TEDxStanford presenters tell tales of past 'turning points' and future opportunities

From complex discussions concerning modern racism, climate change and the aerodynamics of birds to thought-provoking performances of classical music, the fourth annual TEDxStanford conference on Sunday was a rich experience for all.

TEDxStanford has become one of the hottest tickets on campus. Now in its fourth year, tickets for the annual performance event sold out in less than 10 minutes when they went on sale in April.

Those lucky enough to get a seat in Stanford's Cemex Auditorium were treated to 25 presentations centering around this year's TEDxStanford theme, "Turning Point."

The conference opened with a dance performance by Robert Moses' Kin, a San Francisco-based dance company founded by Stanford artist-in-residence Robert Moses.  

Abraham Verghese, an author and professor at Stanford School of Medicine, then shared a story of his time treating young HIV-positive patients. One patient was too ill to come into the clinic, so Verghese visited him at home. Verghese was unable to provide any medical help at the time, but by sitting with his patient and his family and describing his illness and talking openly about his eventual death, Verghese realized the healing power of personal connection, which would shape how he has provided care throughout his career.

"My visit had a profound effect on the family. This is what the horse and buggy doctor did so well: They were able to heal even when they could not cure," Verghese said. "We in Western medicine don't provide this as well as we should. … But it is powerful equipment for healing."

And thus kicked off a day of presenters illustrating the importance of turning points, either through personal stories of their encounters with racism or their research on the critical status of California's groundwater, or by a pregnant pause in a furious string quartet performance.

Learning about one's self

The morning sessions featured several speakers who grappled to understand themselves.

Alli McKee, a graduate student earning master's degrees in business and in education, spoke of her experiences with unintentional racism within her family.

"Racism is not black and white, binary. It's a spectrum, and we're all wired to be on it. But we put up walls when we talk about racism," McKee said. "No matter how we're wired on the spectrum, we have an opportunity to do some rewiring."

The key to overcoming racism, she said, was not to tiptoe around the issue, but to acknowledge that it's difficult and discuss it anyway. This is a long, hard process, she said, but once the conversation starts, you can find common ground that is deeper than skin.

Alice Lyman Miller, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, shared her experience of transitioning to female after more than five decades living as a man. Breaking the news to family, friends and employers was a daunting task, she said, but by being patient and tolerant of others' views herself, she found acceptance and support everywhere she looked.

"It's never too late to be who you are," Miller said. "I hope to offer a concrete example by being open about who I am. I hope to make people more accepting and change the world I'm in. That's the importance of being Alice."

Turning points on Earth and beyond

Turning points can also offer opportunities for society to focus on the future.

Linda Darling-Hammond, professor emerita of education and director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, detailed policies intended to improve education in the United States that might actually be holding students back. The current emphasis on standardized testing, she said, places too much emphasis on learning how to ace tests, a skill that is virtually useless in the real world.

"Between 1999 and 2003, more new knowledge was created in the world than in the entire human history preceding it," Darling-Hammond said. "Our young people are going into a world where they will use knowledge and technology not discovered or invented yet to solve complex problems that we can't solve yet. They need a lot more than the ability to pick one answer out of five."

A potential solution, she said, would involve developing schools where students face fewer but deeper assessments and spend more time learning how to solve problems and deal with complex situations, and engage in a wider range of topics that promote higher-order thinking skills.

Rosemary Knight, a professor of geophysics at Stanford, shared her research on how satellite data can reveal the quantity of groundwater in drought-stricken areas of California, and whether it's being tainted by saltwater.

"Groundwater is our freshwater savings account, and it's essential that we have effective means of protecting and managing our groundwater," Knight said. "In the same way that medical imaging has revolutionized our approach to human health, I'm convinced that Earth imaging can revolutionize our approach to our freshwater future."

While scientists improve renewable energy sources, energy plants running on fossil fuels are still belching carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Etosha Cave, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at Stanford, explained how her lab group's research might be able to apply water and a catalyst to some of that carbon dioxide to create useful products.

Cave and her colleagues essentially electrocute the carbon dioxide and water, break them down to smaller bits, add a metal catalyst and reform them into a new molecule. The researchers can currently produce 16 different molecules and compounds from carbon dioxide and water, including alcohol and several molecules that are traditionally made from fossil fuels, such as plastics.

"We could effectively create an industrial carbon cycle by taking waste CO2 and using renewable electricity to make high-value products," Cave said. And for those considering far-off plans to colonize Mars, "95 percent of the atmosphere on Mars is CO2. We could use this same technology to make parts, tools, fuels, as well as Martian vodka and gin – all key components to making Mars habitable."

David Lentink, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, wowed the audience with literal turning points: videos of geese rolling 180 degrees mid-flight but keeping their heads level and upright. These discoveries, along with high-speed video of hummingbird flight and incredibly precise experimental devices, are revealing the physical mysteries of bird flight. This work, he said, will improve the performance and utility of drones.

"Drones still cannot fly as far and long or high as a bird," he said. "Perhaps we can directly transfer that knowledge to make drones fly more safely and effectively."

The artistry of turning points

As always, the day included a number of artistic performances. Stephen Sano, professor and chair of the Department of Music at Stanford and director of choral studies, played a traditional Hawaiian slack key guitar. The Ram's Head Theatrical Society performed a number from its recent production of Hairspray. Rachael Sage, a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist, performed compositions she wrote at the campus coffee house while she was an undergraduate at Stanford in the early '90s.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet played Joseph Haydn's Op. 33, No. 2, a fast-paced piece that repeats a particular theme until it gets glued in the listener's brain, then abruptly pauses and changes tempo and tone.

There is always room for the zany at a TEDxStanford event, and magician Frank Olivier topped expectations. Olivier stripped while juggling – undressing from tuxedo down to a pink tutu and black dress socks – then performed ballet moves while riding a unicycle across the stage. Later, he juggled three stun guns, each buzzing from a full charge, as he rode a 6-foot-tall unicycle. The performance had the audience sweating.

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. Videos of Sunday's performances will be posted at tedx.stanford.edu.