How do you get 1,000 people to pay anywhere up to $100 to spend eight hours in the Zellerbach Theatre on the most beautiful day of spring thus far? Erect a “giving tree” where people can add sticky notes detailing their plans for the future, set up a 3-D printer demonstration with free keychains and mini sharks and provide googly eyes and sparkly hats for spontaneous photo shoots in front of a TEDxPenn patterned backdrop.
Sunday was the annual installment of TEDxPenn, which brought together 19 different entrepreneurs, scientists, musicians, artists and professors to give engaging talks and performances about everything from modern day “divination” to testing drugs on microchip simulations of human tissue.
The speakers were a far cry from being exclusively Penn-associated, but Penn professors and researchers were still strongly represented. A 2014 graduate even made it back for the event — College alumnus and former Daily Pennsylvanian staffer Jonathan Iwry. He used his time to freestyle rap, incorporating words that the crowd tweeted in real-time with the hashtag #TEDxPenn.
The words popped up on the screen overhead while Iwry freestyled, and he used everything from “intelligent” to “orange.” Iwry also discussed how he felt freestyle rapping was analogous to a lifestyle. On improvisation, he said, “I think it’s more than making do — I think it’s about tapping into the resources within us.” In the break after his talk, Iwry admitted TEDxPenn was a very new experience for him.
“I performed at NSO for the class of 2017, but this was unlike anything I’ve done before,” he said. “Not only did I rap in front of 1,000 people, but I also got to talk about what I believe in.”
Shifting gears, Peter Struck, Classical Studies professor at Penn, discussed humans’ awareness of how we make decisions. He spoke to the audience about ancient forms of decision-making traditionally viewed as superstitious, like consulting oracles in Athens and reading turtle shells in China.
“We do this today,” he said. “We take a walk, or take a shower or sleep on the problem.” After studying with a group of psychologists at Stanford, Struck said he had created an axiom: “Our ability to know exceeds our capacity to understand that ability,” he said.
Other highlights include artist Judy Gelles, who has traveled all over the world photographing fourth graders, transposing the text of their hopes and dreams around them in the picture. Penn professor Lyle Ungar studied over a billion tweets with his team to analyze the correlation between certain key words and the presence of heart disease in a community.
Dave Gruber, National Geographic ocean explorer, started out studying phosphorescence in coral and most recently wound up swimming with sharks to see if they also contained the phosphorescent protein — some species did. Jill Wruble of the Yale School of Medicine warned the audience of unnecessary and potentially harmful tests and surgeries for “incidentalomas” — abnormalities found in tests for something else. In these situations, cancer, though unlikely, cannot be ruled out completely. She recommended “watching and waiting” over anything else. “Be skeptical,” Wruble said.
“We’ve been working on [TEDxPenn] for nine months,” said College and Wharton junior and Director of Marketing and Public Relations Osama Ahmed. Ahmed’s job was, in his words, “making sure we sell all our tickets.” The event was almost sold out.
On the actual day of the event, “all of us [were] literally scheduled down to the minute,” he said with laugh. He worked a name tag table in the morning, received members of the press and made sure attendees had access to the TEDxPenn app.
“The app was one of our biggest challenges ... a lot of us learned a lot,” Ahmed said. The app contained a schedule of the day’s speakers and a chatting function to encourage networking and discussion around the topics. College senior Gabe Jimenez, who hosted the event, tacked on a promo for the app as he wrapped up the first set of speakers. “I put my information in, so feel free to chat with me about these ideas worth spreading,” he said, a nod to the classic TED catchphrase.
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