9 People Who Are Changing the World

Want to change the world? Maybe your inspiration will be found in a common thread found in each of the speakers at the 2014 TEDx event at the University of Washington. Among them were a poetry-writing lawyer, a computer programming biologist, and an engineer setting out to tackle global poverty. As one might expect from any TED event, the talks inspired collaboration and creativity, offering new perspectives on some of the largest problems facing our world. One of my favorite things about TED is the cross-pollination of ideas which the speakers in this set truly exemplify. Until these talks are posted online, here’s the inside scoop!


Communication, Empathy, & Serious Illness by Anthony Back

As a soon to be doctor, this talk stood out. It was a good reminder to be present with patients and leave other distractions at the door. It also made me especially thankful that counseling classes and rotations were a part of my education and has inspired me to constantly work on my communication skills as a doctor.

“There’s a gap between what doctors say and what patients hear” and we need to bridge this gap. Tony is Professor of medicine, oncologist, and researcher at the University of Washington. He has observed that the system doesn’t reward doctors with interpersonal skills, and research does not strive to find answers here. “You can’t change the fact that we’re mortal but we can change the way doctors and patients talk about what’s important.”

Dr. Back encourages that better conversations can happen, and here are some ways we can move that direction:

  • Teach doctors how to listen and what kinds of questions to ask
  • Provide doctors with maps for getting through the tough conversations
  • Teach doctors how to be

 “We need medicine that puts our humanity front and center”

 Dr. Back finishes with some suggestions to move us in that direction…


  • For the doctor: These kinds of communication skills  are things you learn, you’re not born with them and therefore doctors need to seek out opportunities to improve their communication skills and schools need to incorporate this in the curriculum.
  • For the patient: Find your sources of strength and hang on to them.
  • For the friend/family of the patient: Try just being present. You don’t need to have the answers. “What happens in the moment might just transform you both.”


Sharing a Vision: Scientists and Animal Rights Activists Working Together by Sarah Olson

One of my life goals is to do a TED talk so I was super impressed to hear that a sophomore at the University of Washington was giving her first TED talk this weekend and she did an amazing job. She called for humane and effective biomedical research to save human and animal lives, years of research, and dollars. Of course she had ideas: focusing on implementing non-animal models in the form of clear flexible polymer chips that simulate organ function. Have no idea what that means? Click here. It’s pretty badass.

What do we do to achieve these goals?

  • Get rid of the “crazy” animal rights activist vs “evil” biomedical researcher stereotypes.
  • Come together to come up with alternatives that are not only ethical but scientifically progressive. Animal models are not high predictors of what will happen in humans so we need better models.
  • Know that animal activism can BE scientific progress.


Transcending Technology in Global Health by Julia Robinson

Julia is a fantastic and eloquent speaker who questions whether technology is really what we need to solve our healthcare problems. She is Deputy Director of Côte d’Ivoire Programs and Director of Advocacy Programs at Health Alliance International.

Yes, technology is amazing. It offers portable diagnostic machines (smart phones!), more effective medications, vaccine development,  and “new” technology with male circumcision – decreasing transmission of HIV by 50% in some populations! Some of the best technology, however, has been around for decades (bed nets for example to fight malaria), but what we really need are people. We have shortages of healthcare workers because of factors that both pull and push healthcare workers from developing nations.

Technology is useless if you don’t have the people to implement it. So what do we do?

  • Train more health workers
  • Improve conditions of health facilities
  • Hold rich countries and NGOs accountable when they pull health workers away from countries with shortages


Programming Biology by Eric Klavin

Professor of electrical engineering, programmer, and biologist extraordinaire, Eric describes the parallels between living organisms and computers where DNA is the code. He explores the possibilities when applying computer models to the biology lab to create highly reproducible experiments. By programming the lab itself which is full of factors that influence the results and formalizing the language we use through standardization provided by code we are able to have more reproducible studies and faster results. Programming biology will likely have further applications such as in medicine, potentially creating a gene circuit that could be an incredibly specific cancer therapy for example.

This talk is absolutely fascinating and drives at one of the biggest hurdles of scientific progress. When studies are irreproducible their real world relevance falls dramatically and the results, though informative, are less likely to actually improve our world through applications like medicine.


Imagination = Innovation: The Role of Adventure Playgrounds by Ann Grabler

How cool is this one? She has a degree in Recreation and Tourism Management and is part of the Mercer Island Adventure Playground project, bringing creativity, play, and hands-on adventure back into the lives of children. She talks about the surge in “helicopter parenting” and studies which show that kids aren’t taking risks. This is actually a bad thing! Kids who take risks end up being more cautious in teenage and college years when they’re starting to make decisions about sex, drugs, and things like whether or not to go to class. I hadn’t heard of Adventure Playgrounds before this talk but I know that is my kind of playground! Adventure playgrounds come in all shapes and sizes, but check out the one below, St. Kilda’s Adventure Playground found in Melbourne, Australia:

 “Technology allows kids to be absorbed but not engaged.”


Transformative storytelling: Poetry as a Tool for Liberation by Troy Osaki

Troy slams poetry with his soul pouring out of every word. He says he does it for 3 main reasons: healing, empowerment, and transformation. He wants you to “hear, smell, and taste the moment.” Poetry is an outlet for which you can say what you want to say to the world, build community and authentic relationships, and spark positive change in action.

He slams about his Japanese ancestry and the disconnect he has felt with it.  “I gave myself intentional space” to explore this identity and allow for reflection.

  “Poetry is writing myself into existence.”

 I LOVE poetry slams. If you live in Seattle, Rebar has weekly slams you can find at http://seattlepoetryslam.org/

If you don’t, I highly encourage you to find one near you, especially a competition.  You can also get a good taste of it on YouTube of course. Check out some of these:

Marshall Davis Jones: “Touchscreen”

Catalina Ferro: “Anxiety Group”

Sarah Kay: “If I Should Have a Daughter” (a TED talk!)


A New Slant on Racism by Simon Tam

Recently racism has been in the limelight given the Donald Sterling situation making this next talk particularly topical as it confronts the evolving and hidden ways in which racism exists and persists in our culture. “We live in a system that upholds inherently racist ideologies.” Simon Tam is the founder and bassist of the only all-Asian American dance rock band, The Slants, and through the process of trademarking their band name he has come to realize “we’re navigating through a broken system.” In an ironic, paradoxical dilemma, the more Asian his band is (from member ancestry to album artwork), the more racist they are seen.

 “You can choose your identity, but the protection of your identity is all of our responsibilities.”


How I Lost Faith in Technovangelists by Dean Chahim

Dean thought he could save the world with technology, but after a trip to Bolivia with Engineers Without Borders he started questioning why they needed to go. The answer was far more political and he realized that technology doesn’t solve our biggest problems. He wished he could say “don’t worry your glacier will be fine. We’ve got an app for that,” but “we can’t invent our way out of the 2nd law of thermodynamics.”

“How much is technology really improving our lives?” Dean points out that  the excess wealth created by technology flows up the chain, not down. Productivity has doubled in the past 50 years but wages are stagnant and we’re no happier.

When it comes to design, “productivity trumps sustainability almost every time.”

Don’t let technology distract from the politics. Political change is necessary, absolutely possible, and is already underway. “Believe more in each other than in technology.”


Change Yourself to Change the System Because the System Lives Inside You by Che Sehyun

Che is a UW graduate that was surrounded by violence and poverty growing up. In college he was an activist and a leader for social change. After some unsuccessful attempts at change on the broader level he turned inward finding that “you have to change your thinking to change yourself.” He now helps families and students develop life skills while incorporating positive and creative activities like break dancing.

 “Learning is where our infinite potential lies.”

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