The Hovalin: A real-time synesthesia translator

Written and submitted by Kaitlyn Hova

This guest blog post is by Kaitlyn Hova. Kaitlyn is a professional violinist, composer, full stack web developer, designer, neuroscientist, and core team member of Women Who Code. She is also a synesthete—which means her sensory perception is quite different from what most people experience. Kaitlyn spoke on the TEDMED stage in 2016, and you can watch her talk here.

Most people don’t expect their understanding of the senses to drastically change beyond what we learn in grade school: sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. I was 21 years old when I made the jarring discovery that none of my fellow students experienced vivid colors and shapes when they heard musical notes. At first, my classmates called this ability “weird”. Actually, I later learned the official term: “synesthesia”! Finding out that you physically experience the world in such a fundamentally different way can feel isolating. However, it turns out that 1 out of 23 people have some type of synesthesia. What if the study of this ability that was once thought to be “strange” is actually the study of the diversity of the average human sensory experience?

Matt and Kaitlyn Hova, co-founders of Hova Labs

I had always wanted to find a way to accurately convey my experience of seeing sound. I believed that if people could see a simulation of my synesthesia in real time they would be able to make the jump to understanding the nature of it. With this idea in mind, my husband Matt and I co-founded Hova Labs three years ago. One of our first projects was creating a real-time sound → color synesthesia translator violin. Imagine a guitar tuner, but instead of the tuner showing the note “C” it shows what I see when I hear the note “C”, which is the color red. Further, imagine that the brightness of the color is driven by the volume of the instrument being played. (I should be clear, the colors that I experience when I hear notes of music are an experience that is unique to me. If we both hear the note “C” and you see blue but I see red, neither of us is “wrong”, we simply have different associations in our brain.)

Creating a synesthesia-translating violin wasn’t easy—it took us a year and a half of prototyping. We could have easily just strapped LEDs on any violin but we had a VISION: a synesthesia translator glowing violin. First, in order to figure out how to drive the lights inside of our violin, I created a color-coded map of a piano. Additionally, we knew we wanted the violin holding the synesthesia-driven lights inside of it to be translucent, yet at the time (2014), such an instrument didn’t exist (or if it did, it was probably way too expensive). Determined to make our vision a reality, we decided to take our concept a step further. We created The Hovalin: our 3D printable acoustic violin.

Piano keys through the eyes and ears of synesthete Kaitlyn Hova

In October of 2015, we released the Hovalin, and we made it available for anyone to download online along with a short shopping list of materials and “how-to” build instructions. Since the launch, we’ve continued to improve the design. You can see me playing our v3.1 design in my TEDMED talk!

After launching the Hovalin, we soon realized that our project had the potential to be a lot larger than we originally thought. Though today’s music education programs are systematically underfunded, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) grants are introducing 3D printers to kids at these same schools. We saw this as an opportunity: why not 3D print your music program?

Creating instruments with 3D printers is a solution that has never existed before. Today, all of the files are available to download for free at If you have access to a consumer-level 3D printer, the total cost (including plastic, tuning pegs, strings, and bow) is $65. And this is just for one violin. With bulk purchases, we believe that this cost could be reduced drastically.

We already have a pilot program in Oakland, California, and we hope to expand to more schools around the country and the world. We believe that STEM programs can empower kids to solve their problems creatively while supporting the often under-funded music education programs in schools. We attribute our diverse backgrounds in music and tech to creating the Hovalin, and who knows what other great projects will come from kids that are given the chance to think creatively with STEM programs.

If you’re interested in learning more about Synesthesia, I encourage you to check out The Synesthesia Network. Also, you can check out more nerdy violin electronics in this blog post at Hova Labs.

The 21 Million

Written and submitted by Emtithal Mahmoud

This guest blog post is by Emtithal “Emi” Mahmoud, the reigning 2015 Individual World Poetry Slam Champion and 2016 Woman of the World Co-champion. Emi spoke on the TEDMED stage in 2016, and you can watch her talk here.

My grandmother, Nammah, never learned to read or write—where we came from, girls were forbidden from doing so. In May of 2016 I, her granddaughter, surrounded by friends and family, graduated from Yale University and closed the ceremony with something I, a woman, had written. But a number of factors had to fall in place before my family was able to reach that point.

Nearly 19 years before then, my mother, father, younger sister, and I had boarded a plane in Yemen, green cards in hand, after having left Sudan for safety well before. At the time, my father, a surgeon, and my mother, a medical lab technician, were exactly the kind of people history likes to laud as proof that immigrants are capable of incredible things—testaments to the triumph of humanity in the face of adversity. However, this valuing inherently comes at a cost, as if achievements represent human worth.

2 IDP women

Photo credit: Afaq Mahmoud, 2017
Two internationally displaced people speaking on women’s rights and how the war affects women, specifically focusing on the importance of education. Many women in the camps understand the necessity of their role in finding a way forward. Their names have been excluded for protection.

Today especially, with more than 65 million people displaced worldwide, 21 million of whom have become refugees, we often point to the attractive accomplishments of a select few as proof that refugees are worth saving and reduce the rest to a series of numbers.

What this focus on value or inherent worth suggests: in today’s world, if I and my grandmother were both contemporaries seeking refuge, I would be deemed worth the humanity, and she, a woman ultimately responsible for my entire existence, would not. What’s more, with recent policies, my family and I—even with the credentials that once could save us—would have been turned away once for Sudan, the country we were born in, and again for Yemen, the country in which we initially sought refuge. Together, our entire family would be seen as another component of the 21 million.

Loss is deeply personal, and yet we see it on a global scale almost every day. When this happens we become desensitized. Reversing that process and putting people back in front of the numbers is incredibly difficult, but incredibly necessary. This is precisely why I and we must speak of the individuals entrenched in the conflicts front and center in our world and not of their future success or earning potential. The most valuable thing we will miss is human life. There’s still so much to be done for all my sisters who will not have the same opportunity to prosper, or on even the most basic level, to survive.

Young student at Zamzam refugee camp school

Photo credit: Afaq Mahmoud, 2017
A young student at Zamzam refugee camp school in Northern Darfur. The photo was taken two weeks after an attack on Zamzam camp in 2015. In the absence of resources, the school depends solely on the work of volunteers, and its students and teachers live in constant fear of impending attacks.

I am often asked how it is that I stand by my identity and why I write and speak with conviction, despite the ramifications that may come with being a young, black, American, Afro-Arab, Muslim, woman. I often answer that it is because of my grandmother and the sacrifices that she and people like her have made and continue to make. I speak because my grandmother did not get the chance to and I am not alone. Earlier this year I joined the How to Do Good speaking tour with a series of incredible philanthropists and activists (including Fredi Kanouté, former West Ham United, Tottenham Hotspur and Sevilla striker and founder of Sakina Children’s Village, and Dr. Rouba Mhaissen, an economist and activist featured in Forbes 2017 30 Under 30, and the founder of SAWA) and we’ve made it our mission to inspire positive action. This initiative, and so many like it, is exactly what we need to reignite empathy in a world that seems to have lost it.

Infant receiving medical treatment

Photo credit: Afaq Mahmoud, 2017
An infant receiving treatment at Zamzam refugee camp in Northern Darfur. The medicine she requires isn’t readily available in the remote region.

I believe that when we are spoken to politically, we are compelled to respond politically, when we are spoken to academically, we are compelled to respond academically, when we are spoken to with hate, we are compelled to respond with hate; but when we are spoken to as human beings, we are compelled to respond with our humanity. In this global moment with endless pressing questions and not many daring to answer them, my challenge to you is to respond with your own humanity.

Visit Emi on Facebook to learn more about her latest work.

TEDMED 2017 Speaker Artist Contest

Art and design are an important part of what we do at TEDMED, because they are powerful tools for exploring complex ideas and abstract thoughts. This point is driven home by the many artists who take our stage every year. Last year Emtithal “Emi” Mahmoud exhibited the power of poetry to communicate experiences and inspire empathy and action. In 2015, Melissa Walker shared the power that art can have to heal suffering minds. And in 2014, Sophie de Oliveira Barata showed how adding a personalized, artistic twist to prosthetics can empower the people who use them.

The work of these and other artists tell stories – a specific example of artistic storytelling was integrated into the TEDMED experience last year. Ted Meyer brought his “Scarred for Life” exhibit to TEDMED, and each piece explored a deeply personal story about the subject’s scars.

Whatever the medium, storytelling as an art form is central to our program at TEDMED. Each speaker carefully crafts their talk to share their unique gift with the TEDMED community, and each talk is therefore a piece of art they share with us.

And to celebrate the influence art plays at TEDMED, each year, we select an artist to create portraits of the speakers in our stage program. In the past, we’ve had the honor of working with internationally acclaimed combat artist Victor Juhasz, faculty and students from the Rhode Island School of Design, and internationally acclaimed Israeli author and illustrator Hanoch Piven. Each has brought personal vision and flair to the work, resulting in wildly different yet captivating illustrations. Their exceptional work was featured in TEDMED event and promotional materials, and was also incorporated into various elements of the event design to foster a creative, collaborative setting.

In 2015 and 2016, we turned inward to work with artists from the TEDMED community. We put out a call for artists, resulting in the privilege of working with talented artists Lauren Hess and Gabriel Gutierrez. This year, we’re doing it again. As we gear up for TEDMED 2017, we’re excited to recommence our search for an artist who can help us bring our speaker portraits to life. Our chosen artist will receive recognition on our website and in printed materials, and will be invited to attend TEDMED 2017 as our guest (travel and accommodations included).

If you’re interested, or know someone who might be, read on!

The artist will need to produce roughly 50+ portraits in a 6-8 week timeframe. Illustrations will be based on reference photos that will be provided. Final portraits will need to be delivered as high res digital files based on our specifications.

This call is open to amateur and professional artists, and all art mediums will be considered. While not required, the artist would ideally have a close tie to health and medicine. This could take form in the following ways:

Experience in the medical community
Experience working with patients
A personal story connecting the artist to health and medicine

The work will take place between May – July 2017.

To apply (or nominate an artist), please send an email to Be sure to include a work sample, a brief bio, any relevant links, and details about the best way to get in touch (email, cell, etc.). If the artist is a good fit, someone from our team will reach out.

Application deadline: Midnight, April 15, 2017.

Announcing the TEDMED 2017 Research Scholars

Over the years, we’ve found that the curation of a powerful and compelling Stage Program relies on one secret ingredient: the TEDMED community. From our Editorial Advisory Board and Research Scholars to our Partners and volunteers, the TEDMED community is composed of all of the individuals and organizations that provide us with the insight and expertise to help identify the topics, themes and Speakers that appear at the annual TEDMED event.

After completing the first half of our Editorial Advisory Board meetings on both the East and West Coasts, we are now bursting with captivating Speaker nominations for the TEDMED 2017 Stage Program. To ensure that each Speaker on the TEDMED stage represents high-quality and scientifically credible ideas in health and medicine, we rely on a group of carefully selected Research Scholars to help us vet each nomination.

TEDMED’s Research Scholars are a diverse group of experts from across the globe who specialize in a wide range of subjects, such as biophysics, health policy, neuroscience, immunology, bioinformatics, nutritional and metabolic biology, public health and epidemiology. Regardless of their field, each Research Scholar is passionate about the future of health and medicine and has graciously invested their time and expertise to help shape the TEDMED 2017 Stage Program.

As we welcome the TEDMED 2017 Research Scholar class, we’d like to thank the TEDMED 2016 Frontline Scholars and volunteers for their hard work and support last year.

TEDMED’s 2017 Research Scholars represent organizations including the National Cancer Institute, The University of Chicago Medicine, the YMCA of the USA, The Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Stanford University School of Medicine, The World Health Organization, the Dell Medical School and many more.

We are proud to announce the 2017 class of TEDMED Research Scholars, and we are deeply grateful for their contributions. Learn more about each of them below:

Ajay Khilanani, MD – Critical Care, Global Health, Telemedicine

Alex Cressman, MD, MSc – Disease, Healthcare Delivery

Amy Faith Ho, MD – Health Policy, Medical Humanities, Medicine

Ann M. Geiger, PhD – Cancer, Disparities, Epidemiology, Healthcare

Ata Kiapour, PhD, MMSc – Medical Devices and Wearables, Sports Injuries

Beth Taylor Mack, PhD – Health and Wellness Innovation

Bridget N. Queenan, PhD – Neuroengineering, Neuroscience

Bryon Petersen, PhD – Bioengineering, Stem Cell Biology

Christina Allison Gulotta, MPH – Global Health

Cindy Greatrex – Ologies in Telehealth, Radiological Intervention

Dezmond Taylor-Douglas, PhD – Immunology, Life Sciences, Obesity

Diana Lutfi – Medical Ethics, Social Systems, Worldviews

Diego Wyszynski, MD, MHS, PhD – Drug Safety, Pharmacoepidemiology, Pregnancy Registry

Emilie Grasset, PhD – Immunology

Geetha Rao, PhD – Medical Technology Innovation

Halima Moncrieffe, PhD – Autoimmunity, Knowledge Sharing, Pharmacogenomics

Happy D. Thakkar, MD – Cardiology, Care Coordination, Health IT

Jasmin Saric, PhD – Digital Strategy and Transformation

Jeffrey L. Blackman, MBA – Corporate Innovation, Entrepreneurship

Jill J. Williams, PhD – Bioengineering, Nutrition Science, Nutritional and Metabolic Biology

Joshua Brown, PharmD, PhD – Health Economics and Outcomes Research

Kaitlin E. Sundling, MD, PhD – Pathology, Quantitative Biology

Karen Palmer, MS, MPH – Healthcare Delivery and Funding, Health Policy

Kim Kristiansen, MD – Entrepreneurship, Research

Lisa Sundahl Platt, MS – Health Systems Science and Engineering

Nicole Stone, PhD Candidate – Cardiac Reprogramming, Epigenomics

Paul Lindberg, JD – Healthy Communities

Pooja Prabhakar – Global Health

Qiming Duan, MD, PhD – Epigenetics, Medicine

Ramsey Najm, PhD Candidate – Neurodegenerative Disease, Regenerative Medicine

Ritesh Bhattacharjee, MPH – Dentistry, Oral Oncology, Public Health

Rukmani Sridharan, MSc – Immune Response, Regenerative Medicine, Stem Cells

Sandor Bekasi, MD, MSc – Mobile Health, Primary Care

Shirley Yan – Public Health

Sneha R. Aidasani, MS – Global and Public Health, Maternal and Child Nutrition, Reproductive Health

Srdjan Saso, PhD – Fertility Preservation and Restoration, Oncofertility, Ultrasounds

Sudah Yehuda Shaheb, MD – Endocrinology, Medical Anthropology

Sumudu Perera, MD candidate – Global and Public Health, Health Innovation and Technology

Tabitha Moses, MS – Bioethics, Medicine, Neuroscience, Public Health

Tej Azad, BA – Bioinformatics, Digital Health

Teresa Wilson – Alternative Medicine, Biotechnology, Healthcare, Marketing

Tony Manuel, MD, MMM – Frontline Healthcare Delivery

We’ll soon be sharing the event theme for TEDMED 2017 and the various topics that will make up the Stage Programso stay tuned! And, if you’ve been thinking about joining us in Palm Springs this November 1-3, there is no better time to register. Click here to join us.

Announcing the TEDMED 2017 Editorial Advisory Board

Blockchain in healthcare; Synthetic genomics; Healthcare reform; The opioid epidemic; Drones for good; The effect of social determinants on health; Cost of drug innovation; Impact of climate change on health. These are just a few of the topics that we explored in our first Editorial Advisory board meeting last week in New York City. We’re looking forward to our second meeting in San Francisco this week, as we begin to design the stage program for TEDMED 2017. We work hard to ensure that the most important and timely topics in health and medicine are covered every year, and in order to curate a truly multidisciplinary program, we rely on the guidance and participation of the TEDMED Community – more specifically, TEDMED’s Editorial Advisory Board (EAB).

The EAB members contribute their time, expertise and insights to help design TEDMED’s annual program. This year’s passionate EAB represents organizations that intersect all areas of health and medicine, including technology, academia, philanthropy, journalism, foundations, and much more. Their diversity ensures that TEDMED’s stage program represents a broad range of cutting-edge ideas in health and medicine.

The 21 thought-leaders that make up this year’s EAB represent influential leaders across the landscape of health and medicine. Some share their expertise from serving on the board in previous years, while others bring the fresh perspective of new members.

We’re delighted and honored to announce the members of the TEDMED 2017 Editorial Advisory Board and we thank them for their collaboration:

Atul Butte, MD, PhD, Director of the Institute of Computational Health Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco

Bijan Salehizadeh, MBA, MD, Managing Director, NaviMed Capital

Celine Gounder, MD, ScM, Internist, Epidemiologist, Journalist, and Filmmaker

Daria Mochly-Rosen, PhD, Professor of Chemical and Systems Biology at Stanford University and Founder and Director of Stanford University’s SPARK program

Giles Newton, PhD, Head of Editorial at Wellcome Trust; Editor-in-Chief of Mosaic

Hemai Parthasarathy, PhD, Scientific Director, Breakout Labs and Founding Partner, Breakout Ventures

Jeff Karp, Associate Professor, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School

Kafui Dzirasa, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University

Leonard Sender, MD, Director of Cancer Services at University of California

Lucy Kalanithi, MD, FACP, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Stanford School of

Michael Painter, MD, JD, Senior Program Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Michael Penn, MD, PhD, Vice President of Diversity, Outreach, and Mentoring at the
Gladstone Institutes

Orin Levine, PhD, Director of Vaccine Delivery at the Bill & Melinda Gates

Pam Belluck, Health and Science Writer, New York Times

Roxanne Khamsi, Chief News Editor at Nature Medicine

Sandeep “Sunny” Kishore, MD, PhD, Associate Director of the Arnhold Institute for Global Health

Stacey Chang, Executive Director of the Design Institute for Health, University of Texas at Austin

Susan Skochelak, MD, MPH, Group vice president, Medical Education American Medical Association

Udaya Patnaik, Founder and Principal, Jump Associates

Ursheet Parikh, Partner, Mayfield Fund

Vanessa Ruiz, Founder of Street Anatomy

A Global Mindset for Local Innovations

This guest blog post is by Partho Sengupta, the incoming Director of Cardiovascular Imaging and Chair of Cardiovascular Innovation at the Heart and Vascular Institute at West Virginia University, Morgantown. He spoke on the TEDMED stage in 2016 and you can watch his talk here.

Dr. Sengupta scanning and educating volunteers in American Society of Echocardiography Humanitarian Events in Sirsa and Delhi, India in 2011. Image courtesy of the American Society of Echocardiography (ASE) foundation for cardiovascular ultrasound (

By 2030 cardiovascular disease is projected to account for 25 million deaths worldwide. Over the last few decades, the cardiovascular community globally has continued to respond to this pandemic with groundbreaking innovations. However, the diffusion of innovation remains unequal since healthcare sectors around the world are characterized by social inequality, depending on where the patient lives and the system in which care is received. When I came to the US in 2004, I wondered if my research or any of my breakthroughs would ever impact the lives of patients in India or other countries.

In 2011, I was tasked by the American Society of Echocardiography (ASE) to develop international programs that address educational needs of the international membership. And here was an opportunity to engage people from both US and abroad in a meaningful way. Inspired by the work of Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan and the help of my colleagues who perform humanitarian work in Sirsa, a rural village town in North India, I decided to combine humanitarianism with new technology as a model of innovation. One of my first projects in India brought together industry support, membership engagement, education and research simultaneously over 2 days. We performed focused echocardiographic studies with Web-based assessments in which over 1000 examinations were performed in remote India over two days, which were uploaded to the cloud and read by over 75 institutions worldwide. After the success of the first event, we performed several such cardiovascular camps and simultaneously educated local health personnel – a practice that now forms the heart of the ASE Foundation Programs. It has been fulfilling to see the enthusiastic adaption of such humanitarian program by societies across UK, Europe, Asia and South America.

ASE volunteers who participated in the humanitarian-innovation event in Delhi, India. Image courtesy of the ASE Foundation for Cardiovascular Ultrasound (

We in the United States are diverse and form a microcosm of different societies and communities, each with their own specific needs in this large health care system. I have often pondered if the real value of addressing the technological and educational needs of the global healthcare community could be in finding solutions to some of our own needs within the US- an investment with dual purpose! There are regional pockets in the US with extremely high rates of death and morbidities related to income, education level, sex, race, and ethnicity and employment status. One of the states with the highest prevalence of cardiovascular disease (13.7%) is West Virginia. The rate of heart attacks is the highest in the nation (7.8%). The prevalence of obesity in adults is 35.1%, with over 40% having hypertension and only two out of 10 adults ever screened for cardiovascular risks. The expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act resulted in nearly half a million new enrollees in Medicaid by 2015. However, the state continues to grapple with efforts to reduce shortage of healthcare professionals.

The success of the humanitarian innovation program carried out in India by Dr. Sengupta also kindled interest in other world societies. Seen in the picture are volunteers of a similar project that was carried out by British Heart Foundation in Africa. Image courtesy of the Mark Monaghan, British Society of Echocardiography (

In mid 2016, at the same time I was asked to participate in TEDMED, I received an invitation from a newly formed Heart and Vascular Institute at the West Virginia University, Morgantown to steer the vision for a statewide Noninvasive Cardiovascular Imaging program with creation of a Cardiovascular Innovation Center that would focus on developing new strategies. Some might question why I would ever leave my position in New York City and move to West Virginia. But as I put my TEDMED talk together, I realized perhaps West Virginia offered a fertile ground for innovation to implement the vision of automated technologies, robotics and implement novel processes to screen latent cardiovascular disease that I was talking about.

The successful humanitarian-innovation projects in India spurred interests widely. Here is seen a similar project organized along with Care Harbor healthcare clinic for the uninsured, underinsured and underserved in LA County in 2014 at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. This was the ASE Foundation’s first U.S.-based humanitarian mission besides the other programs carried out in Vietnam, Argentina, Philippines, Kenya, central China, and Cuba. Image courtesy of the ASE Foundation for Cardiovascular Ultrasound (

When I think about the opportunities over the years that have come my way, I feel fortunate and it becomes even more relevant that I find ways not just to practice medicine but push the field forward meaningfully. What if high resource urban health care center in the US may have locked up the funding and physicians, creating even greater disparities in the US? Perhaps I feel that there is opportunity to disrupt this meaningfully.

I believe that organizations like TEDMED can encourage free minds to make a real change, and I certainly believe, as my talk travels far and wide, it could serve as a vehicle for engaging collaborations with industry partners, non-profit organizations, national societies, local state bodies and university professionals to bring this vision to fruition in West Virginia and the world.

Finding common ground through music

This guest blog post is by Sam Maher, a West Australian instrumentalist and drummer who is best known for his unique playing style on the handpan. He spoke and performed on the TEDMED stage in 2016 and you can watch his talk here.

In 2013 I found myself caught in the midst of a torrential downpour in the city centre of Perth, Western Australia – stunned, I decided to run for it. As I bolted for shelter within the central train station I was completely unaware of the pivotal encounter that would soon take place and change the direction of my life forever. Catching my breath and wiping the rain from my brow I accepted the fact that I wouldn’t be leaving the station anytime soon and took a seat against the wall of a deli that had its roller shutters pulled down – Sunday trading was still a relatively new concept in Perth back then and the station was completely abandoned.

A couple of weeks before this I received an instrument in the mail direct from Germany which I spent close to a year obsessively searching for. It wasn’t easy to find – the instrument, still in its infancy, had only been successfully crafted by a handful of committed artists across the globe, and the hypnotic tones that it created when struck caused a ripple effect around the world, establishing hoards of dedicated admirers, all desperate to get their hands on one – myself included.

The original name of this instrument is the “hang” – created by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schemer in Switzerland in 1999 after many years of researching the construction of the traditional steel pans of Trinidad and Tobago. By combining these techniques to the ideas of other ethnic percussion instruments such as the Udu of Africa and the gamelan instruments of Indonesia the Hang was born. The idea of the instrument laid dormant for several years, confined to its birthplace in the Swiss mountains and inside the hearts of the very select few that were lucky enough to be accepted to own one. The instrument’s appeal grew when the internet began finding its way into households worldwide, and before too long the hang was a viral phenomenon. With the demand far outweighing the supply, independent innovators attempted to fill the gap by recreating their own versions of the hang, each giving it their own title. The controversy that followed is still in full force today and somewhere along the way in an attempt to void the feud it was decided that the generic term for the instrument would be the “handpan” unless the instrument was in fact an original hang made by Felix or Sabina.

Now – back to the train station.

I had my handpan with me that stormy afternoon, and the situation presented a perfect opportunity for me to experiment with it. So experiment I did. For close to an hour I sat with my eyes closed as I navigated my hands around the instrument’s cylindrical surface, striking each hammered circle with my finger tips and the bulging knuckles of my thumbs, hearing the smooth frequency that arose and observing how each carefully placed note related to one another as the metal vibrated in perfect harmony. When I opened my eyes I found myself seated next to an elderly aboriginal woman who appeared to be homeless. She looked at me with a tear in her eye as she asked if I could continue playing. Over the next half hour we were both swept up in a wave of emotion as I bore witness to the downpour of her life’s trials and tribulations; living as an Aboriginal woman inside a country that has chosen to strip her of rights, and rape and ignore her. The misery and power of that moment changed my life forever.


Music is unique in its ability in allowing us to experience the same emotions regardless of political views, race, sexuality, faith – it proves that we are the same, and brings us together. It allows us to express and understand our feelings freely, to come to terms with the difficulties, the triumphs and the collective challenges we face in our lives.


The handpan has proved itself as a powerful communication tool capable of transcending language, cutting straight to the emotional core of anyone who chooses to listen to it. In the the time that followed that chance encounter 4 years ago I have spent 14 months traversing the Americas, from Mexico City down to the Patagonian region of Argentina, learning the instrument on the go, surviving mostly from the money and acts of human kindness I earned from the streets. At the end of that trip a video surfaced of me improvising with the instrument in the subways of New York City which subsequently reached over 20 million people. I have now performed in over 22 countries around the world, and have come into contact with hundred of thousands of people completely different than myself, yet for a brief moment of time we were all the same. To be accepted and accept these otherworldly places, people and ideologies, so different to my own, through the language of music and the artistry of the handpan is something that will never fail to astound me.

Love is Not Enough

This guest blog post is by Sue Klebold, passionate advocate for brain health awareness and mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two shooters at Columbine High School in 1999. She spoke on the TEDMED stage in 2016 and you can watch her talk here.

It has been almost 18 years since my son and his friend killed twelve students and a teacher at Columbine High school, and injured more than twenty others before killing themselves. From the moment the tragedy happened, it seemed to belong to the planet rather than the community. Live news coverage of its evolution reached every corner of the world, and people across the globe seemed to know what was happening in the school before some of its victims did.

At the time of the tragedy, Americans rarely heard about school shootings, and 24/7, on-the-scene news coverage was in its infancy. Social media as we know it today didn’t exist. I didn’t own a cell phone, and I was just learning to use the Internet. I had no idea that my seventeen-year-old son could purchase guns without my knowledge or permission. I believed that suicide was something that happened in other families – not in mine – because I loved my children deeply and I believed that my love would protect them. I didn’t think about homicide because I’d never known anyone who was killed or who had killed someone else.

A lot has changed since the Columbine tragedy, but a lot hasn’t. We hear more about heartbreaking murder-suicide events in the news, but we are just beginning to consider the role suicidality might have played in the incident. Whatever concerns we may have had about youth suicide and teen depression in 1999 couldn’t have prepared us to accept the ongoing increase in these health problems nearly twenty years later. Despite growing efforts to mitigate depression and suicidal thoughts/actions in youth, we have not been able to reverse the rates that continue to inch upward.

As I began a journey of recovery after the tragedy, I tried to find a way to accept the horror my son perpetrated. In my desire to understand, I learned that if my son had gotten effective help in a timely manner, he probably would not have participated in the shootings or taken his own life. My eyes were opened to the extreme costs to society of not providing adequate care in a timely manner. The tragedy itself, followed by my own bouts of panic disorder after the shootings, convinced me that advocating for brain health was the most important work I could do.

Numerous efforts to reduce suicide rates and improve mental health care are in development around the world. Many of these focus on system improvements within schools, hospitals or the military. They rely on research from a broad spectrum of disciplines.

The umbrella of brain health is vast and it’s hard to know where to start. When I am asked what people can do when they struggle with lethal thoughts, the first thing I suggest is to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273- TALK (1-800-273-8255) or go to the website at The Lifeline provide free and confidential support to people in emotional distress or suicidal crisis all day, every day, across the U.S.

In my own efforts to raise awareness and improve services for those who struggle, I chunk the work into three major areas of focus.

1) We need to remove the psychological barriers that prevent people from seeking help. Too many people fear negative consequences from revealing their pain, or believe that their inability to function normally is a character flaw rather than an illness. Unfortunately, the better they hide their aberrant thoughts, the more difficult it becomes for others to recognize their need for care. (This is what happened with my son.)

2) We need to increase the general public’s knowledge about mental illness and the recognize signs that someone’s brain health may be deteriorating. This includes learning better ways to talk, to listen and to respond.

3) Sadly, those who know they need help can’t always connect with professionals who can provide a continuum of effective, affordable, evidence-based interventions and treatment. Much work needs to be done to educate professionals, and improve the systems in which they work.

The work is there and there is plenty for each of us to do. Let’s get going.

Mending the Strains in our Social Fabric: Protecting and Healing Trafficking Survivors

This guest blog post is by Susie Baldwin, Co-Founder and Board President of HEAL Trafficking and TEDMED 2016 Speaker. You can watch her TEDMED talk here.

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month in the United States. During his last weeks in office, President Obama proclaimed this month’s commemoration, noting that despite the rejection of slavery by our nation, “Today, in too many places around the world — including right here in the United States — the injustice of modern slavery and human trafficking still tears at our social fabric.”

Strains in our social fabric not only result from the injustice of human trafficking, but create the problems of human trafficking and exploitation. The conditions that frame our lives— factors known as the social determinants of health— can increase or reduce vulnerability to trafficking. These “upstream” determinants of health include: the availability of resources to meet the needs of daily life, such as safe housing and adequate nutrition; access to education, health care, employment opportunities, and transportation; and freedom from violence, discrimination, and poverty.  Relationships with other people—the presence or absence in our lives of others whom we trust, and who provide us with support or love— are also key social determinants.

cropped-heal-logo-1-e1426167334902 (1)The stories of the trafficked patients I have cared for reveal how vulnerabilities created by the social determinants underlie human trafficking. For example, Olga experienced domestic violence and left her husband. As a teacher in a country that was no longer able to pay its educators, she needed to find a way to support herself. She answered an ad for a job as a housekeeper in the U.S., and wound up a domestic servant. Jaclynn experienced child abuse and neglect at home, where her drug-addicted mom was unable to properly protect her, and found solace in the arms of a man who manipulated her and sold her to other men. Narong wanted to earn a living for his family and came to the U.S. for a job as a welder, only to be trapped working in a restaurant for long hours with barely any pay.

These survivors are the lucky ones— they escaped or were rescued from trafficking and managed to connect with services provided by my long-time partner, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, including case management and legal services. But as I worked to help my patients cope with the physical and mental health consequences of trafficking, I learned that their struggles to rebuild their lives often hinged on social determinants. Perhaps most critical was their search for jobs and affordable housing that would allow them to achieve and sustain independence. Sometimes, they were re-victimized. Alma, for example, another patient who had escaped domestic servitude, wound up—as a free woman— working as a housekeeper for room and board, without receiving any pay.

Though it wasn’t true in Alma’s case, for many trafficking survivors, a criminal record poses a barrier to gainful employment. Trafficked people are commonly charged with offenses that burden them with criminal records for the rest of their lives, making it difficult for them to find housing and jobs, and unable to access loans and grants. These negative social determinants leave them vulnerable to being exploited and trafficked again.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Bipartisan legislation in the new 115th Congress, called the Trafficking Survivors Relief Act of 2017, would allow courts to erase survivors’ nonviolent federal criminal convictions resulting from being trafficked. While this law only helps survivors with federal criminal records, it provides an important model for criminal justice systems in cities and states around the U.S. To learn more about this bill and express your support for it, please see:

To support trafficked people on their journey to safety and recovery, HEAL Trafficking, the organization I founded with colleagues three years ago, has just released our Protocol Toolkit for Developing a Response to Victims of Human Trafficking in Health Care Settings. This toolkit guides health professionals through the process of mobilizing interdisciplinary responses to trafficked people who present for care. It encourages cooperation with the diverse agencies and individuals who can address the social determinants that put trafficked people at risk, and which can hinder healing of the body and mind. HEAL Trafficking believes that together, we can create conditions and systems that allow survivors to thrive, and that prevent human trafficking in the first place. Please join us.

HEAL Trafficking is a network of over 800 multidisciplinary professionals dedicated to ending human trafficking and supporting its survivors. We aim to heal the world of trafficking by approaching the problem through the lens of public health and trauma-informed care. We work to expand the evidence base, enhance collaboration among multidisciplinary stakeholders, educate the broader anti-trafficking and public health community, and advocate for policies and funding streams that enhance the public health response to trafficking. 

The Missing Piece for Healing Community-Wide Trauma

This guest blog post is by James Gordon, founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine and TEDMED 2016 Speaker. You can watch his TEDMED talk here.

Not long ago, a revered Lakota elder told me that our work at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s (CMBM) was “the missing piece” for his people and indigenous people everywhere. He and other elders have said that we’re giving them the practical, scientific tools to help a severely traumatized people restore balance to their minds and bodies. As they work with us they’re realizing their capacity to live in the light of traditional wisdom as they meet the challenges of the modern world.

Working with Pine Ridge.

Working with Pine Ridge.

Their experience reflects the impact our work has had over the last 25 years. We‘ve seen it in some of the world’s most troubled places – in Bosnia, Kosovo, Gaza, Israel and Haiti, with Syrian refugees in Jordan as well as here at home: among our veterans and first responders; with the homeless as well as the privileged; for the desperately ill as well as the highly functional but highly stressed.

Everywhere we’ve worked the model of self-care and group support has been embraced. The tools we teach – meditation, guided imagery, biofeedback, yoga, self-expression in words, drawings, and movement, and genograms (family trees) – had been easy to learn and use to reduce stress, improve mood, and enhance hope. Our small group model has been welcomed and recognized as a powerful and nurturing context for healing.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota has been one proving ground for our approach, for the way we work collaboratively to bring healing and hope to a long traumatized community.

Working with Pine Ridge.

Working with Pine Ridge.

Located in one of the most impoverished counties in the United States, the proud and determined Pine Ridge community suffers from economic devastation, violence, self-destructive behavior, and demoralization. Pine Ridge has 8 times the national rate of Type 2 diabetes. 80% of the population is affected by alcoholism and 85% are unemployed. In the year before we began our intensive training program, 20 young people committed suicide and 200 more attempted to do so.

In 2015, after the 20 young people had killed themselves, Basil Braveheart, a Lakota elder and other community leaders, told us of the urgent need to develop a reservation-wide program for healing the community’s trauma. With generous support from the Swift Family Foundation, Battery Powered, Open Road and Administration for Native Americans, and US Department of Human Services, we were able to bring our comprehensive program of self-care and group support to 70 elders, clinicians, teachers, and youth activists. The training featured the seamless integration of CMBM’s evidence-based model and traditional Lakota ceremony led by participating tribal elders.

We were able to touch hearts change the lives of these community leaders. “Amazing” said Cindy Catches, an elder, “The trust, the love, the tools that were given… I saw the beginning of a real healing.” “Life-changing” said Lisa White Bull, a counselor at the Little Wound School, “I believe our prayers for help have been answered”.

We gave these 70 leaders tools they were then able to share with troubled young people and their families. In the 15 months since that training there have been no youth suicides.

Mind-Body Skills Groups at Standing Rock.

Mind-Body Skills Groups at Standing Rock.

The success of the program inspired the US Department of Health and Human Services to award a grant to the Little Wound School to bring the CMBM model to every child in all 7 of the reservation’s tribal schools, and to all the children’s families and all their teachers.

Committed to bringing this missing piece to the Standing Rock Reservation and other indigenous communities, to Syrian refugees throughout the Middle East, and to communities in the US which are severely challenged economically, and divided by racial mistrust, I believe that our model of providing community-wide trauma relief is needed more than ever. We invite you to become a part of our work and to support it – to join our healing community.

James S. Gordon MD, a psychiatrist, is the Founder and Executive Director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School, and author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression. He will also be leading trauma workshops in February and July at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health.

The Center for Mind-Body Medicine is expanding their professional trainings to meet the needs of all those who want to serve their communities. You can find out more about their upcoming US trainings on our website. On the website you’ll also find articles and videos that feature their work with population-wide trauma – from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and CBS 60 Minutes – as well as other information about their global trauma-relief programs.