TEDx speakers reach out to students in talks


Dr. Walter Schneider, a professor of psychology at Pitt and professor of neurosurgery at UPMC, illustrates his advanced research in brain imagining at TEDxUniversityofPittsburgh Sunday. Julia Zhu | Staff Photographer

By Rose Luder and Zoe Pawliczek / The Pitt News Staff

Just when Canadian hurdler Sarah Wells came close to realizing her Olympic dreams, she faced an injury that destroyed her chances.

At first, she was crushed by the missed opportunity  — which she considered “choking” at the time. But she overcame her defeat and ultimately placed as a semi-finalist in the 400-meter hurdles at the London 2012 Olympic games by choosing to view her stress as an opportunity to grow and by believing in her ability to handle it. These are two of the strategies she explained Sunday in the William Pitt Union during her TEDx talk “How to Use Your Stress to Fuel Olympic Sized Success.”

More than 250 students and community members gathered Sunday from 10:30 a.m to 3 p.m. for Pitt’s third annual TEDxUniversityofPittsburgh event. The event featured seven speakers, each of whom gave 10 to 20 minute “TED Talks” relating to the event’s theme — “Reach.” The reach-themed talks encompassed ideas on reaching in three different metaphorical directions: in, to achieve one’s own potential; up, to raise the bar on innovation and out, to connect ideas around the city of Pittsburgh. Additionally, the theme tied together the three elements of TED — technology, education and design — according to event co-curator Rena Jiang.

Past speakers have included Braddock Mayor John Fetterman for the 2016 theme of “Move” and Pittsburgh native and Bar Marco owner Bobby Fry in 2015 for the “Reformation in the Face of Assimilation” theme.

Wells was the first to speak during the event — which was run independently but with guidance from the TED organization — which Pitt’s Student Government Board and Graduate and Professional Student Government organized.

In her presentation, Wells said the very techniques she advised students to use to handle stress — including using it as motivation and drawing from memories of overcoming stress — helped her prepare for the challenges of public speaking, even unexpected technical malfunctions like her slides temporarily disappearing during her presentation.

“[Speaking] is very much like preparing for a race: I’ve done so much and want it to go well, but when I finish this I won’t have to go be sick in a garbage can afterwards,” Wells said, improvising as the slides were fixed.

Bill Valenta, the assistant dean for MBA and Executive Programs for the Katz Business School and a former city police officer, spoke about ways to handle another issue — the relationship police have with the communities in which they work.

Valenta — who has a background in both business and law enforcement — said police should first work on community engagement, then start fighting crime.

“Don’t we really owe it to our communities? To be innovative, to be transparent, to engage. To think about how police agencies are operating asking communities what they are doing?” Valenta asked the crowd.

In his talk, Walter Schneider, a psychology professor at Pitt, senior scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center and professor of neurosurgery at UPMC, contributed to the reach-themed TED Talks by talking about his own ambitious technology at Pitt.

This technology uses 3-D imaging to create a highly accurate picture of a person’s brain, which can be used to treat individuals with a traumatic brain injury or brain tumors and diagnose autism.

“Five years ago today this technology did not exist. In 10 or 15 years, it might be routine. It’s our time here to reach, to make it happen,” Schneider said.

First-year bioinformatics major Michael Jones said he came for Schneider’s talk in particular and was impressed that a Pitt professor’s work is getting national recognition, referring to Schneider’s appearance on “60 Minutes” and his work with the FBI scanning the brains of Boston Marathon victims.

“I’m interested in neuroscience, so it was really amazing how he connected his talk to the other topics like coding and autism,” Jones said.

Jones was referring to a talk about using coding for social change by Natalie Glance — the vice president of engineering at the Pittsburgh-based language-learning website Duolingo — and Jessica Benham’s talk about disability advocacy.

Benham, the director of public policy at the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, opened by identifying herself as a person with disabilities including anxiety, depression and mobility impairment. She then spoke about the evil of putting disabled people into institutions, and encouraged the audience to practice their own disability advocacy.

“Now I don’t expect you to go to every protest, I don’t expect you to get arrested, or be a lobbyist like I am, but I believe you should all be a disabilities advocate” Benham said.

Other speakers during the event included Omar Khawaja, vice president and chief information security officer at Highmark, and Bob Cafaro, a cellist for the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Despite their differences, all the speakers echoed Benham’s approach about the importance of engaging with one’s community.

“Reach for me is about an attitude that we have toward other people,” Benham said. “It’s about reaching out across different experiences in order to not just make everyone feel included, but to feel welcomed and respected.”

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