mathematics to reveal the patterns recorded in them – and perhaps even help predict the future.”

Lucy McRae, body architect
Trained as a classical ballerina and with a background in architecture and fashion, Lucy first started examining the idea of body architecture at Phillips Electronics, where she designed such experimental fashion concepts as an electronic tattoo and a dress that “blushed and shivered with light.” Obsessed with the boundary between where the body ends and technology begins, she asks: what happens when biology and technology merge? She’s now working with a synthetic biologist to create a pill that would allow fragrance to emerge from within the body, redefining the role of skin and essentially creating what she calls a “human atomizer.” This kind of body reprogramming could have profound implications for how we relate to each other. “Will be become more like animals again?”

Jimmy Cheng-Ho Lin, computational geneticist
Jimmy tells a heartbreaking story of children living with rare, unexplainable or unstudied diseases. He founded the Rare Genomics Institute to help find cures for the millions of children who are born with these “orphan” diseases – of which there are over 7,000 in the US alone. The traditional medical system is designed to find treatment for the most common diseases, so fewer than 3 percent of these illnesses can be treated at all. The institute helps by focusing on sequencing the DNA of kids with rare diseases, assembling the brainpower of the world’s leading genomics experts and physicians, and establishing a crowdsourcing website to fund their research, giving hope to families in need.

Damian Palin, biominerologist
Adequate access to clean drinking water is a growing global problem. Desalination of seawater using reverse osmosis is the most common solution, but current systems are expensive and energy-intensive, and the mineral-heavy brine byproduct environmentally harmful. Currently working in water-short Singapore – which hopes to produce 30 per cent of its water via desalination by 2060 – Damian “collaborates” with bacteria to accumulate minerals from desalination brine, remediating it before releasing it into the environment. And there’s a silver lining: the magnesium mined from this process, in turn, could prove to be a valuable source of income.

Asha de Vos, blue whale scientist
Asha wanted to work with whales from the age of six. Today, she looks for clues as to what drives the behavior of the idiosyncratic Northern Indian Ocean blue whale, unique to the warm waters around Sri Lanka. They don’t migrate to the polar regions to feed as other whales do, and, she notes, they lift their tails higher than other whales when they dive. There’s much we don’t know about these creatures, she says. Could they even be a rare subspecies? Calling for the protection of the whales from the shipping and unregulated whale-watching industries, she asks whether humanity will allow whales’ demise before we can find out? “Not if I have anything to do with it!”

Alex Odira Odundo, agricultural machinist
Looking for a way to help his subsistence farming community out of poverty, Alex turned to sisal, a fiber that grows everywhere in Kenya and is sold as a raw material for twine, rope, and textiles. Compared to maize and other crash crops, the fibrous plant is easy to grow, drought resistant, and versatile. Starting with a few sketches and experiments at the local technical college, he developed two low-cost sisal processing machines from scrap metal – the Sisal Decorticator, which extracts the fiber, and the Sisal Twinner, which processes it into rope. Using these machines, farmers are able to process sisal onsite, creating a product worth many times the value of the raw material, stabilizing incomes and improving communities.

Gabriel Barcia-Colombo, video sculptor
Photo albums, Facebook, taxidermy – none were enough for obsessive collector Gabriel, who wanted to memorialize his own life and that of his friends in a more active and interactive way. Using video mapping and projection, Gabriel creates installations that appear to preserve the people in his life in jars, suitcases, blenders and other objects. From a housewife in a blender – if you hit the button she becomes increasingly distressed – to a self-portrait in which Gabriel ages as a timecard is punched, he makes the viewer implicit in the experience – “artwork with consequences.”

Christine Marie, shadow artist
After a powerful dream about shadows, Christine Marie began seeking out those who work with shadow puppetry – a quest that took her to Indonesia, where it’s used tell Hindu epics. Her own work turns shadow puppetry inside out: she surrounds the audience with screens and scrims, putting figures and lights in the foreground so that viewers can see how her 20-foot shadows are produced. “It’s a hybrid of Plato’s cave and 3D Imax,” she says. Incorporating archetypes into her pieces, she draws people into the shadow landscape of their psyches so that “we can collectively dream awake.”

Greg Gage, DIY neuroscientist
“No one really knows how the brain works, and that’s a shame. When it comes to neurological disorders, we’re in the dark.” Seeing the need for more neuroscience education at earlier stages, Greg invents kits that make it easy to teach young students, from fifth grade up, about neuroscience using insects. To the shock of the audience, he demonstrates on a cockroach, amputating its leg (“It grows back!”), and pinning it to his Spiker Box ­– which amplifies the electrical signals being transmitted to let us see and hear the insect’s neurons at work.

Zena el Khalil, artist, writer, cultural activist
Growing up in a region rife with violence and hostility, Zena decided as a child that love would both guide her life and be her defense mechanism: “Love would keep me alive.” The Beirut-based artist’s work, which includes mixed media paintings, installations and performance, mixes icons of military violence with pink, glittery pop-culture imagery and plastic – made of the oil mankind is at war for. “I try to expose the superficiality of war using humor and love, negating the negative,” she says. Of her giant disco ball that spells out “Allah”, she says: “You are invited to dance rather than kill under the light of God. Disco is preferable.”

Sarah Parcak, space archaeologist
“How do you find buried city in a vast landscape?” The Egyptologist’s search for long-lost ancient cities begins off planet, using NASA topography data to find civilizations that have disappeared from the naked eye, abandoned and forgotten over centuries. It’s a quest that she says can be like “looking for a needle in a haystack, blindfolded, wearing baseball mitts!” Now Sarah uses satellite imagery to help, employing infrared-processed data to look for chemical changes in land caused by building activities of the ancient Egyptians, showing her exactly where to dig for clues. Using this imaging system, she has discovered 17 lost pyramids and many more potential excavation sites, but right now she’s seeking evidence for the ancient Egyptian city Itj-Tawy, which has been missing for thousands of years.

Robert Gupta, violinist
TED Senior Fellow and founder of Street Symphony plays Bach’s Suite in D minor to close Session 1. (Watch the TED Blog tomorrow for video reactions to this session.)

To open Session Two:

Abigail Washburn, singer + banjo player + cultural activist
Abigail sings City of Refuge. For her amazing story, see below.

Carl Schoonover, neuroscience PhD student + writer
How do we visualize the brain’s wiring? “We used to not be able to see inside a brain, but if you’re trying to understand how it works, you have to see the circuit.” Carl takes us through the history of how our understanding of our brains has evolved given the technology available, from learning to stain tissue in the late 19th century to current techniques that allow researchers to light up neurons from the inside using green fluorescent proteins derived from a bioluminescent jellyfish.

Laurel Braitman, science historian + writer
Laurel’s dog Oliver’s anxiety was so bad, he jumped out the window 3 floors up, was taken to the vet, and came home with a prescription for Prozac and valium. This experience made history of science student Laurel wonder whether uniquely human emotions aren’t uniquely human at all? Are dolphins and whales capable of intentional suicide? Does the elephant traumatized by circus training respond to respect? Taking us through Darwin’s and other scientists’ queries into mental health and evidence of animal emotion, Laurel makes the case for inquiring more deeply into the animal mind to learn more about ours.

E. Roon Kang, graphic designer
“Failure takes us beyond assumptions and what we think we know.” As a product designer, E Roon realized “good” design traditionally means generating immediate sales. He decided marketability couldn’t be the only measure of success, and expanded his vocabulary to make art projects investigating the notion of “graceful failure”, celebrating the unknown, and criticizing the standard of the way of thinking. One example – a project to design a morphing business-card logo system for the MIT Media Lab. His algorithm-driven design allows for unique, open-ended logos, enough to yield a unique shape-and-color combination for every single employee in the lab – for the next 25 years.

Michael Karnjanaprakorn, entrepreneurial educator
“The problem with education is it’s no longer about learning,” says Michael. Setting out to reunite the two, he founded Skillshare, a community marketplace for peer-to-peer, offline classes. Skiillshare connects anyone with something to teach with those who want to learn, bypassing textbooks and universities. Classes range from free to 100 dollars, a fraction of the cost of traditional education. Believing that the most abundant resource on the planet is excess knowledge, he envisions a future where no potential goes unfulfilled.

Abigail Washburn, singer, banjo player
Abigail’s original life plan was “to go to Beijing, study law, and improve US-China relations through top-down policy changes and judicial system reforms.” But before she left, she heard a recording of Doc Watson playing “Shady Grove.” Instantly falling in love, she acquired a clawhammer banjo and drove through Appalachia to learn to play, and soon found herself not in China but in Nashville writing songs – in English and Chinese. Suprisingly, the cadences of Mandarin flow beautifully with the rippling rhythms of the banjo. Today, she brings her unique version of American traditional music to China, “connecting cultures and hearts.” And as for her law career? “US China relations doesn’t need another lawyer.”

Kyrsten Sinema, politician
“Politics are but don’t have to be rancorous,” says Kyrsten, a former Arizona state senator (about to run for Congress), human rights activist and LGBT political leader. “If we focus on relationships, find our shared values, we can win unlikely wins in unlikely places.” Kyrsten tells the story of how she defeated Senator Russell Pearce’s draconian anti-immigration bills by finding shared values with politicians and companies who would normally not be on her side. “We have to be willing to work with people different from ourselves in order to make politics work,” she says. “We must unite and conquer.”

Oliver Medvedik, biotechnician
Amateurs have been some of the leading contributors to science and technology. Now, with the advent of accessible lab equipment and a free flow of information, citizen scientists are contributing to biotech. Oliver co-founded Genspace, a public-access biotech lab in Brooklyn, to offer an affordable space for amateur scientists to work on scientific projects. For non-biologists, it’s a learning space, inviting the public to embrace biotech and unleash inner their biologist.

Sanga Moses, entrepreneur
Cutting down trees for fuelwood contributes to rampant deforestation, and in Uganda, half a million girls can’t go to school because they have to spend so much time gathering wood for cooking. When Sanga saw these problems affecting his own community, he began teaching farmers how to make biochar by heating agricultural waste biomass in a simple kiln made of oil drums. The biochar is pressed into charcoal for cooking, and distributed by youths on bicycles to women in villages, who sell it to their communities. Thanks to his efforts, more than 2,500 families now use the charcoal instead of wood. He invests proceeds from charcoal sales in tree-planting, helping to heal damaged forests.

Bre Pettis, maker
Bre shows us how his affordable 3D printer, Makerbot, can help us go back to a world of craftsmanship, where people know how to – and can – make their own stuff. In his MakerBot community, tinkerers, designers and artists use open source software, design and 3D printers to collaborate online and in real life to make cool stuff. Following the evolution of a maker-designed clock – “17th century technology made with 21st century tools” – Bre demonstrates how MakerBot culture leads to crowdsourced innovation, and how a single idea can lead to many outcomes. “When you put the power of manufacturing into everyone’s hands, everyone can participate in invention and creativity. What will we make next together?”

Christina Warriner, archaeogeneticist
“The mouth is full of useful information,” says Christina, who studies the origin and evolution of human health and disease by conducting genetic research on human remains, specifically the fossilized plaque – “dental calculus” – on ancient teeth. She developed a way to extract DNA from human bones, looking for mutations that reveal adaptations, inherited disease, and so on. But this is only half of the story, she says. Today’s pressing health challenges don’t just involve the genome, but are a result of a complex interplay of immune response, diets, parasites, and so on. Fortunately, dental calculus, which is ubiquitous, yields plenty of information – bacteria, immune proteins, and more – that may help us understand the evolution of pathogens and their relationship to human health.

Jeffrey Gibson, artist
Inspired by the Museum of Modern Art’s 1941Indian Art of the United States exhibition, Jeffrey set out to explore the work of Native American artists working in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, examining how modern art and Native American art developed in parallel to each other. Inspired by what he found, he began making contact with fellow contemporary Native artists, incorporating components of their work ­– elkhide drums, beadwork, masks and more – into his own work, creating hybrid totemic structures. “The work I make forces us to consider who makes art and who it’s made by?” he says. “I’ve found abundance and power working with communities at my fingertips, creating an artwork for the future that’s greater than the sum of individuals contributing to it.”

Marc Fornes, computational architect
Marc Fornes’ large, undulating sculptures feel like structures exploded from the natural world, but far from mimicking nature, they are material expressions of computational protocols. His artwork attempts to reconcile the schism between the complexity of computation with the simplicity of fabrication, while seeking design freedom. “I like to believe that I literally write space.”

Myshkin Ingawale, medical device innovator
While visiting a doctor friend in rural India, Myshkin was shocked to learn of the death of mother and baby from post-partum hemorrhage due to undiagnosed anemia. This easily preventable disease, which can be fatal if undiagnosed, kills one million women and children globally each year, but long travel distances to clinics and fear of contaminated needles prevent early detection. Now Myshkin has developed a needle-free, hand-held device (ToucHb) that screens for anemia without pricking for blood. Using photoplethysmography – passing light through the finger to measure hemoglobin – the portable ToucHb allows midwives to test onsite, get instant results, and avoid needle-transmitted disease. The device could potentially save millions of lives.

Meklit Hadero, singer + songwriter
Sings songs that paint pictures in your head. “This song is about moments of breakthrough, when you wake up in the morning you know everything is going to be different.”