TEDxHouston at Rice: Lessons in ‘The Other Things’

The more than 650 people who attended TEDxHouston 2013 on the Rice campus Oct. 12 got to hear 29 local thinkers and doers – including some Rice alumni and faculty – give “the talks of their lives” (aka “TED talks”) in 12 minutes or less.

The audience, mostly Houstonians who were lucky enough to apply for and purchase tickets before the popular event sold out, was invited to be enriched and inspired by this year’s theme, “The Other Things,” defined as “moonshots that are audacious and brave by their own rights.” The reference to the moon befitted the location. Fifty-one years and one month had passed since President John F. Kennedy gave his famous “moon speech” at Rice Stadium Sept. 12, 1962, and boldly declared, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

For more than 8 1/2 hours, the audience in Stude Concert Hall at Rice’s Shepherd School of Music listened to speakers deliver their “moonshots” from a stage that included the lectern Kennedy spoke from.

TEDx is a branch of TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design), a nonprofit organization that is devoted to “ideas worth sharing” and that hosts annual conferences in the U.S. and abroad. In addition to the Shepherd School, the event was hosted by Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business, Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, School of Humanities and Office of Public Affairs.

Rice faculty member Kirsten Ostherr and alumni Ned Dodington ’09, Jan Goetgeluk ’10, Adriana Ramirez ’05, Thierry Rignol ’12 and Anna “Piper” Whitmire ’08 were among the experts invited to speak. Rice alumnus David Eagleman ’93, a neuroscientist and writer at Baylor College of Medicine, served as the moderator of one of the afternoon sessions.

Ostherr, a professor of English and co-founder and director of the Medical Futures Lab, a collaborative center linking Rice, Baylor College of Medicine and University of Texas Health Science Center, discussed the potential of modern health communication platforms to improve health care delivery and outcomes. Her presentation drew on a revolutionary documentary, “Window Water Baby Moving,” that was produced for the general public by Stan Brakhage in 1959. The movie documented how Brakhage’s wife, Jane, delivered their first child at a time when birth was considered a topic for educational films for physicians only. Ostherr said the documentary provides lessons for what movies can do to make the population healthier. “(Brakhage) delivered the patients’ experience, shot in the mother’s and father’s points of view,” she said. “When patients tell their stories, in collaboration with their doctors, they can produce something that is much more powerful than a traditional medical narrative ever could be.”

Dodington, a designer and the founder of the popular Animal Architecture website, advanced a philosophy of architectural design thinking that connects the living spaces of humans and animals. The philosophy was born while he was working toward his Master of Architecture degree at Rice, and used Galveston’s coastline as an example to study ecological design strategies and management with an eye toward the built environment. “Animal architecture is a project about getting us outside of ourselves, about seeing that we are active agents in a larger environment,” Dodington said. “An attitude that we’re all in this together is probably the best way that we can deal with the big ecological, maybe even economic, problems in our lives.”

The power and potential of virtual reality was the topic of Goetgeluk’s talk. He is the founder and CEO of Virtuix and the developer of the Virtuix Omni, the first virtual reality interface to move freely and naturally in video games and virtual worlds. Showcased onstage, the Omni is a treadmill-like platform used to simulate the motion of walking and that allows for 360-degree movement. The player is fully enclosed within a ring that works with a safety harness to absorb the player’s weight. It has wide-ranging applications in the military, education, health care and business sectors. “In short, virtual reality will change the way we think, live, work and exercise,” Goetgeluk said. “It will be front and center in our daily lives fairly soon.”

Exposing the uncomfortable and telling the story of what it means to be human was the focal point of Ramirez’s presentation. The slam poet and teacher encouraged the audience to take the world and call it for what it is. Used once by her high school English teacher as a living, breathing definition of the word “histrionic,” she embraced self-irony: “My response: theatrical protest.” Ramirez finished her presentation with a poem honoring her deceased brother, who taught her that names are powerful and can “fix what is wrong.” Her final stanza resounded throughout the concert hall: “I rename all of you daydreamers, and wishers, and lovers, and alive.”

Rignol emphasized the need for the leaders of the future to embrace technology. He is an energy consultant and the founding president of World STEM Works, a global nonprofit social venture with a focus on developing science diplomacy through the concept of the “civic scientist.” Rignol made an impassioned plea for merging the fields of the natural sciences and the social sciences and proposed a new degree: a Master of Public Technology, modeled after a Master of Public Health degree. “Only by bringing those two fields together will we be able to innovate with technology that can change the world, that can be applied to every one of us and that all of us can understand,” he said.

Whitmire, a yoga and dance instructor, highlighted the parallels between leadership on a social level and leadership in the physical realm of dance, bringing the stage to life with dance and music to make her point. She encouraged the audience to pay attention to the connections between body language and healthy, effective interpersonal relationships. “You can figure out your blind spots by watching yourself move and interact with other people,” Whitmire said. “To me it’s incredibly valuable to take videos of myself dancing and see where my weaknesses are.”

For more information about TEDxHouston 2013, visit http://tedxhouston.com/2013/.

About Jeff Falk