Call for TEDMED 2020 Artist

At the heart of TEDMED’s mission is the quest for a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us. As tools for discovery, we recognize the essential roles that both science and art play in this pursuit. And yet, while science is rarely underappreciated in this search, art can often be overlooked. We believe that art serves an important role as a catalyst for innovation and creativity and provides the inspiration needed to birth new questions and new paths for scientific research. Art and science are inevitably intertwined, serving as inspiration for one another and constantly propelling us toward progress.

The roles that both science and art play in our health has been beautifully illustrated time and time again from our stage. At TEDMED 2018, Sound Alchemist, Yoko K. Sen, shared how dissonant sounds from hospital environments can become overwhelming to patients and can even run antithetical to the healing process. Yoko has dedicated her musical talents toward a better understanding of how sound impacts our emotions and she works to transform the auditory environment of hospitals with soothing melodies and tones. She’s the founder of Sen Sound, a social enterprise that aims to change the soundscape of medical spaces.

Similarly, award-winning architect Amanda Sturgeon discussed how we can rethink the design of spaces so that they emulate the surrounding environment, which has a positive impact on the occupants. Amanda and her team found that “biophilic buildings” – structures that embrace and borrow features found in the natural world – create spaces in which people are happier, healthier and more productive.

In 2018, the direct link between science and art was perhaps most strongly depicted in Marlène Oliver’s talk and art installation. Using imaging from MRIs and CT scans, she creates art that allows us to see how our digital selves exist in an abstract world of data. Every year, artists from across the artistic spectrum, contribute their talent and perspective to our program,  such as pianist Richard Kogan, painter Ted Meyer, art curator Christine McNabb, documentarian Holly Morris, improv performers Karen Stobbe and Mondy Carter, chef John La Puma, photographer Kitra Cahana, musician Gerardo Contino, and many more.  The talks themselves are also works of art. Each speaker carefully crafts their talk to share a unique gift with the TEDMED community. Even our speakers themselves become art, because an important part of our event design each year is to work with artists who create portraits of our speakers.

To come full circle, our 2018 portrait artist Marlene Morales Tollet is a perfect example of the art and science intersecting. Marlene is both a practicing ophthalmologist, specializing in comprehensive ophthalmology and oculoplastic surgery and an artist. We’ve been lucky to work with amazing artistic talent throughout the years, from widely acclaimed figures like Hanoch Piven and Victor Juhasz, to a collaborative project created by several RISD art students, to the fantastic work of Gabriel Gutierrez and Lauren Hess who were chosen from our community. These artists are invited to TEDMED and become an important part of our Delegation. Find out more about their beautiful work here.

LOOKING FOR THIS YEAR’S ARTIST
Again this year, we’re excited to begin a search for the artist or artists who will help us bring this year’s speaker portraits to life. As part of our search, we’re officially accepting artist nominations and applications for TEDMED 2020.

Just as every year, our chosen artist or artists will join our community for 3 days in Boston, MA at The Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel, March 2-4 for TEDMED 2020 (travel and accommodations covered by TEDMED).  If you are interested, or know someone who might be, read on!

ELIGIBILITY AND TIME FRAME
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

ABOUT THE PROJECT
The artist will need to produce roughly 50 portraits over the course of the next few months. 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.

The work will take place between November 2019 – January 2020.

HOW TO APPLY
To apply (or nominate an artist), please send an email to art@tedmed.com. 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, October 4, 2019.

Q&A with Emily F. Rothman

TEDMED: In your TEDMED 2018 talk, you briefly touched upon sex education in schools. Diving further – what does sex-ed look like in schools today and what would it look like in your ideal world? Would there be a standardized curriculum, what topics are critical to cover, and who is best positioned to share this information?

Emily F. Rothman: In the United States, sex-ed varies a lot state to state. In some places, adolescents are taught very basic information about sexual anatomy and reproduction, and perhaps about sexually transmitted infections, but nothing more. They are not taught, for example, that it is important to communicate with a partner about whether they are both enjoying sex. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) Committee on Adolescent Health Care authored an opinion about what comprehensive sex education should include, which can be found here: https://www.acog.org/Clinical-Guidance-and-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Adolescent-Health-Care/Comprehensive-Sexuality-Education?IsMobileSet=false .

In case that’s too long to read, I can summarize and say that teaching teens about the context in which we make our choices about sex–why we decide to have it, with whom, when, under what pressures, for what reasons, and how other people treat us because of sexual decisions, is important. Teenagers deserve to be invited to think about those kinds of deeper issues in order to become the people that they want to be. In terms of who is best positioned to provide that information, I think in an ideal world there would be consistent messaging from parents, teachers, media stars, and everyone in between that consent and pleasure are important and that sex is supposed to be fun and make all parties involved happy. If someone is not happy, you aren’t doing it right.

TM: You mentioned that the pornography industry is profiting off content that can, in many cases, depict women in a degrading manner. In your opinion, would placing restrictions on the pornography industry be worthwhile in the public health effort to reduce sexual violence – in the same vein in which restrictions have placed on tobacco companies to reduce smoking? 

EFR: Smoking causes 90% of lung cancer cases.  I don’t think that pornography causes 90% of sexual violence cases.  So if the question on the table is ‘how do we prevent sexual violence?’, I would not say that regulating the pornography industry is the quickest and most efficient way to do that in the same way that regulating tobacco companies is for lung cancer.  

But let’s say that the question on the table is ‘how do we prevent underage youth from seeing pornography, since there is a possibility it is bad for them?’ Some of the restrictions are already there, technically. In the U.S., pornography is not supposed to be shown to people who are younger than 18 years old, but nevertheless it’s too easy for young people to see explicit content. Making it more difficult for people less than 18 years old to see pornography would be good.  But–just like underage youth get ahold of cigarettes, alcohol, or anything else that is supposed to be off limits until they reach a certain age–there are going to be those who see pornography anyway, even with more barriers in place. That’s why a public health effort will be one that operates at multiple levels simultaneously. I agree that there should be some people thinking about the most effective and logical legislation and regulation, but also have other people thinking about shifting social norms and changing culture so that it values sexual consent above all else, and safety for everyone no matter their sexuality. While all of that is happening, we also need people thinking about the individuals who are most at risk for perpetrating sexual violence, and what prevents perpetration, to make sure we are doing everything that we can to discourage that behavior, including addressing their pornography access and use. It’s a bit like limiting the access of a person who has engaged in drunk driving to a car. We don’t limit the car industry from selling to people who use alcohol or tell everyone in society that they can’t have a car–but we do limit the people at high risk. In other words, an effective public health effort is measured and considers the problem from multiple angles. 

TM: Through pornography literacy, you were able to open a conversation about identity representation in pornography as a genre of media. What can other genres of media – tv, film, music videos, video games – do differently to better promote safe sexual messages and highlight less frequently represented identities?

EFR: Pornography is one type of media–it is sexually explicit media. But other forms of media, like TV, film, music videos, and video games can also be guilty of promoting unsafe messages and contributing to our sexual violence problems. And some media content, sexually explicit or otherwise, is A-OK. To me the main point is that we have to talk about pornography because we  have to talk about all media and what it’s doing to our heads. Pornography is no exception. 

TM: What does research in the field of pornography look like currently? Are scholars still uncovering trends behind pornography use or is the focus on education and intervention?

EFR: It’s really only a handful of people who are studying education and intervention compared to a must larger community of researchers who are investigating other things. 

Some are investigating how common pornography use is and whether that has been changing over time. Others are looking at pornography and aggression, or attitudes about violence, or about women. Some study the content of pornography and try to figure out if what we are seeing when we watch pornography is changing over time. Some are studying people’s brains and how brains react to pornography to help us understand what to do for individuals who say that they are compulsive users and want help for that.

TM: If you could use the TEDMED platform to send one message to youth, what would you say?

EFR: Kids:  Pornography is not reality. It’s made to entertain people and to make money, it’s not an instruction manual for having sex. In fact, a lot of the stuff you see is staged, made up, faked, and putting a show for the camera. If you want to have good sex, and be good at sex, you have to talk to your partner. Ask them what they like, what they don’t like, even if that’s awkward. If you can’t talk about it, you shouldn’t be trying it.

TM: What was the TEDMED experience like for you?

EFR: I was really nervous!  It was hard to memorize what I wanted to say. I actually never knew that the TEDMED speakers memorized their talks–it seemed to me that people were speaking off the top of their heads, but now I know the truth.  It was also so much fun, and enriching, and I feel really lucky that I had the chance to do it. 

TM: At TEDMED, we like to think about each talk as having a “gift” — that thing that reveals new perspectives and profoundly influences our own, or our collective, health. What is the gift you’d like people to receive when watching your TEDMED Talk?

EFR: It is OK to feel two ways about something at the same time. Sometimes the answer really is that both sides are right. (For me, I’m worried and upset about the potential that pornography is contributing to violence and misogyny, and at the same time, I think it’s going overboard to denounce all sexually explicit media, wrong to judge people for wanting to see pornography, and antithetical to public health to try to quash sexual freedom).

Massive Science on Sarkis Mazmanian

Massive Science is a digital science media publication that brings together scientists and the science-curious public. The team at Massive joined us at TEDMED 2018 and covered talks by various speakers including Sarkis Mazmanian. Check out their coverage of Sarkis’ TEDMED 2018 talk below.


The jury’s still out on how the brain really works. But Sarkis Mazmanian, a medical microbiologist at Caltech, thinks the answers to many of the questions we still have about the brain may actually lie further south — in the gut, where trillions of bacteria live. There, these “good” bacteria live peacefully, helping us to break down fiber and absorb nutrients. They are referred to collectively as the gut microbiome. Despite the presence of the blood-brain-barrier (BBB), a tightly regulated border between the brain and circulating blood, the gut and the brain are in constant communication, either through incoming and outgoing nerves, or through small molecules that can pass through the BBB. Remarkably, many of these molecules are not produced by the human body — they’re made by the bacteria in our microbiome.

The composition of our gut microbiome is often thought to be established as we pass through the birth canal, and greatly modified through our immediate environment in the first few years of life. After that, the microbiome becomes largely resistant to new bacteria. Interpreting this “gut-brain” axis has been the focus of Mazmanian’s work, revealing complex interactions between the gut and the brain, which increasingly look connected to everything from thoughts and emotions, to potentially the onset of certain brain disorders including Autism Spectrum Disorder and Parkinson’s disease.

Bacteroides fragilis, a common bacteria that occurs in the gut, oblong spheres stained pink.
Bacteroides fragilis. CDC.

You may be wondering a few things. How do trillions of bacteria establish themselves in our gut in the first place? How do our immune systems differentiate between the bacteria that make up our microbiome, and other harmful bacteria that makes us sick? Mazmanian says, “I think our microbiome, having evolved in the context of the immune system, have learnt to co-op with the immune system.” He adds, “Instead of trying to combat or invade the immune system, they actually engage it.” The good bacteria actually have a vested interest in their hosts being able to selectively attack dangerous bacteria, either because the “good” bacteria may also be harmed, either directly, or indirectly if their hosts perish. So, instead of avoiding immune cells, these beneficial bacteria have developed properties which redirects the immune response in a way that doesn’t cripple it. The “good” bacteria are spared, and the immune system is not prevented from attacking other pathogens. In this way, an amicable symbiosis is achieved, in which the gut microbiome is able to thrive in the warm, moist, nutrient-rich intestines. In fact, research carried out by graduate student Gregory Donaldson in Mazmanian’s lab suggests that one microbe in particular, called Bacteroides fragilis, might have even achieved long-term stability in the gut because of an immune response involving an antibody called IgA, which actually helps anchor it to the gut wall.

Mazmanian believes that our microbiome may influence many diseases. A few years ago, Mazmanian and his group noticed that children with autism — a neuropsychiatric disorder where children suffer from behavioral deficits, such as decreased vocalisation and social interaction, as well as repetitive behavior — also experience digestive issues, such as abdominal cramps and bloating. This was a clue that bacteria could be involved in the disease process. Other clues were that risk factors for autism include having a caesarean section, formula feeding, and taking antibiotics in childhood, all of which change the microbiome.

Mazmanian thinks the same may be true of Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder where neurons in the brain die, leading to motor symptoms like tremors, difficultly in walking, and rigidity. Like with autism, Parkinson’s patients often have gut symptoms. Strikingly, 80 percent of the three million people in the U.S. that suffer from Parkinson’s disease also suffer constipation—symptoms that sometimes precede the onset of motor symptoms. Interestingly, people who have had their vagus nerve, a potential highway between the gut and the brain, removed during surgery, are less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease.

 

To study how the gut may influence neurological diseases, Mazmanian completely removed the gut microbiome of mice that are genetically engineered to develop autism or Parkinson’s. He found these mice no longer exhibited symptoms of Parkinson’s or autism, suggesting that the microbiome is involved in both diseases. Mazmanian had stumbled on a remarkable discovery. “When we made these germ-free sterile mice, it gave us a research tool that we can now use for other purposes.” Next, he took fecal samples (which contain intact microbiomes of their donors), from both Parkinson’s patients and healthy controls. He put these samples into bacteria-free sterile mice genetically modified to over-express a protein called α-synuclein (αSyn, which is associated with Parkinson’s disease). The mice implanted with microbiomes from people who had Parkinson’s had much worse symptoms than the mice who received microbiomes from a healthy control. Similarly, when mice with autistic behaviors that had their microbiomes removed were given certain beneficial bacteria recovered from neurotypical humans , Mazmanian’s team were able to reduce their vocalisation deficits and repetitive behaviors.

Of course, these studies have only been carried out in mice, since there are ethical issues with replacing a healthy human’s microbiome with one from a Parkinson’s patient. However, Mazmanian says that dozens of papers have shown that the gut microbiome in autistic people and Parkinson’s patients are different. The cause of these differences — maybe ethnicity, geography, genetics or diet — is unclear, but Mazmanian’s mouse experiments have led him to a provocative hypothesis. He thinks some forms of autism and Parkinson’s may not arise in the brain at all, but in the gut. By targeting the microbiome, in a personalized way, he hopes to develop a viable therapeutic.

It’s not just the gut that sends signals to the brain. Weirdly, the brain also communicates with the gut, although understanding this process has been more challenging. Members of Mazmanian’s lab have been trying to better understand brain –> gut communication by working with neuroscientists using genetic engineering techniques, brain lesion studies, and studying the vagus nerve. Anecdotally, we rely on “gut-feelings” or “gut-instincts” to help us make decisions, sometimes we experience “gut-reactions” in response to an experience, and when we are overcome with anxiety or excitement, we often feel it in in our gut as a stomach-ache or “butterflies.” These turns of phrase suggest what these scientists suspect: that our brains send signals to our gut via our nervous system in response to queues in the environment.

Mazmanian’s lab are trying to not just identify the bacteria that inhabit our guts, but what these bacteria are doing. “We take a reductionist approach in the fact that we work with single organisms we can genetically manipulate,” he says. “I want to manipulate both the bacteria and the host,” isolting each on a molecular level to identify the mechanisms by which they work.

Conversely, Mazmanian likens many traditional drug treatments to pouring oil all over the engine of a car, in the hope that some might get into the right place. He thinks the future of medicine is in “drugs from bugs,” saying, “Someday, you and I may go to the doctor and be prescribed a pill with a live bacteria inside of it as the remedy.”


About the author: Yewande Pearse was born and bred in North London. She is now a Research Fellow based at LA Biomed, in affiliation with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She completed her PhD in Neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatry in 2016, which focused on the potential use of gene therapy for the treatment of Batten disease, a fatal neurological pediatric disease. She is now working on stem cell gene therapy using CRISPR-Cas9 to treat Sanfilippo Syndrome. Before completing her PhD, she worked in the areas of Stroke and Huntington’s disease research and also worked in a care capacity, with people living with Autism, suicidal ideation, dementia and HIV Associated Neurocognitive Disorder.

The TEDMED Research Scholars are a carefully selected group of passionate and objective individuals whose expertise spans the biomedical, public health, and emerging technology spectrums. Every year, Research Scholars help us to vet the science and timeliness of our TEDMED Speaker nominations, allowing us to better examine the diverse nominations we receive.

This year, we have selected 50 Research Scholars with unique backgrounds and areas of expertise. The TEDMED 2020 Research Scholars represent organizations and institutions including the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Johns Hopkins University, UnitedHealth Group, University of Toronto, Humana, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and so much more, including Massive Science.

We’re excited to once again partner with Massive, a digital science media publication that brings together scientists and the science-curious public, and tap into their pool of first-rate researchers to help us evaluate this year’s nominations. The TEDMED-Massive Scholars are members of TEDMED’s 2020 Research Scholars Program, and they are denoted by an asterisk in the list below.

We are honored to announce this year’s TEDMED Research Scholars, and we thank them for their generous contribution of time and expertise. Many will join us at TEDMED 2020 and we hope you will meet them there. As a reminder, early bird registration is still open, so register for TEDMED 2020 today!

TEDMED 2020 RESEARCH SCHOLARS:


*TEDMED-Massive Scholar
Learn more about Massive at massivesci.com/

Abe Janis, MS
Regenerative Medicine, Medical Devices, Skin Injury & Healing

Alex Lopez, MS, MD
Healthcare, Medical Technology, Basic & Clinical Research, Augmented Reality, Education

Alexandrea K. Ramnarine, BS
Infectious Diseases, Nanotechnology, Regenerative Medicine

*Alyssa Shepard, PhD Candidate
Cancer Biology, Molecular Biology

Andrew Chou, MD,
Orthopaedics, Biodesign, Medical Devices, Education

Beth Taylor Mack, PhD
Health and Wellness Innovation

Bhanu Ghantasala, MSc
AI / Emerging Technologies, Digital Health Entrepreneurship, Patient-Centric Innovation

Biodun Awosusi, MD, MSc
Health Economics, Health System Innovation, Digital Health

Brendan Brbich, MSc
Public Health (Health Economics)

*Brittney G. Borowiec, PhD Candidate
Comparative Physiology, Zoology, Science Writing

Daniel Bu, MD/MSc Candidate
Behavioral Economics, Global Health, Health Care Delivery

Darren Saunders, PhD
Molecular Oncology, Neurodegeneration

*Devang Mehta, PhD
Genomics and Genetic Engineering of Plants

Elena Minenko, MS
Pharmaceutical Industry, Neuroscience, Health Informatics

Elizabeth W. Mwashuma, MSc, PhD Candidate
Public Health Informatics, Implementation Research

Evan Yates, DO, MBA, MSc
Osteopathic Medicine/ Genetics

Fahima Dossa, BSc, MD, PhD Candidate
Clinical Epidemiology, Health Services Research

Fidaul Alam, MD
Medical Education, Clinical Research, Health Advocacy, Neuroscience

Frank Qian, MPH, MD Candidate
Cardiovascular Medicine, Cancer Epidemiology, Population Health

Jessica Dale, BSHM, MSN, CCFP, CTP DNP
Compassion, Compassion Fatigue, Burnout, Grief, Care Delivery

*Jiwandeep Kohli, PhD Candidate
Neuroscience and Clinical Psychology

*Joshua Peters, PhD Candidate
Bioengineering, Genomics, Infectious Disease, Immunology

Kaitlyn N. Sadtler, PhD
Immunology & Regenerative Medicine

Kanupriya Agarwal, MD, MBBS
Physician Entrepreneur, Digital Health, Precision Oncology

Kelly Jamieson Thomas, MS, PhD
Cancer Prevention, Wellness Education

Kyle Isaacson, PhD
Bioengineering

*Lauren White, Post-doc, PhD
Disease ecology

Mari Teitelbaum, MHA
Maternal-child health, Health information Systems, Strategic Perspectives, Health Outcomes, Innovation

Martin Jensen, PhD
Bioengineering, Emphasis in Biomaterials

Meg Barron, MBA
Digital Health, Healthcare Innovation

*Monica Javidnia, PhD
Neuroscience, Neurodegenerative Disease, Pharmacology

Nicholas A. Giordano, PhD, RN, AM, MS, BSN
Pain Science

Oyuka Byambasuren, MD, MMedRes
Digital Health, mHealth, Primary Care, Health Apps

*Pallavi Pant, PhD
Air Pollution, Environmental Health, Science Communication

Paul Lindberg, JD
Public Health, Community Health

Peter A. DePergola II, PhD, MTS
Clinical Bioethics and Medical Humanities

Pooja Chandrashekar, MD Candidate
Healthcare Delivery, Digital Health, Population Health

Rachel Rizal, MD
Healthcare Innovation, Digital Health, Entrepreneurship, Health Education

Ria Rungta, MPH Candidate
Epidemiology, Global Health, Chronic Diseases, Genetics, Health Technology

Sara Jiayang Li, BS
Autoimmune Skin Disease, Clinical Research

sj Miller, PhD
Gender Identity in Schooling Contexts

*Sophie Okolo, Ms, MPH
Aging, Health Technology, Bioinformatics, Science Communication

Stephen Chen, MD, PhD
Surgery, Genomics, Oncology, Biotech & Life Sciences

*Tara Fernandez, PhD
Cell & Gene Therapies

Tareq Al Saadi, MD
Medicine, Epidemiology, Public Health, Cardiology

Toyosi Okurounmu, MD, MPH, MBA
Health System Transformation

Victor Ekuta, BA, MD Candidate
Neuroscience, Neurodegenerative Disease, Neuroimaging

Vivian Ho, MBA
Global Health, Medical Innovation, Neuroscience

*Xinwen Zhu, PhD Candidate
Biotechnology, Systems Cell Biology

Xiya Ma, MSc, MD Candidate
Global Health, Biomedical Research, Innovation

Jason Shepherd on Scientific Discovery

Taking on the major challenge of understanding how experience shapes neural networks and how circuits are modified by proteins/genes,  Jason Shepherd has garnered worldwide recognition through the research in his lab, Shepherd Lab at the University of Utah School of Medicine. At TEDMED 2018, Jason shared why we might have viruses to thank for the biology behind memory storage and encoding. Watch his Talk “How an ancient virus spread the ability to remember” and read his about his journey through Scientific Discovery below. 


What goes into scientific discoveries? Movies will have you think that discoveries are made by lone geniuses in moments of inspiration. The reality is that this is rarely the case, scientific discovery is a long and often tedious process that requires a team of people. In my own research lab, we recently made a surprising connection between two seemingly unrelated topics; viruses and memory. 

This connection was made through observation, rather than through inspiration. We study a gene called Arc, which is essential for making long-lasting memories in the brain. A focus of my lab is to understand how and why this gene is so important for information storage. A technician in the lab, Nate Yoder, wanted to study the biochemistry of Arc protein. To do this, we engineered bacteria to produce a ton of Arc protein that we could purify. Nate found, however, that Arc protein behaved strangely. It seemed like it was much bigger than predicted and this was probably because single Arc proteins were clumping or aggregating. Perhaps we were just unable to purify Arc properly. Still, Nate was curious to know what the protein looked like so with the help of Adam Frost he took some images of Arc protein using an electron microscope. This allowed him to resolve Arc protein at very high magnification. Strikingly, instead of clumps of protein, we saw these beautiful “soccer ball” structures (image 1). 

This observation led us down a rabbit hole of unique biology. Turns out these soccer ball structures look just like the protein shells or capsids that viruses make. Why would a neuronal protein form something that looks like a virus capsid?! We are still trying to understand this surprising discovery, but Arc seems to have retained many properties of viruses. Oh yes, and we think that this gene evolved from an ancient ancestor of the retroviruses, like HIV, called retrotransposons. These rogue elements, along with ancient viral infections have left us with bloated genomes comprising of up to 50% of our own human DNA. In some cases, it seems, evolution has used these sequences and repurposed them to create new genes. Wild! 

Back to the process of doing science. Another common fallacy is that science results in black and white answers. In biology, this is rare. Scientists can be wrong in their interpretation of the data. They can be wrong in how they designed an experiment and the results can be messy. The key is replication and figuring out many different ways to get at the answer. For example, another lab headed by Vivian Budnik and work led by her postdoctoral fellow Travis Thomson independently found that a gene that looked like Arc in the fly, also seemed to behave like a virus. When we purified the fly Arc protein, we also saw that it could form capsids. So here we have two examples of different genes having retained the ability to form virus-like capsids! Even more surprising, we think that the fly Arc gene is actually unrelated to the mammalian gene; evolution repurposed a similar kind of retrotransposon in the fly lineage 100s of millions of years after the mammalian Arc gene.

If it happened twice, it probably happened many times more. We and others are on the hunt to find other genes that may have similar properties. Most important for my own research, we want to understand why you need a virus-like protein to make long-term memories. All of this reinforces, to me, the intricate and complicated path evolution has taken that has led to the amazing structure of the human brain. We hope that this science will not only lead to understanding how the brain works, but potentially to applications like gene therapy. Currently, we rely on modified viruses to get gene therapy into human cells but these still elicit an immune response and are often not very efficient. What if we could use proteins that look like viruses but are already made in our bodies? Nature often has the best solutions to hard problems; we just have to figure out how. It takes a team of dedicated people and a little bit of luck to reveal Nature’s secrets. 


TEDMED & Massive Science: TEDMED boasts a proud partnership with Massive Science, a digital science media publication that brings together scientists and the science-curious public. The team at Massive joined us onsite at TEDMED 2018, and by various speakers including Jason Shepherd. Check out their coverage of Jason’s TEDMED 2018 talk: “A protein in your brain behaves like a virus, infecting your cells with memories.

Massive Science on Lydia Bourouiba

TEDMED is proud to partner with Massive Science, a digital science media publication that brings together scientists and the science-curious public. The team at Massive joined us onsite at TEDMED 2018, and covered talks by various speakers including Lydia Bourouiba. Check out their coverage of Lydia’s TEDMED 2018 talk below.


In 1934, Williams Wells was the first scientist to convincingly describe airborne transmission of diseases in the context of tuberculosis. He introduced the notion of  two main routes of pathogens spread: large droplets, which fall due to gravity, and small droplets, which waft through the air as they evaporate. It is believed that pathogens like Tuberculosis are transmitted through large droplets, whereas diseases like measles could through small ones, although evidence remain controversial and debated. 

It may surprise you that for more than 80 years—despite new diseases, new means of travel, and new technology—our understanding of these basic routes haven’t changed much. Not until recently, when Lydia Bourouiba, associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the Fluid Dynamics of Disease Transmission Laboratory, began to revisit these fundamentals and redefine how we think about respiratory disease transmission—literally from the ground up.

Bourouiba began her career by studying the mathematics of how fluids flow, specifically looking at fluids with turbulent or chaotic dynamics/motion. When she moved to Toronto shortly after the SARS epidemic, she realized that similar mathematical principles could be useful in modeling how diseases spread. That’s when she began to use mathematics in epidemiology, and in particular, the limitations of top-down modeling with mechanistic understanding of the fundamental mechanisms governing the patterns observed. “I started seeing these gaps in understanding transmission in particular, and [seeing] that fluid dynamics could help fill such gaps,” explains Bourouiba.

Traditionally, scientists have created epidemiological models by developing equations, based on a variety of parameters that describe how diseases are transmitted between people and populations. However, many of these parameters are fitted to data and not based on physical principles—like how sneezing actually transmits disease, or what factors influence how far sneeze droplets may travel or persist. 

Bourouiba thinks that improving the accuracy of these parameters and framework of modeling would greatly improve predictive power and intervention strategies. “If one doesn’t have a mechanism to rationalize [the parameters] down to something we can directly measure, validate, and control, one ends up fitting data to models,” says Bourouiba, rather than designing models that incorporate underlaying physics. “One loses predictability power and ability to control.”

So Bourouiba moved to MIT as an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellow and Applied Mathematics Instructor, and then as faculty, and began to try to explain how diseases are transmitted globally based on how they are transmitted between you and your neighbor. Equipped with a range of experimental optical and biophysics methods, including, direct visualization and measurements, such as with high-speed imaging, microscopy, fluid flow models, and patients, Bourouiba and her team are now answering fundamental questions about the mechanisms of respiratory disease transmission.

During TEDMED, Bourouiba showed how the physics of turbulent puff cloud of air emitted during exhalations, suspending and trapping drops within them, radically  change the range of pathogen deposition and contamination, thus, shifting the paradigm away from the small versus large droplet framework of Wells into the mechanistic description of exhalations including information of time and space, needed for monitoring, infection control and prevention,  and risk assessments. 

The next step is understanding how a exhalations coupled with ambient environment and patient physiology in infection, including when infected with flu, can inform early detection and intervention.  Her broad findings have already identified suggestions for disease control that can be implemented, influencing a variety of public health protocols and policies.

But she still has further questions—like how the size of droplets can impact our susceptibility to disease. “The properties that exhalations and their payload influence also efficacy of infection upon exposure, for example influencing,  their deposition in the lungs,” says Bourouiba. “We are working at elucidating the whole process, accounting for coupled physiology, immunology, microbiology, and fluid processes, to construct the full picture of those  that have particularly high abilities to transmit certain respiratory diseases effectively.”

This could inform how we manage numerous high impact pathogens. Take tuberculosis, a disease that infects up to a third of the world’s population. Researchers know its symptoms begin deep in the lungs, but further characterizations of when, how, and why people produce infectious droplets could improve how we handle patient care and research.

Bourouiba is excited about the multi-year study she’s leading with a diverse collaborations she put in place to  include clinicians, infection control specialists, microbiologists, immunologists, and virologists, for the study of transmission of influenza. Pioneering work in this interdisciplinary field isn’t easy. But Bourouiba says that ten to twenty years of this kind of research could lead to dramatic, tangible results, useful for a variety of pathogens. Considering the long and often uncertain process of developing new vaccines and diagnostics for infectious diseases, her approach to defining evidence-based prevention strategies is a vital piece of the puzzle. “You have to be doing both [prevention and treatment research].” It’s also becoming ever more important. Because of rising antibiotic resistance and increase in connectivity, and emergence and re-emergence of pathogens, she explains, “We might be going into an era [similiar] to pre-antibiotic times, which is extremely concerning.”

Bourouiba’s work is an important step toward redefining disease transmission, and infection control and prevention, moving the fundamentals from descriptions to measurable and quantifiable mechanisms. Truly understanding how people get each other sick will help us design protocols, policies, and tools to help people stay healthy and prevent epidemics and pandemics.


About the author:  Joshua Peters is a PhD student in Biological Engineering at MIT. Around two billion people in the world are infected with a microscopic bug called Mycobacterium Tuberculosis. Despite this, only a fraction develop tuberculosis. And a fraction of those infected – almost 5,000 a day – die. Joshua puts on Stranger Things-esque protection equipment and probes these bacteria to ask, what allows them bacteria to win this tug-of-war? To understand this variation, he looks at how both human and bacteria cells change on a genetic level in response to each other, as a member of the Blainey Lab, located in the Broad Institute, and Bryson Lab, located in the Ragon Institute and MIT.  

Q&A with Elizabeth Howell

TEDMED: In your TEDMED 2018 talk, you mentioned that one way for hospitals to improve the quality of care around childbirth is to implement a bundle program as advised by the Alliance for Innovation on Mental Health. What infrastructural resources are needed to adopt such a program, and who at the hospital should be driving this change? 

Elizabeth Howell: Some of the Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health patient safety bundles are easier to implement than others and some require little infrastructure or resources. All require sponsorship from individuals within the hospital or healthcare settings. Leadership can come from nursing, physicians, midwives, or hospital administration.

TM: While social determinants of health contribute to racial and ethnic disparities, there remains a component of racial bias in health care. What are some steps that we can take to dismantle providers’ racial bias? Does this happen during medical education or elsewhere?

EH: Addressing providers’ racial bias is important and some medical schools have begun implicit bias trainings for faculty and staff. However, a complex web of factors contributes to disparities. I suggest we tackle disparities brick by brick:

1.  Measure racial disparities in pregnancy outcomes and address them through quality improvement activities in hospitals.

2. Hold hospitals and healthcare organizations accountable for their performance on outcomes.

3. Teach medical students and trainees patient-centered communication strategies, shared decision-making skills, and actions to address implicit bias.

4. Address who institutions are admitting into medical schools and residency programs in an effort to diversify the workforce.

5. Ask how healthcare systems compensate and reward physicians within the system. Make compensation linked to performance on reducing and addressing disparities.

6. Challenge institutions to continually ask themselves whether they are doing everything they can to reduce disparities.

TM: How aware are pregnant women and new mothers of the risks and signs of maternal mortality or morbidity? What is the best way to educate these women on the risks that they face, so that they can take informed steps to protect their health?

EH: Women with obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses are at higher risk for complications during pregnancy.  It is important for all reproductive age women, especially for women with chronic illness and these risk factors, to seek healthcare before they become pregnant and receive education about the best steps to protect their health.

TM: If every hospital across the country adopted the highest quality of standard care around childbirth and maternal health, do you think we would still see racial disparities in maternal morbidity and mortality, or do you think that disparities would remain due to other uncontrolled factors?

EH: I believe a meaningful portion of the disparity gap can be closed by improving quality of care across the care continuum and improving standards across all hospitals.  While addressing the larger societal issues that drive racism is important work for scholars from every field, it is not an excuse for delayed action on these tangible steps.

TM: What was the TEDMED experience like for you?

EH: The experience crystallized for me the importance of storytelling in communicating important truths. As a scientist we frequently communicate through tables, data, and graphs but the emotional connection to the problem is often what motivates action.

TM: At TEDMED, we like to think about each talk as having a “gift” –  that thing that reveals new perspectives and profoundly influences our own, or our collective, health. What is the gift you’d like people to receive when watching your TEDMED Talk?

EH: We can save the lives of thousands of women who die or experience severe complications from childbirth every year if we raise standards in EVERY hospital and provide high quality healthcare for ALL women before, during, and after pregnancy.

TM: What was the highlight of your TEDMED experience?

EH: A highlight for me was being introduced by Michael Painter from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as a “nice radical… For Liz, there is no division between her passion and her compassion.”

How I Harnessed My Own Cancer Diagnosis to Help Kids with Cancer and Their Parents


By Hernâni Oliveira

This TEDMED Partner Blog Post comes to you from TEDMED 2020 Partner Astellas and Hernâni Oliveira. TEDMED is excited to partner with Astellas specifically around their Astellas Oncology C³ (Changing Cancer Care) Prize, which sparks new, innovative ways of caring for cancer patients and their caregivers. Hernâni Oliveira is the 2017 Grand Prize winner of the C³ Prize. His winning idea was a two-part virtual reality app to help solve common issues faced by children with cancer and their parents around education and physical engagement. Learn more about his award-winning idea here.

We know that the TEDMED Community is filled with patients, caregivers, and healthcare professionals, each with ideas that have the power to improve the lives of those impacted by cancer. We encourage you to submit your idea and apply to the C³ Prize by July 15. The winners will join us at TEDMED 2020, March 2-4 in Boston, MA.


My cancer journey started when I was diagnosed with lymphoma at the age of 27. Like most people, I was shocked to hear the infamous three words—“You have cancer”— but having studied cancer as a molecular oncologist, it struck me as ironic and terrifying that now, I would experience this disease as a patient, too.

I’ve never been the type to sulk about unfortunate events. I’ve always enjoyed taking on challenges, learning about subjects unfamiliar to me, and helping others understand it as well through effective communication. So, when I saw people who struggled to find accurate information about cancer, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in health education to help people gain access to and understand healthcare information. It was during my second year of studies that I was diagnosed with cancer.

I was fierce, like all who are battling cancer and those who are caring for their loved ones with cancer. Every day brought a different challenge, but I focused all of my time and energy in between the treatments on developing an idea that I had been working on during my studies that I hadn’t yet had time to bring to life: an app to help children with cancer and their parents.

My idea was a two-part virtual reality app to help solve common issues faced by children with cancer and their parents around education and physical engagement. For the children, I wanted to create a video game for mobile devices that tells the story of a child who fights cancer as a superhero and educates the children about cancer, as well as promoting exercise and reducing anxiety during medical examinations. For the parents and caregivers, I wanted to create an educational tool so they could learn more about cancer and ways to support their children.

While working on my idea in 2017, I learned about the Astellas Oncology  Prize—an opportunity that came to change my life. The annual challenge was created in 2016 by Astellas to find and fund the best non-treatment ideas to improve cancer care for patients, caregivers, and their loved ones. I was so glad to find the  Prize because I felt like it empowered the public by widening the access to knowledge and tools to help those affected by cancer. It also helped solidify my belief that as a society, we need to look beyond treatments to truly care for people impacted by cancer.

I wholeheartedly believed—and still do—in my project, fittingly titled “HOPE,” and the impact it could have on so many lives touched by cancer. Still, I was surprised to find out I was the Grand Prize winner of the 2017  Prize. It was humbling and awe-inspiring all in one. What means the most to me is that winning the  Prize has fueled my idea and allowed me to have a real impact on people living with cancer.

Since winning the  Prize, I’ve developed a second prototype for the video game for children with cancer and validated the application for parents and caregivers in hospitals. Thanks to the  Prize and the countless hours of hard work, the final product will be available to the Portuguese public by the end of 2019. I’m also hoping to launch the application internationally and increase its impact on a global scale.

Beyond the funds I was awarded from the  Prize, I have had the opportunity to connect with a new network of people passionate about improving healthcare and am now in the process of working to bring educational programs into schools worldwide. With the support of the local community in Porto, Portugal, I’m developing an educational project to help improve cancer survivors’ reintegration process at schools. Thus far, more than 1,300 children and teachers have been trained, and we have won the best presentation award at the 4th European Health Literacy Conference.

Additionally, I was able to help establish a partnership between Astellas Portugal and University of Porto through the  Prize, which led to the creation of a national think tank focused on health literacy and innovation. The organization successfully hosted an event in May with 60 healthcare and communications professionals, patients, and caregivers, who worked together to find innovative solutions to create and foster health literate ecosystems.

Now in its fourth year, the Astellas Oncology  Prize is a truly amazing platform for anyone to showcase their idea to change cancer care and build meaningful relationships with innovators from all over the U.S. and the world. This year, the  Prize is looking for emerging and established ideas in the following categories: Cancer Care Journey, Cancer Health Disparities, and Cancer Survivorship. It will award up to $200,000 in total grants and resources, including a chance to connect with other healthcare innovators at TEDMED 2020.

I am so grateful to have been involved with the program as a winner in 2017 and now, as a judge, for the second year in a row. The beauty of the  Prize is that anyone with an idea to improve cancer care can apply—the idea can be big or small, emerging or established. What’s important is the ideas’ feasibility, originality, creativity, potential impact, and the applicant’s vision for how to reach people who might benefit from their idea—because innovative and informative healthcare tools are just as impactful for the cancer journey.

So, I encourage anyone—whether you’re a cancer patient, survivor or caregiver; a researcher, inventor or entrepreneur; a teacher, communicator, or even a musician—with an idea that could have an impact on cancer care to submit their ideas today at www.C3Prize.com. Applications are open until July 15.

Hernâni Oliveira is the founder and CEO of healthcare marketing agency BRIGHT. Previously, Hernâni was a molecular oncologist and researcher.

Considering the Moral Motivations for Whistle-Blowing

Psychologist Adam Waytz is dedicated to uncovering how opposing sides of moral conflicts understand and misunderstand each other’s motives. Adam studies the causes and consequences of perceiving mental states in other entities and investigates processes related to social influence, social connection, meaning-making, morality, and ethics. His ongoing work explores questions with direct application to politics, society, and current events; for example, studying how people establish trust with autonomous vehicles. At Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University where Adam is an associate professor, his classes focus on how to resolve difficult ethical dilemmas and how to lead through values and ethical appeals rather than through traditional means. Adam was a Speaker at TEDMED 2018, and you can watch his Talk here.


Last week I attended the fifth annual conference of the Behavioral Science and Policy Association, which showcased how behavioral science can help create better public policies. Topics included how to improve financial decision-making, how to get people to increase vaccination uptake, and how to reduce single-occupancy vehicle commuting (to reduce carbon dioxide emissions). As I listened to the talks, it struck me that current governmental and organizational policies surrounding whistle-blowing are sorely lacking in incorporating insights from behavioral science.

The theme of my 2018 TEDMED Talk is that whistle-blowers, people who expose unethical conduct to outsiders, tend to be motivated by moral incentives. Whistle-blowers report wrongdoing out of a sense of justice and altruism as our research has shown, yet the dominant whistle-blower protection program in the United States centers on more self-serving incentives. The Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Program offers monetary rewards to people who report financial misconduct to the Security and Exchange Commissions (SEC) provided that the reporting results in successful prosecution and $1 million or more in sanctions.

Although reporting has increased under the program, its effectiveness in curbing financial misconduct is unclear (only 62 awards have been granted, amidst thousands of complaints since 2012). Furthermore, some research suggests that offering financial incentives can backfire. One set of studies shows that when whistleblower rewards are present but a potential whistle-blower is ineligible for the reward (because the fraud uncovered fell under the $1 million threshold), people assume the whistle-blower would be less willing to come forward compared to when no incentive is present at all. Other work suggests that although financial incentives for reporting organizational misconduct externally (i.e., to the SEC) can increase external reporting, it can simultaneously discourage people’s willingness to report misconduct internally to their companies.

So how do we build policies to encourage whistle-blowing that incorporate people’s moral motivations? Perhaps organizations could start by destigmatizing whistle-blowers as traitors or tattle-tales, communicating the message that what it means to be a good organizational citizen is calling out the company when it gets things wrong. One radical approach at the governmental level could be changing the nature of the financial incentive to be prosocial rather than self-serving, stating that if a whistle-blower uncovers misconduct, monetary rewards will be paid to the victims of that misconduct rather than to the whistle-blower. Reforming our whistle-blower policies will require bold action, and we can start by incorporating the lessons of social science to these efforts.   

Q&A with Kate Bowler

After being diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at age 35, Duke tenured professor and author Kate Bowler launched a national conversation about why it feels so difficult to speak frankly about suffering. She delves into how we live and cope with pain and suffering in Everything Happens for a Reason (and other lies I’ve loved), a NYT bestselling memoir, and in her popular podcast, Everything Happens. She is also the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, which received widespread media and academic attention as the first history of a movement based on divine promises of health, wealth, and happiness. She has appeared on NPR and The TODAY Show, Amanpour & CO, as well as in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and TIME Magazine. Her work has also been praised by a wide variety of religious and political publications, from liberal print media to conservative talk radio. You can watch her 2018 TEDMED Talk here.


TEDMED: In your TEDMED talk, you describe how people often try to find a reason for why you were diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer, assuring you and your husband that, “everything happens for a reason.” Given your experience, what would you encourage people to say or do when someone in their life experiences a difficult diagnosis?

Kate Bowler: It’s so tough because there usually isn’t much to say that will help–but the desire to say something is so strong! We have an intense desire to love the suffering person but usually it devolves into burdensome attempts to relate (“When my aunt had cancer…”) Luckily, the easiest approach is also the best one: trust that your loving presence is enough. Be useful and available, but ask for little. John Green recently told me something that his mentor in hospital chaplaincy taught him: “Don’t just do something! Stand there.” It’s wonderfully counter-intuitive and absolutely true.

TM: In the past, you’ve talked about how removing the need for a reason that bad things happen, and accepting your cancer has, in small ways, made you able to see and enjoy things more fully, and perhaps in a way you hadn’t before. Do any of these experiences stand out that you can share?

KB: Oh, wow, I immediately think of parenting. I had been on the superhighway of achievement, or at least I liked to think so. And now I am fiercely determined to keep my focus on my deepest loves, especially my five-year old human. There is usually a moment every day that I would have missed in my own rush to conquer the day. Today it was my son climbing up on my lap in his jammies while I was taking a call, solemnly looking into my eyes and whispering: “Can we talk about lizards now?” He was right. The sun was bright and the breeze was dreamy and it was exactly the right time to talk about lizards.

TM: Through your TEDMED talk, and the online community you have cultivated, you spark conversations about both the beauty and the difficulty of life – as you say: “Life is so beautiful and life is so hard.” How has your work been impacted by this online community and the conversations they engage in about the chaos and the clarity that comes with being human? Are there any stories that have been shared with you that you have found particularly inspiring?

KB: The biggest change in my life, after cancer, has been this incredible community I’ve found through my podcast, Everything Happens. As it turns out, I am not alone in feeling constrained by this American myth of self-mastery and endless progress. We are longing for what my friend Margaret Feinberg called “the fellowship of the afflicted.” Now when I speak to someone, I assume this person is carrying something he or she did not choose. One of the recent episodes was with Jayson Greene, whose toddler was killed in a terrible accident. His rich account of grief as the language of love was so powerful to me. In reassembling our worlds after loss, it feels honest to say that our pain is also an expression of our biggest loves.

TM: You are a self described “incurable optimist”. To what do you attribute this? Have you always been an incurable optimist, or did that come later in life?

KB: I have such a love-hate relationship with positivity as a category because I am an expert in the history of positive thinking. I found that so much of what passes as happiness or positivity is weaponized against suffering people. “Oh, are you not happy? You must be failing to live your best life now!” But I have found that a deep, hard-won joy is necessary when facing down hard realities. I may have insurmountable obstacles, but I am focused on finding beauty and truth regardless. That’s why I call myself an “incurable optimist.” It is pure stubbornness.

TM: What was the TEDMED experience like for you?

KB: It was the best public experience of my life. The community there was so absurdly loving and focused on helping me share my experience honestly. The organizers even had a stage manager there to HUG ME before I went on stage. Ok, that lovely person hugged everyone, but I felt so fortunate to be loved as I attempted to do a hard, public thing.

TM: At TEDMED, we like to think about each talk as having a “gift” – that thing that reveals new perspectives and profoundly influences our own – or our collective – health. What is the gift you’d like people to receive when watching your TEDMED Talk?

KB: Life doesn’t have to be better to be beautiful. Oh, if you are hurting right now, I want you to know you are so loved. You are not a mistake.