TEDMED Blog

Music Without Borders: Q&A with Farah Siraj

Farah Siraj, Jordanian singer and songwriter, has performed at the United Nations, Nobel Prize Hall, and World Economic Forum and had a #1 hit song in India. She shares her unique style of worldly music, a delightful Eastern and Western fusion.

Farah Siraj at TEDMED 2014

Farah Siraj at TEDMED 2014

What motivated you to perform at TEDMED?

It was a true pleasure performing at TEDMED. Also, the fact that we got to take the stage at the John F. Kennedy Center was a dream come true! Above all, what I love about TEDMED is that it is a platform for innovative, out-of-box thinkers to come together and share their ideas and discoveries with one another. It was definitely an eye-opening experience! TEDMED talks make you think twice about things!

What were a few TEDMED 2014 talks or performances left an impression on you?

One of the highlights of TEDMED for me was Diana Nyad’s talk. I find her fascinating— Diana is the perfect example of someone who didn’t give up on her dream, and how something can look impossible until you make it possible. There were so many odds against her each time she set out to sea, and yet that didn’t stop her. Diana’s talk was inspiring, charismatic and uplifting. When we met, I just had to give her a huge hug and tell her what an inspiration she is to me!
Dominick Farinacci’s performance was very inspiring. Music has profound healing powers and Dominick’s music is an example of that. Also, it’s great when an artist walks you through the story of their music, it gives you an understanding of where they were in their life when they wrote it. Great performance and great artist! We got to join our bands and create music on stage at the evening celebration, an experience I will always cherish.
I really enjoyed Rosie King’s talk. She talked about how autism is never a one-size-fits-all thing. It is a reminder of how far we still have to go in the field of understanding autism and providing the best support for autistic children and their families. Rosie was also an example of the brilliant intellectual abilities that often come with autism and are often overlooked. In the Middle East, autism awareness is finally taking off and my music was used in the first video campaign in Arabic to raise awareness about autism in the Arab world. It’s a cause I support wholeheartedly.

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

The fact that the majority of TEDMED attendees were in in the medical field led me to meet people so far out of my field. I loved it! I had lots of fun conversations with people and got to connect with some really inspiring people and make new friendships.

Farah Siraj at TEDMED 2014

Farah Siraj at TEDMED 2014

What is the legacy you want to leave?

I believe I was given the gift of music so that I could use it for the greater good: to help and heal others through music, and to inspire people to make a positive change in their lives and the lives of others. My hope is that fulfilling that mission will be my legacy, as well as to be remembered as someone who helped amplify the voices of others who needed to be heard.

Rethinking New Diseases: Q&A with Sonia Shah

Sonia Shah, an investigative science journalist and historian, challenges conventional understandings about the real causes of pandemics. We caught up with her to ask a few more questions.

Why does this talk matter now?

The way we understand the origins of new diseases shapes our response to them—responses that will become increasingly relevant in this age of emerging and re-emerging pathogens, from Ebola to cholera. This talk is based on my forthcoming book—“Pandemic: tracking contagion from cholera to Ebola and beyond.”

Sonia Shah at TEDMED 2014

Sonia Shah at TEDMED 2014

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

I met the comedian Tig Notaro, whom I’ve admired for a long time. We shared a table at a book signing—I did not expect that! I’m a science journalist!

How can we learn more about your latest work?

My book comes out in February 2016, and it’s available for pre-order now. I’ve also collaborated with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to create an app called “Mapping Cholera,” which provides an interactive visualization and narrative about the 1832 cholera outbreak in New York City, which I spoke about in my talk, and the 2010 cholera outbreak in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. And you can find more updates at soniashah.com, too.

Meet Our TEDMED 2015 HIVE Companies

Get to Know The Hive at TEDMED 2015

From large-scale solutions addressing global food crises to micro bio-reactors targeting the source of epidemics; from radical devices monitoring disease from the outside to revolutionary adhesives healing wounds on the inside; and from creative solutions addressing complex public issues to labs cultivating game-changing advances – and more – we’re excited to introduce the 20inspiring entrepreneurs and their transformative startups carefully selected to be part of the TEDMED2015 “Hive” this November. Named after the potential of our collective “hive mind,” The Hive is dedicated to celebrating the power of imagination and human potential with the goal of sparking new ideas, possibilities and collaborations across the TEDMED community.

In previous years, “The Hive” existed as a showcase of innovation interwoven within TEDMED’s immersive and informal social spaces. This year, we’re shaking things up and trying a new approach. The Hive companies and their leaders will be fully integrated across community activities and the stage program to catalyze new relationships, new thinking and new collaborations.

We hope you’ll join The Hive organizations and the rest of us this November 18-20, either in person or via live stream, as we come together to focus on breaking through the status quo and celebrating the typical, the atypical and the spaces in between.

Without further ado…


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Aspire Food Group, focuses on enabling global food and nutrition security using an abundant resource already embraced by many cultures – insects! CMO Shobhita Soor will represent this social enterprise company on a global mission to develop new ways to process and package edible insect-based food products.


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Breakout Labs (BOL), helps bring radical scientific advances out of the lab and into the marketplace. Operating out of Peter Thiel’s nonprofit foundation, this revolving fund provides not only significant seed money, but also practical and tactical support to innovative entrepreneurs of all types –all the while preserving a special fondness for those working at the intersection of biology and technology. Hemai Parthasarathy, Scientific Director of Breakout Labs , will share more about this powerful approach to advancing innovation.


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BroadReach Healthcare, strives to reduce health inequalities around the world by transforming big data into evidence-based insights that can improve global health. Founding Partner, John Sargent, will explain how this mission-driven company aims to help governments, donors and the private sector prioritize for maximum impact.


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Cognoa, is committed to helping parents assess and support their child’s optimal development. Represented by its Scientific Founder, Dennis Wall will share how this consumer health company has developed a mobile app that uses machine learning to identify risk for autism and/or developmental delay. By answering simple questions and uploading short videos, families can generate a personalized report to share with doctors.


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Daily Table, is cooking up a novel retail operation to offer great-tasting, nutritious food at affordable prices for food-insecure neighborhoods. Founder and President, Doug Rauch, will share how the store intends to compete with unhealthy fast-food by selling satisfying and affordable takeout meals made of wholesome and nutritious excess food that would otherwise be wasted by growers, manufacturers and retailers.


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Emulate, is setting a new standard for understanding the human body with their “Organs-on-Chips” technology. President and Chief Scientific Officer, Geraldine Hamilton, will discuss how their living products help researchers better understand how diseases, medicines, chemicals, and foods affect human health – all without having to test living subjects – and how they’re working on ushering in a new era of personalized health.


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Gecko Biomedical, develops a biodegradable adhesive made specifically for “wet” environments to improve outcomes and care for patients in minimally invasive surgery. Maria Pereira, Head of Research, will represent Gecko Biomedical in the Hive. With 20 years’ experience in medical device technology, the privately-owned, Paris-based company has a vision to create a paradigm shift in surgical procedure.


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GirlTrek, quickly becoming a “go-to” organization in public health, has set a goal to inspire one million Black women and girls to commit to self-care by taking highly visible, organized walks in their neighborhoods. GirlTrek’s Co-Founder and Director, T. Morgan Dixon, will explain how it’s a modern take on historical collective action, meant to be a practical and literal step to build healthier, more fulfilling lives.


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Gravie, helps people buy and manage their own health insurance, with support to avoid the minor and major annoyances and confusion in dealing with consumer healthcare. Abir Sen, CEO, will represent Gravie sharing how the company offers private market and public exchange options to provide a single resource for management of all things health-related.


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Impossible Foods, is on a mission to stem the destructive practices used in animal farming and transform the global food system by creating plant-based, healthy, safe and “irresistibly delicious” meats and dairy foods. The “Impossible Burger” will be introduced in 2016!


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The InSCyT Platform (Integrated and Scalable CytoTecyhnology), is set to dramatically change response to disease outbreak by creating onsite manufacturing systems to produce personalized biologic therapeutics in small doses – reducing production time from months to mere hours. Christopher Love, Project Lead for The InSCyt Platform, will share more about the potential in delivering truly personalized medicine by making biologic drugs in any location on a small scale, for treating orphan diseases, improving healthcare on the battlefield, and more.


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The MakerNurse Initiative, develops tools and processes to help nurses design and create breakthrough health technology. Anna Young, Medical Maker, will explain how MakerNurse Spaces have “miniaturized” world-class medical device R&D facilities into tool kits that capture, identify and enable medical making at the point of care.


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Medical Informatics Corp (MIC), is dedicated to improving clinical decision-making within critical care units. CTO Craig Rusin will discuss the FDA-cleared product, Sickbay, and its analogy to GPS for physicians. This system uses real-time clinical analytics to provide a decision-making map to help doctors navigate the complex risk landscape to achieve the best results for each patient.


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MindMaze, a portfolio of medical grade virtual reality products designed to stimulate neural processes, is focused on enhancing the quality of life for brain injury survivors. A spinoff of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), Tej Tadi – CEO and Founder – and the rest of the company have joined the ranks of Switzerland’s top 10 healthcare startups in just three years’ time.


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Neural Interaction Laboratory at UCSD, takes a multi-disciplinary approach to tackling health issues by combining highly scalable data interpretation algorithms with recent development of flexible electronic systems for medical applications. Associate Professor Todd Coleman will share how seemingly disparate perspectives can be uncommonly combined to discover radically new solutions.


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Noora Health, turns hospital hallways and waiting rooms into classrooms with interactive, skill-based learning modules to turn family members into active agents of patient care and recovery. Noora Health’s CEO and Co-Founder, Edith Elliott, will share how the company has trained over 16,000 families in India to provide high-quality care, reducing hospital readmission rates by 23% and reducing post-op complications by 36%.


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Open Agriculture Lab at the MIT Media Lab, is on a mission to create healthier, more engaging and more inventive food systems. Caleb Harper, Principal Scientist, will discuss how they’re using an open-source ecosystem of food technologies to enable healthier and more sustainable food systems to feed a rapidly growing global population.


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Open Style Lab, is a unique fashion resource that stays constantly conscious of people with disabilities. Represented by Executive Director Grace Teo, Open Style designs, manufactures and distributes functional and stylish clothing using a user-centered design and rapid prototyping process.


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Recon Therapeutics, aims to improve patient care, safety and compliance with personalized biologic therapies. To do so, they’ve created a patent-pending, simple solution for delivery of self-injected medications that can be customized to each person’s needs and lifestyle. Co-Founder Christopher Lee will explain how the kit works with off-the-shelf injection devices to simplify drug reconstitution (mixing) between a lyophilized (freeze-dried) drug and injection solvent at the point of care.


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TellSpec, the world’s first consumer food sensor, is a mobile app that identifies calories, macronutrients, ingredients and allergens in foods. Representing TellSpec, Founder, Isabel Hoffmann will share the company’s goal to equip consumers to make smarter choices about their foods by providing on-demand information about what – beyond the nutrition label – is really in the food they are about to eat.

 

Public Health Heroes Who Roll Up Their Sleeves and Get the Job Done

New York City Public Health Commissioner Mary Bassett, third from left, wears a “condom crown” in celebration of World Aids Day, December 1, 2014.  The NYC Department of Health hosted the Red Ball at the OUT Hotel and unveiled a new report showing that HIV diagnoses are at an all-time low.

New York City Public Health Commissioner Mary Bassett, third from left, wears a “condom crown” in celebration of World Aids Day, December 1, 2014. The NYC Department of Health hosted the Red Ball at the OUT Hotel and unveiled a new report showing that HIV diagnoses are at an all-time low.

Gun violence. Racial profiling. Ebola. These three topics, scary and unsettling at both the personal and public health level, have dominated newsfeeds this past year. Though very different, each presents daunting challenges that go wide and deep. Our lineup of TEDMED 2015 speakers includes three individuals willing to face them directly and put themselves on the frontlines of meaningful change.

After a decade in prison, Sam Vaughn now serves as a mentor committed to using gentleness and love to help violence-prone young men visualize a better life and then develop the skills that will allow them to live it. It’s working: more than 80% of the youth in his program in Richmond, Calif., have stayed away from gun violence and the city’s homicide rate has plummeted (so much so that Richmond is no longer ranked among America’s 10 most dangerous cities!). Sam’s motivation is to abolish separatism, he says: “Dr. King said an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere. We have lost sight of this in America and most people ignore what’s going on around them until it affects them personally. I was taught that silence is a form of consent.”

As New York City Public Health Commissioner, Mary Bassett became a major supporter of the “BlackLivesMatter” movement. She called for the medical community to become more deeply engaged, using her position to tackle institutional racism. She has also pushed for higher cigarette taxes and supported New York City’s ban of artificial trans fats in restaurants. Focused on exploding technocratic approaches to public health to reveal its roots in social justice, Mary says the idea that public health is a reflection of individual behaviors is outdated. “Systems reinforcing discrimination and oppression harm health,” she says. “I am breaking through silence by explicitly naming racism as a key injustice and determinant of poor health.” Mary has been an activist her entire adult life: She volunteered at a Black Panther Clinic while a student at Radcliffe and also spent 17 years on the medical faculty at the University of Zimbabwe, where she developed one of that country’s first HIV awareness programs.

Also an early warrior against HIV, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Tony Fauci directs a large HIV/AIDS laboratory, oversees a $4.4 billion research portfolio and has personally cared for AIDS patients. A key advisor to the White House and Department of Health and Human Services on global AIDS issues, and on preparedness against emerging infectious disease threats, earlier this year Tony reserved two hours of his workday to personally care for a U.S. health care worker who became infected with Ebola in Sierra Leone. “I believe that one gets unique insights into disease when you actually physically interact with patients,” he says. He also wanted to show his staff that he wouldn’t ask them to do anything he wouldn’t do himself and, he says, “it is very exciting and gratifying to participate in saving someone’s life.”

Speaking up for the voiceless: Q&A with Rupal Patel

Speaking at TEDMED 2014, Rupal Patel, founder of VocalID, described her work developing a technology that creates personalized, enhanced voices for the speech impaired.  We got in touch with her to learn more about what drives her work.

What advice would you give to other aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs?

Follow your passion and choose impact above all. Everything else will follow.

What was your main source of inspiration?

Several years ago, I was at an assistive communications conference in Denmark. I had just finished giving a talk on how we each have our own unique vocal identities. As I walked into the exhibit hall, I saw a young girl and a grown man having a conversation using their devices. Different devices with the same voice. Then I noticed the same voice coming from all around me. We would never dream of fitting a little girl with the prosthetic limb of a grown man, so why give them the same prosthetic voice? That was the pivotal observation that, a few years later, resulted in a research grant aimed at creating the underlying technology behind VocaliD.

Every day, we receive stories and emails from individuals wanting their own unique vocal identities. It is within these stories and shared experiences that we draw inspiration. Every day they push us to innovate, creating personalized voices that are better than the last.  Simply put, they inspire us.

“For all the worry about how technology is depersonalizing us, here’s a way that technology can make us all a little more human. Where you can connect to yourself, and to a stranger.” - Rupal speaking at TEDMED 2014.

“For all the worry about how technology is depersonalizing us, here’s a way that technology can make us all a little more human. Where you can connect to yourself, and to a stranger.” – Rupal speaking at TEDMED 2014.

Why does your talk matter now? What do you hope people learn from your talk?

I want voice donors to know that they don’t have to lose to gain. I want to educate the public about text-to-speech (TTS), augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), and raise awareness of various voice disorders and their causes. I want to break stereotypes and create unique vocal identities, where end users feel empowered by their voice and not afraid to use it.

What is the legacy you want your work and/or your talk to leave?

I aspire to create a technology that enables people to be heard through their own voice. When technology and humans are seamlessly integrated, there is the opportunity for a multiplier effect in terms of impact. Every voice deserves to be heard, even those who use devices to communicate. These unique vocal personas are powered not just by technology, but by everyday speech donors of all ages and backgrounds who empathize with recipients who need a voice. That’s a powerful mix of community, technology and empowerment.

Do you have a call to action for your viewers?

Sign up to be a Voice Donor and begin recording your speech at VocalID’s Voicebank! You can also check out, donate and spread the word about our Indiegogo campaign. Through this crowdfunding campaign, you can help us in our mission to ensure that everyone has a unique voice.

Music as Medicine: Q&A with Gypsy Sound Revolution

Gypsy Sound Revolution, led by drummer Cédric Leonardi and fellow Gipsy Kings alumni, mixes rumba with Indian raga. They play a unique fusion of Indo-Gypsy music that is both meditative and joyful. We followed up with them to learn more about their project.

"Music is borderless. It is the ultimate expression of love." Gypsy Sound Revolution at TEDMED 2014.

“Music is borderless. It is the ultimate expression of love.” Gypsy Sound Revolution at TEDMED 2014.

 What motivated you to perform at TEDMED?

As a performer, you want to reach as many people as possible with your art form. Music is increasingly accessible digitally and also thrives using many methods of delivery.
Somewhere along the way, it became a business. A big business. Performing at TEDMED was our way of delivering a message and access to the healing power of music. Music came out of the caves of India as medicine. Invoking the divine, but with a modern vernacular, we have seen lives transformed through the joy of our music. TEDMED was a potent forum to express this and continue the medicinal conversation globally, reaching as many people as possible.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

We hope our legacy shows the way for our children to live authentic lives, fully expressed and joyful using the path we have forged with our music. To touch the hearts of people and share the joy of living together on this planet. Music is borderless. It is the ultimate expression of love.

We cherish the poem, “What will matter,” by Michael Josephson, as a reminder of the fragility of life and the speed with which it passes:

Ready or not, some day it will all come to an end. There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours, or days. All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten, will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame, and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations, and jealousies will finally disappear.
So, too, your hopes, ambitions, plans, and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
It won’t matter where you came from or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end.
It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.
Even your gender and skin color will be irrelevant.
So what will matter? How will the value of your days be measured?
What will matter is not what you bought, but what you built; not what you got but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success, but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned, but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage, or sacrifice that enriched, empowered, or encouraged others to emulate your example.
What will matter is not your competence, but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew, but how many will feel a lasting loss when you’re gone.
What will matter is not your memories, but the memories that live in those who loved you.
What will matter is how long you will be remembered, by whom, and for what.
Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not a matter of circumstance, but of choice. Choose to live a life that matters.

What’s next for you?

Taking our music and message around the world in 2015. We are also finally going into the studio. We are very much a live band– we believe live interaction with people is the true purpose of music. However as TEDMED live-streaming proves, there are many more people that live streaming can reach in all kinds of obscure pockets of the world. The internet has brought us all closer so its time we stopped resisting and we have started to the process with the conundrum: how do you bottle magic? We will have at least three tracks recorded soon.

Any action items for viewers interested to get involved in the kind of work you do? How do they join the revolution?

We are starting a philanthropic initiative to support the communities of our Rajasthani musicians with a US based Indian company, HP Investments. The project will include music camps for children to keep the music traditions of this original gypsy tribe alive, as well as taking care of the necessities like water and power in their villages. Its a humbling and glorious experience working with musicians who go home to their villages without water and power after they have travelled the world with us. We are one– we have a responsibility to help each other beyond.

My First Time: TEDMED Speakers Tell Us About Their Most Recent “New” Experience

With such an inspiring list of accomplishments, specialties and interests, our speakers clearly know how to push themselves to take on new challenges. We asked several to tell us about the most recent thing they tried for the first time.  Their answers:

 

“I assume you mean an event, but every observation, every sensation, is an event in the brain. So, whenever I put habit or mastery aside and allow myself to really see, hear, taste, touch, or smell something or someone, it’s as if I’m doing it for the first time. This happens to me most days. It always has throughout my life, which may have something to do with my wishing to be a poet. But I also invite it to happen. It’s really just about paying attention, wholeheartedly.”


“In February I started training a puppy for the first time. My family had dogs when I was growing up, but I’ve never raised a puppy before and it’s been fascinating to coach a non-human animal mind. Although I did animal research as a neuroscientist, watching non-human animal cognition and its evolution on a daily basis has given me a new perspective on just how fundamentally different and how utterly similar a different species’ brain can be.”


“On July 18, I had had my first dance with a newly married child (my daughter). How sweet that was.”

 

 

 

 


“A few months ago I tried driving a manual car in Europe… it did not go so well!”

 

 

 

 


“Learned how to skate ski this past winter.”

 

 

 

 

 



“Snowboarding in 2014. The physical and mental challenge was beyond anything I had experienced in a long time. But the exhilaration of it kept me riding back up to the top of that bunny hill and then falling hard all the way back down. Even though it made me feel small and weak, I can’t wait to try it again.”


 

“Three weeks ago, I made choux pastry for the first time. Does that count?”

 

 

 

 


“The answer is way too private.”

Better Than Dr. House: Q&A with Jared Heyman

In his TEDMED talk, entrepreneur Jared Heyman revealed how crowd wisdom can help solve even the most elusive medical mysteries. We got in touch with Jared to ask about what inspired his work, and for any tips he has to share with other innovators.

Jared speaking at TEDMED 2014

Jared speaking at TEDMED 2014

Why does your talk matter now? What do you hope people learn from it?

Hyper-specialization in medicine has created a world where no doctor can possibly know everything, yet we still hold onto the “Dr. House” archetype – the idea that a physician should be an omniscient genius who can single-handedly solve even the most challenging medical mystery. The reality is that crowds are wiser than even the smartest individual in the world, so long as the right mechanism is in place to aggregate their collective intelligence. That is the biggest takeaway from my talk.

What advice would you give to other aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs?

We all have an inner voice that guides our life path, yet it’s often drowned out by the noise of others’ expectations of us. Take some time off to listen to that voice, whether through meditation, a weekend retreat, or an extended sabbatical if you can afford the time and expense. I took off two years to travel the world and listen to my inner voice, and I emerged from it with a crystal clear vision of what my next company (and my life) should become.

Who or what has been your main source of inspiration that drives you to innovate?

My inspiration to start CrowdMed was my little sister Carly, who spent 3 years with an unsolved medical mystery that nearly killed her. Over the period, our parents brought her to 16 different medical specialists and racked up over $100,000 in medical bills, desperately seeking a diagnosis. Each doctor would treat her symptoms as best they could, but none could identify the root cause of her illness. We’d later discover that she had a rare disease that affects just 1 in 15,000 females. Her doctors had never heard of it, much less seen it.  

Having spent years studying “the wisdom of crowds”, I knew that intellectually diverse online crowds could help solve cases like hers much more quickly than individual experts, but existing online tools like medical forums and social networks just weren’t built to aggregate their collective intelligence. I therefore created an early prototype of what eventually became CrowdMed, and using this system, a hundred people came up with her correct diagnosis in just few days and at negligible cost. That’s when I devoted myself full-time to founding the company.  

Do you have any recommended reading for people who are interested in your topic and want to learn more?

The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki.   

Artistic Humor for the Soul: Q&A with Bob Carey

Bob Carey is the photographer and subject of the “Tutu Project.” This series of stunningly silly videos and still self-portraits was originally launched to cheer up his wife, Linda, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and later went viral. He spoke about the power of humor to help cancer survivors.

Photographer and cancer activist Bob Carey at TEDMED 2014

Photographer and cancer activist Bob Carey at TEDMED 2014

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

Based on the viral nature of the Tutu Project and the impact it’s had, our goal has been to find opportunities to continue to share the images and story, and not only within the breast cancer community. I feel that it’s important to share creative ideas that use art and humor as a means to help live with the many challenges in life. When TEDMED asked me to speak, not only was I excited, I felt it was the perfect opportunity and audience to share my work.

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

It matters now as there will always be challenges in life– and inspiration can impact people every day. I hope that my talk will inspire others to see that there are many approaches–sometimes unusual, unexpected or creative– one can use to cope.

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

The speaker coaches were kind and compassionate, not that I wouldn’t expect that to a certain degree, but I bonded with them and with that, felt empowered to speak with my tutu on– a first for me. Another meaningful connection was with one of the speakers. The staff was wonderful as were the attendees. It seemed that although the subject matter was different, we were all looking for new and creative ways to approach problems.

Bending DNA to Our Will? TEDMED Speakers at Work on Rearranging Nature’s Building Blocks

We have arrived in the era where humans can now evolve their DNA. What not so long ago seemed the stuff of sci-fi fantasy is really happening and is changing the trajectory of medicine. Among the scientists rearranging nature’s building blocks are two of our TEDMED 2015 speakers, who will share their experiences, aspirations and concerns about what this phenomenon may mean to the future of humankind.

Scripps Chemistry Professor Floyd Romesberg is focused on breaking through the natural genetic code by using synthetic biology to increase the diversity of life. His lab has made artificial DNA base pairs that have replicated in nature, with the longer-term vision of creating novel protein therapeutics. Because they are made by cells and can be directed to perform particular tasks, Floyd says that this class of drugs has already revolutionized medicine – but his vision goes further. “The functions that a protein can have are currently limited by the natural 20 amino acids from which they are made.” Being able to create new ones will dramatically increase their usefulness.

To describe how this will benefit us, Floyd makes an analogy to the alphabet. “If you read a book that was written with four letters, you’re not going to be able to tell many interesting stories. If you’re given more letters, you can invent new words, you can find new ways to use those words and tell more interesting stories.”

Sam Sternberg's Bench, UC Berkeley

Sam Sternberg’s Lab Bench at Doudna Lab, UC Berkeley

But might some of those stories have terrible endings?

It’s a possibility that Berkeley biochemist Sam Sternberg, whose work has been published in Nature and Science magazines, believes we must examine carefully. As a doctoral researcher in the Doudna Lab at UC Berkeley, Sam was on the team that developed the revolutionary genome-editing tool called CRISPR. Though he is incredibly excited about having a tool that can edit human DNA, he also has anxieties about what this may mean. So now Sam is generating and participating in public discussions on the potential harm that CRISPR could unleash. He recently co-authored an article proposing a moratorium on editing the human germ line until safety and societal implications are broadly discussed.

“Genome engineering technology offers unparalleled potential for modifying human and nonhuman genomes,” Sam says. “In humans, it holds the promise of curing genetic disease … however, with such enormous opportunities come unknown risks to human health and well-being.”

We’re excited to participate in such meaningful conversations! Join us.