TEDxJHU speakers challenge society’s status quo

By JERRY WU | April 18, 2019

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The TEDxJHU event “Connect the Dots,” took place in the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy.
EDA INCEKARA / The News-Letter

TEDxJHU held its annual conference at the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy on Saturday. United by the theme of “Connecting the Dots,” six speakers shared their stories of overcoming adversity and challenging the status quo to effect positive change in the world. 

Junior Naomi Rafi, a speaker liaison for TEDxJHU, opened the event by explaining the meaning of Connecting the Dots and why the organizers selected it as this year’s theme.

“We live in a society that is growing in complexity, whether that be in terms of ideas, information or challenges. Because of this, we sometimes feel that society has a status quo placed on us that divides us more than it unites us,” Rafi said. “However, there are people in society who are brave enough and bold enough to not care about the status quo.” 

Rafi described the speakers as individuals who have bridged social divides.

The first speaker was Ian McCulloh, chief data scientist for Accenture Federal Services and former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. He is also a Parson’s Fellow in the Bloomberg School of Public Health, a senior lecturer in the Whiting School of Engineering and a senior scientist at the Applied Physics Lab.

During his time in the army, McCulloh researched the social networks that comprise the military’s leadership structure. He found that in addition to the formal chain of command, there are informal structures.

According to McCulloh, lower-ranking individuals often hold more responsibility than higher-ranking individuals in this informal hierarchy. By mapping out social networks, McCulloh said, the efficiency and effectiveness of organizations can be improved.

Since retiring from the army, McCulloh has applied his research on social networks to the fields of public health and neuroscience. He believes that understanding social networks has the potential to save countless lives, noting how norms about acceptable diet and body image change when people spend time together. 

“We found that network interventions to affect cultural practices that have negative health outcomes were more effective than any kind of clinical intervention,” he said. “Over half of deaths in America are the result of lifestyle choices that are preventable — such as drug use, smoking and diet.”

Senior Pava LaPere, president of Technology, Creativity, Opportunity (TCO) Labs, spoke after McCulloh. She founded the nonprofit organization in 2015 with the mission of promoting undergraduate entrepreneurship at Hopkins. Since then, she has created Innov8MD, which seeks to connect student entrepreneurs across Maryland, and EcoMap, which aims to connect startups in the Baltimore area with resources.

LaPere discussed her motivations for founding TCO Labs. 

“We realized that there are actually remarkably few resources for students who wanted to turn their ideas into reality outside of the classroom,” she said. “We decided that we had two options. We could either accept that Hopkins didn’t have an entrepreneurial ecosystem, or we could be ones to build it.” 

While the experience has been incredibly rewarding, LaPere said, it has also taken its toll. She described the difficulty of being both an entrepreneur and a full-time student, noting that she slept only four nights per week her junior year. She stated that on multiple occasions she had to leave exams unfinished in order to attend business meetings. 

However, she emphasized the importance of being an entrepreneur. 

“In reality, entrepreneurship is a stressful, emotional, painful endeavor,” LaPere said. “So why would I encourage others to go through this process? Because we are hurtling towards an unsustainable future and we need more entrepreneurs than ever to turn that around.”

Mohammed Khalid, a McNair Scholar in cybersecurity studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, spoke next. He also participated in the Mellon Foundation Summer Humanities Collaboratory at Hopkins. In 2011, when he was 15 years old, Khalid was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and became the youngest person to ever be prosecuted for terrorism offenses in the United States. In his talk, Khalid spoke about the discrimination he faced when he immigrated to America and how that drove him to social isolation because many terrorists operate under his name. 

“I found out that my first name, Mohammed, happened to be the nom de guerre of terrorists,” he said. “On the first day of classes, students would get up and introduce themselves and say where they’re from... I would not get any polite smiles or nods. Instead, I only heard snickering. ‘Oh Mohammed? Like the terrorist?’” 

Khalid said that he became withdrawn, spending more time on the internet than in the real world. He explained that he began reading jihadist propaganda online.

“If the government was watching me online — which they were — they could see that I was translating jihadi propaganda on a full-time basis. I was spending more than 40 hours a week translating jihadist videos and suicide bombings,” he said. “This became my world... I had to fight evil, and that evil was the United States of America.”

It was only after his arrest, Khalid said, that his views on America began to soften. In prison he read the Quran and shared personal stories with fellow inmates and correctional officers alike. 

“Everyone, even the worst actors in our lives, has the same great human motivations that drive us to do terrible, terrible things,” Khalid said. “You don’t have to be a former prisoner or an ex-terrorist to know that all of us suffer in the same way and that we are all more than the worst thing we have ever done.”

After a brief intermission, Kwame Rose, a social activist and contributor to the Huffington Post, spoke. After the death of Freddie Gray, a video of Rose confronting a reporter about the media’s portrayal of the 2015 Baltimore Uprising went viral overnight. Gray had lived five minutes away from Rose.

Citing the death of Freddie Gray as an example, Rose discussed the social, economic and racial injustices that many black people in Baltimore continue to face. He mentioned that Gray’s older brother was also murdered and that both Gray and his sister suffered from lead paint poisoning. 

Rose also commented on the University’s plan to establish a private police force.

“There would be no need for a private police force at Johns Hopkins if we actually gave opportunities to young people who live in the city. The 63 percent of black people that make up Baltimore is not represented in the student population,” Rose said. 

Aisha Al Fadhalah spoke next. She is the co-founder of Mera Kitchen Collective, a worker-owned cooperative that aims to empower women who are immigrants and refugees through cooking. 

Al Fadhalah highlighted the importance of food in forming relationships with people across different cultures. She added that women at Mera, who were first unable to communicate in the same language, now own a business together.

“Relationships are not quickly formed. They’re built over time, over meals, over caring for each other through ups and downs,” Al Fadhalah said. “Think about somebody you might know; you maybe know their name but not their story. I encourage you to have a meal with them.”

The final speaker at the event was Dr. Dorry Segev, one of the transplant surgeons who performed the first-ever organ transplants from a human immunodeficiency virus-positive (HIV) living donor. He discussed the history of HIV-to-HIV transplants, noting that even though it was at first a controversial practice, it has become an accepted and even crucial part of transplant surgery. 

Through extensive data analysis, Segev and his team determined that HIV-to-HIV kidney transplants could not only save lives but also save insurance companies a significant amount of money because dialysis can cost about half a million dollars.

Segev mentioned other benefits of HIV-to-HIV transplants, which he believes can reduce the stigma associated with HIV.

“We have the opportunity as transplant surgeons to impact the virology of HIV science and potentially to cure HIV because of the transplants we are doing,” he said. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, Speaker Liaison for TEDxJHU Amy Liang emphasized that the speakers demonstrated the need to analyze issues from multiple perspectives.

“‘Connect the Dots’ shows how... you have to open your eyes and expand your horizons and see that everything is connected in some way. And until you get that connection from a whole bunch of different things, you won’t fully understand something and know how to solve issues we face today,” Liang said. 

Junior Naomi Gail Rafi echoed Liang’s sentiments.

“We have six incredible speakers here today. They are innovators, trailblazers and experts in their fields,” she said. “They remind us that in order for all of us to have a more cohesive future, we need to connect the dots, today.”

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