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TEDx comes to Notre Dame

and | Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Nineteen speakers, including six undergraduates, delivered 12-minute monologues about issues personal to them in the 2014 TED x UND event in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center on Tuesday.

Summaries of all the speeches, the videos of which will be available at tedx2014.nd.edu in the coming weeks, are provided below.

Barbara Johnston/University of Notre DameBarbara Johnston / University of Notre Dame
Augstin Fuentes: “It’s Not All Sex and Violence: Cooperation in Human Evolution”

Though Fuentes, an anthropology professor, said the urges to pursue sex and violence are basic parts of being human, he said they are not the key to humanity’s evolutionary success. “Aggression is not a uniform or consistent discrete trait,” Fuentes said. “[So], if aggression is not one thing, it could not have been the target of human evolution. The nature of aggression is not in our genes — there are no systems in our body that are ‘for’ aggression. … We can do aggression, we can make our bodies do aggression, but it is not who we are at our core.”

The real secret to human evolutionary success has been peaceful and collaborative interaction, Fuentes said, interactions that comprise the vast majority of day-to-day human activity. This includes everything from creating fire, to hunting large game, building large and complex tools, caring for the sick, and even engaging in acts of warfare.


Peter Keon Woo: “The Value of a Paycheck and the Urgency of Now”

Woo, The Observer’s business manager, identified predatory, payday lending practices as some of the most detrimental economic factors shackling those most in need of their complete paychecks to crippling debts. A typical annual percentage rate [APR] for payday loans reaches as high as 390 percent, he said. Still, he said he found inspiration for a response in the work of campus microfinance groups.

“How ironic, that being poor is so expensive,” Woo said. “Addressing the rude mechanics of poverty is a daunting task, no less for a college kid like me. … I realized that these financial services were … also powerful tools to beat poverty.”

So, Woo said he created the Jubilee Initiative for Financial Inclusion [JIFFI] in order to provide a service-oriented alternative lending option so South Bend residents no longer needed to resort to predatory lenders.


Tim Weninger: “Changing the Hivemind: How Social Media Manipulation Affects Everything”

“Media determines the lens through which I view the world — what can be said, who can say it, how it can be said, who can hear it,” Weninger, an engineering professor, said.

He described a study he conducted on reddit.com, an online conversation host that demonstrated the way content is aggregated and rated. Weninger’s computer program, which upvoted or downvoted the newest post every two minutes with a 50-50 chance of each result, demonstrated that if he upvoted something initially, the post is 20 percent more likely to appear on the front page, and if he downvoted something initially, it is 12 percent less likely to appear on the front page. Essentially, Weninger said, “One quarter of 1 percent of viewers determine what the rest of them see.” The only way for this new communication forum to work well is for everyone to participate fully, he said. “The internet, in my opinion, is like a democracy — it only really works well if all of the people contribute.”


José E. Lugo: “Quantifying Design Aesthetics: A Multidisciplinary Story”

During his first internship, Lugo, an engineering graduate student, worked for an automotive company at its proving grounds. There he said he realized, “There is this relationship between form and function that is stressful, but I did not quite understand it.” His philosophy at the time was that form always followed function, meaning to him that “he’s going to save 10 pounds in the car and make it faster [and not] care if it looks weird.” But then, he found products with the same function but different form, which challenged his philosophy. So, Lugo said he applied Gestalt Principles to quantify the aesthetic measurement of items, determining that the aesthetic should represent a “bridge between form and function.”


Thomas J. White: “Tourette Does the Talking”

When White started to speak, he warned the audience to expect “something absolutely, positively and completely different.” And he was right — in an eloquent speech, White narrated his life as a Notre Dame student with Tourette’s, a neurological condition that he said “forces [him] into battle every single second of the day.”

“I might lose that fight once or twice up here, so you’ve been warned,” White said.

Occasionally pausing to collect himself, White said his life, which “seems almost fake because of its absurdity and its serendipity,” helps him to remember that “each word is a celebration, and each one has hope.”

White said he is one of a relatively small number of individuals with Tourette’s whose symptoms include both motor and verbal tics, including involuntary cursing, which he said makes his daily life much more difficult. Still, he said he focuses on viewing life as a “celebration of sorts.”

Even in the most “absurd circumstances, the most abysmally uncomfortable circumstances, a laugh can be had, a smile flashed,” White said. “For a long time now, Tourette has done the talking for me. … [This] peeled back the face of Tourette for one second — I, Thomas White, am doing the talking.”


Third Coast Percussion: “Never Compromise. Collaborate.”

Third Coast Percussion, Notre Dame’s ensemble in residence made up of David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and Sean Connors, performed part of a percussion piece.

Skidmore said his favorite part of the song, which he plays on the clave, is completely drowned out by the rest of the group.

“We realize that all of the clave music that is happening is really just background material to the epic solo that Rob’s taking on the IKEA spaghetti strainers, and my clave rhythm, which is very interesting on its own, will never be fully heard or fully understood by any audience that we perform for,” he said.

This collaboration is good, however, because without it, the group’s four different opinions could never be synthesized, he said.

The group performed twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.


Carmen-Helena Tellez: “Rituals, Perceptions and the Music in Your Mind”

Tellez, a professor of conducting, said, to her, music and scores are a kind of sacred text in which the composer has embedded a message. In what she called the “cultural wars of high and low styles,” however, the modern audience increasingly struggles to connect with classical music, while many people believe popular music does not have the “necessary transcendent discourse” for the concert hall. Still, she said she finds that truly transcendent music is defined by more than that of one genre or another.

“The art in the music is what we discover in it. The content is what we contribute to it,” Tellez said.

Most important is that the audience participates actively, interacting with the ritual of the music in order to actively layer it with associations, Tellez said.


Jingting Kang: “Foreign Aid and International Volunteering: Problems Behind the Vision of Service”

Kang, a sophomore, said she previously had participated in a service trip to a rural part of China. Though she found meaning in her trip, she said she was disheartened to learn her work did not hold significant meaning for the people they purportedly were there to serve. Her group, the seventh team of well-intentioned volunteers that taught the alphabet to local children, completed a trip that was “the farthest thing from service,” Kang said.

“It was not only worthless, but damaging,” she said. “We took away local jobs, and we used the orphans just to get ‘likes’ on Facebook. We weren’t looking at the bigger picture that involves policy or culture. We weren’t aiding development. What we were doing was perpetuating the cycle of inequality.”

Kang said she urges the one million Americans who volunteer internationally every year to remember three principles: Service is not a transaction, service does not mean saving the world and service requires respect.


Claire Fyrqvist: “Creating Community Amid Urban Decline: A Study in Resurrection”

A Program of Liberal Studies major while at Notre Dame, Fyrqvist, class of 2005, said she left Notre Dame “thinking that we can and should make big gestures that have a wide impact, and that we have the capacity to do anything — and in many ways, we do.” After teaching at a rural orphanage in Honduras, she said she surprised herself by making her next home in South Bend among the homeless at the Catholic Worker house.

“People in small communities with a collective, truthful vision can do anything,” Fyrqvist said. “You can do anything. I truly believe that.”

No one illustrated this principle more than Sheila McCarthy, a “radically out of the box, deeply inspiring” woman Fyrqvist said she became acquainted with through the Catholic Worker house. McCarthy, Fyrqvist said, dreamt up a production of “Les Misérables” involving a 60-person cast, crew and orchestra comprised of the Catholic Worker community. To her, this and other pursuits of those at the house demonstrated that “people of good will come into the story as small but powerful agents of resurrection.”



Kevin Lannon: “Searching for the Other 95% of the Universe: True Stories From the Energy Frontier”

Lannon, a professor of physics, said the story behind the awarding of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics illustrates the limitless nature of academic discovery. The 2013 prize was awarded for the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, also known as the “God” particle, which represents the final piece in the puzzle of the Standard Model of Particle Physics. Still, Lannon said the Standard Model explains only 5 percent of the universe, while the other 95 percent is made of dark matter and dark energy.

This is a “really exciting time in participle physics because basically everything has been proven wrong or is in the process of being proven wrong,” Lannon said.


Nitesh Chawla: “Big Data for Common Good: The Synergistic Effects of Wellness in Communities”

Chawla, a computer science professor and self-proclaimed “dataologist,” argued that Americans’ health and wellness would improve if they tracked data about their own personal lives, such as socioeconomic status and access to grocery stores and recreational facilities.

Doctors could then notice trends between personal habits and certain diseases, he said.

“What if my prescription when I left the physician’s office would just say … ‘I know you live in a neighborhood where you may not have any access to [healthy fruits and vegetables]. Let me incentivize you. Go have a 50 percent discount on the fresh fruits and vegetables you may buy from the grocery store. That may help you?’” Chawla said.

Tracking personal data on a large scale could revolutionize the health care industry and improve Americans’ overall well being, he said.

“You can be empowered to take the right action,” Chawla said.


Michael Mesterharm: “Don’t Miss the Trees for the Forest: Learning to Leverage (and Appreciate) Small Data”

Mesterharm, a 2009 alumnus pursuing a master’s degree in nonprofit administration and working at the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls in Chicago, said small data could influence decision-making for the better.

Mesterharm said he charts students’ homework completion and class grades to see whether students are being served at school and whether staff members are mentoring the students effectively.

“There’s not a single number in that [spreadsheet],” he said. “You don’t need to be a math person. All you need to do is think systematically about how to set up your life.”

Beyond the workplace, tracking his emotions in spreadsheets based on trigger factors has helped Mesterharm through difficult personal times, he said.


Jake Markowski: “A Means of Communication”

Markowski, a freshman, rapped about his love of rap, a creative medium that helped him find his voice and passion.

“I have a dream that over time inspiration is not that hard to create, and it’s pretty easy to relate to one another and see others as our sisters and brothers when we learn to communicate,” he said.

Markowski said rap is the mode of communication through which he finds joy.

“When I say communication it’s not just words that I’m demanding,” he said. “It can be anything you love, anything at all, anything that when you do it you do it well and you stand tall and say that’s right I’m here, I’m good, I’m unbelievable.”


Christa Grace Watkins:“The Strength in Vulnerability: Healing Through Portraiture”

Watkins, a freshman, said she was sexually assaulted in her fourth week at Notre Dame and has since used therapeutic photography to help her release tension and build trust again.

“[Photography] was a natural choice for me because I grew up loving photography, but there was also another reason why it was important that I made an effort to regularly photograph,” Watkins said. “And this was that when I was assaulted, there were people present who were photographing me while it happened.”

Watkins shared some of the pictures she has taken in the last few months, including self-portraits.

“On days that I woke up and felt like my body was tainted and foreign to me, I took pictures of myself until it was familiarized again to me,” she said. “It took taking these pictures and recognizing myself in them to begin to reconcile myself with my body.”


Marie Bourgeois: “Finding Your Visual Voice: How to Become an Empowered Consumer”

Bourgeois, professor of visual communication design with a master’s in fine arts from Notre Dame, said visual communication is a powerful tool.

Bourgeois said people continuously engage in visual communication when they dress or organize their desk.

“All of these choices make us art directors of our own lives,” she said, “proving that we are surprisingly adept at communicating visually, yet the perception exists that in order to articulate yourself with images, you must have some degree or accreditation.”


Maria McKenna: “Connecting the Dots: Caring Education, Joyful Learning and Human Integrity”

McKenna, senior associate director of the Education, Schooling and Society minor, said education should be a source of joy for students, rather than a source of frustration.

“We need spaces where there is difficult learning going on in lots of different ways with lots of different people so that every child and young adult and grown-up gets to experience that moment of discovery,” she said. “We need spaces where we go in not even realizing the exuberance or joy we might find in what we’re studying. And we certainly need spaces where relationships are privileged.”


Michael Coppedge: “Varieties of Democracy: Global Standards, Local Knowledge”

Coppedge, a political science professor currently leading an international research team on the varieties of democracy, said democracy is difficult to break down into finer distinctions.

“When you try to measure democracy, you immediately run into a concept problem and a knowledge problem,” he said. “The concept problem is that people don’t agree on what democracy is. This is understandable because democracy is an amalgam of different philosophical traditions that have been evolving for 2,500 years.

“The knowledge problem is that no one person knows enough about the 200 or so countries in the world to be able to rate them all well.”


Joel Ostdiek: “Music: A Language We Can All Understand”

Ostdiek, a sophomore, said he understood the power of music as a universal language when he taught children in Uganda last summer.

“Music allowed me to land in this country with which I had no prior experience and, from day one, connect,” he said. “Rather than highlighting the differences between us, this common ground allowed me to simply be in relationship. Because music is a language we can all understand.”


JR Reagan: “The Face of Innovation: What Does an Innovator Look Like?”

Reagan, a principal at Deloitte & Touche LLP and a guest lecturer at the Mendoza College of Business, said innovation has no age limit.

Cassandra Lin, though in middle school, started a program to turn unused cooking oil into bio fuels to heat poor households in her neighborhood, Reagan said.

“For her it was all about a problem. It was all about a passion,” he said. “It was all about, ‘What could I do to look at this problem differently?’”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Elizabeth Huttinger began a program late in life to destroy a deadly parasite in Africa, Reagan said.

“What we’ve found is [innovation] isn’t an age-based type of indicator,” he said. “It doesn’t rely on a particular gender. It has no socioeconomic bend to it. It relies more on the ‘who’ and the ‘what.’ What are you passionate about and what are you willing to innovate for?”

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