This weekend, TED talks have come to Yale. TED, a non-profit organization that began in California with the motto “Ideas Worth Spreading,” solicits world leaders and thinkers to give roughly 20-minute talks on a topic of their choice. At TEDxYale, Yale students, alumni and faculty will give talks on topics ranging from space archeology to magic and beyond. WEEKEND caught up with an assortment of these speakers this week as they prepared and practiced their speeches.

Nicholas Simmons-Stern ’12: Cognitive researcher


Q. Can you explain what you’ll be talking about and how you became an expert in that field?

A. I’m talking about music and memory in Alzheimers patients. Basically, I have been working in an a research lab for four years now. My freshman year here, as part of my senior project for Paul Bloom’s Intro Psych class, I did a book report on a book called “This is Your Brain on Music.” It talks about what the brain does when you’re listening to music. One page of it is devoted to this discussion of how patients with Alzheimers disease seem to have some ability to process music and then remember music in a way that they can’t do with other things. So I had the idea, what if we can use music in the way that we use it with children or that we use it to remember other things like the ABCs to teach patients with Alzheimers disease things that they wouldn’t be able to learn otherwise. It’s the idea of a musical mnemonic as a therapeutic aid for patients with Alzheimers, looking at music as a memory enhancer.

Q. Why should students care about what you have to say?

A. Obviously Alzheimers disease is something that we don’t personally have to worry about for ourselves, but I’m sure many people have been effected by Alzheimers; it’s a horrible disease that affects millions of people across the country and is growing at a rapid rate and it’s something that we don’t have a cure for. Music is not a cure for Alzheimers disease, but we’re pretty confident that we can use music to improve the lives of patients.

It’s something that is relevant to us all because we all like music on some level and have experience with these musical mnemonics — learning the ABC or the 50 states song — on some level. It can interest us all on that level and also because Alzheimers disease is so important.

Q. What has been the hardest part of preparing for the conference and the talk you’re going to present?

A. Figuring out how to condense 10 hours of research and material into five minutes. We’ve done 10 or 12 studies at this point, and it’s not something that you can present in 5 minutes.

Q. Your favorite line from your talk?

A. That’s a surprise.

Q. Do you have a favorite TED talk?

A. I believe it’s Dennis Dutton who gave a talk about the evolution of art. He does the animated whiteboard pictures … it’s very, very cool. But then every TED talk is so cool.

Q. In three words, your talk?

A. (Long pause) Music is incredible.

Yael Zinkow ’12: Comedian


Q. When did you start doing stand-up and what’s your trajectory been like since?

A. I started doing stand-up at the end of my sophomore year at The Cucumber (The Yale Record’s open mic night). Since then I’ve done many open-mics, both at Yale and in L.A. This past summer. I also got the chance to open for the last two Fall Show headliners which were both great experiences.

Q. What do you think is the appeal of stand-up as a comedic form?

A. For the performer, I have no idea. In a way it’s the worst possible type of performance. It’s just you on stage, and you know right away whether or not you’re doing a good job. I must be a masochist or something. For the audience, however, I think the appeal is that it’s intimate, like a conversation with a friend (ideally).

Q. What do you make of the Yale comedy scene?

A. I think Yale has a great comedy scene. All of the improv and sketch groups are hilarious, and on any given weekend you can see at least two or three shows that will crack you up. The stand-up scene is relatively new, and I hope it continues to grow in coming years. I’m very grateful to The Record for starting their open mic, The Cucumber, because I never would have tried my hand at stand-up if not for that.

Q. Do Yalies laugh enough?

A. YES! Obviously at times people take themselves (or their a cappella groups) too seriously, but I find that on the whole Yale is a very laid-back place where people are always willing to make fun of themselves (or the institution).

Q. Where do comedians go to cry?

A. They watch the movie Glitter starring Mariah Carey.

Aaron Hakim ’13: Project leader, Yale’s International Genetically Engineered Machines Team


Q. For readers who don’t have tickets to your 15-minute talk, could you describe it in 15 seconds?

A. Unfortunately, the talk is only five minutes … Basically, it’s about synthetic biology and more specifically the project myself and a few other undergrads did last year for the International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition. Our project involves preventing ice crystals from forming using proteins that are made by a beetle that lives in negative-30-degree weather in Siberia. With antifreeze proteins, we can preserve organs at cold temperatures for longer without having damaging ice crystal formation. For companies that use moderately active fish antifreeze proteins, like Unilever or Breyers, you get ice cream full of ice crystals; ours are hyperactive, and we figured out how to mass-produce them, which should lead to better ice cream. Other applications are preventing frost damage on crops and potentially improving the taste of frozen foods.

Q. You proposed your first research project to a professor after eighth grade. How did you come to know so much about science and scientific procedures at that age?

A. Mostly, I read a ton. I spent three weeks just scouring over literature relevant to the field; every time I didn’t understand something in an article I’d read another article to figure it out. I was super-motivated by some kids who were a couple years older than me and had worked in labs — I wanted to do something similar in terms of a fully immersive lab experience.

Q.Genetic engineering has thrilling potential to benefit the human race, but many worry we might go too far in our drive to improve ourselves. Do you think we’re too worried about the potential dangers? Not worried enough?

A. There are tons of ethical implications that come along with the field of synthetic biology. It’s good to see that certain discussions are happening in popular discourse, like the Obama speech where he actually referenced the IGEM competition. I also think the people doing the really controversial experiments — people like Craig Venter — have done well so far. When they’ve planned to do something big, like creating the first synthetic cell a few years ago, they spent a year speaking to people in government, in the industry, from various religious groups, talking to philosophers — just the widest range of people they could, to make sure what they were doing was ok.

Q. Who are some scientists whose work you think everyone should study, or whose writings everyone should read?

A. Farren Isaacs, our advisor, is an incredibly smart guy. He came out with two papers in the last five years that are definitely revolutionary and will change the way we engineer organisms. We can use nature as a template to create organisms more suited to practical human use; there are bacteria that produce an antioxidant called lycopene, and [Isaacs] had them making five times as much within three days. People should also know about George Church, Craig Venter, Jay Keasling, Chris Boyd — all of these people are doing amazing things.

Marina Filiba ’15: International director of the “I Am” Challenge


Q. What is the “I Am” Challenge, and how did the founders of the “I Am” Challenge come up with the idea of using — T-shirts?

A. Back when the “I Am” Challenge was born, four years ago now, Ben and Dan — the founders — were 15 years old. Young themselves, they realized that the youth is full of excuses; we would like to volunteer but we simply don’t find the time. Exams, extracurriculars and even friends and family make it easy to put off whatever doesn’t fit. Thus, the “I Am” Challenge was born, where volunteers wear the same 10 shirts stating “I Am (insert name)” for one whole year. This doesn’t give you any room for excuses; it a simple way of being active, 24/7, making something as simple as wearing a T-shirt meaningful.

Q. How did you get the idea for your talk?

A. I was already part of the “I Am” Challenge when I came to Yale, and knew that I wanted to bring the challenge to the Yale community. After finding my place on campus during the first semester, I hoped to find a good platform on which to present the idea behind the opportunity, before launching it at Yale. That’s precisely when TEDxYale happened, allowing me to present something I’m so passionate about in my talk.

Q. Can you wear pretty dresses for dates, or is it only “I Am Maru” T-shirts every day of the entire year?

A. The “I Am” Challenge understands that there are situations when wearing the T-shirts is not just not possible, like having a formal dress code for work. However, outside of this, we encourage Challengers to take on the full responsibility of wearing the T-shirts on all occasions. That’s the whole point of the challenge; being confident enough in yourself to go out on a date as such! It’s the perfect icebreaker, and no one ever forgets your name! So how about wearing pretty skirts instead?

Q. How does it feel being the only freshman chosen to give a talk for TED?

A. It’s a great honour. Being a great fan of TED myself, I was thrilled when I heard that TED was coming to Yale! To think that I was given a slot to speak among such talented speakers is very humbling. I’m so excited to spread the Challenge message, and make the most of it.

Q. How are you going to coerce Yalies into taking the challenge? Cookies?

A. The Challenge is not for everyone; I’m very aware of that. Even though I would love to see all Yalies — one can always dream right? — adopt it, l’m not about to start brainwashing people into doing it. It takes person with a strong belief in their own selves and their identity to decide to take this Challenge: to give up those pretty dresses and shirts. I hope though that, with time, more students will want to take the step by themselves.

Sarah Parcak ’01: Space archaeologist


Q. So, space archaeology. Is that the academic way of saying “Ancient Aliens” scientist?

A. You’d think that based on the emails I get. It means using space-based satellite imagery to map ancient landscapes, sites and features. It’s a new field — really only been around for about 25 years.

Q. What is the coolest archaeological site you’ve ever found via satellite?

A. That’s a tough one. Getting to map the ancient site of Tanis (you can see the entire settlement from space!) was awesome, as well as finding possible pyramids. I love survey work, so confirming what I found on the ground is always rewarding.

Q. Do you still get to dig stuff up?

A. That’s the point! We try to go back as often as possible to excavate and survey. Hopefully we’ll be back this summer. Everything depends on funding. Getting to dig is the most rewarding part of my job.

Q. Were there actually weapons of mass destruction?

A. Yes. My socks, following a dig season.

Q. How can you tell the difference between a mound with an ancient civilization hidden underneath and a very large anthill from space?

A. So, everything on the planet has a distinct signature across the light spectrum — types of trees, grass, geological features, etc. Ancient sites have quite a distinct signature in Egypt, which is something I’ve been working to identify for 10 years. Of course, sites in Egypt look different than sites in Central America, China, or elsewhere. We adapt the technology and analytical techniques depending on the landscape and civilization in question.

Q. How much time, on average, do you spend in front of a computer every day?

A. Early until late. Including my iPhone. It’s not bad really, I love what I do, but I’d rather be digging.

Q. Did Egyptians really eat their children?

A. With fava beans and a bottle of Chianti.

Wazhma Sadat ’14: Founder of Kamyab Afghanistan


Q. What is it important for Yalies to know about the situation in Afghanistan that they don’t know?

A. I want to talk about my personal experiences and things the media doesn’t talk about at all, like the value of average Afghans in the peace-building process.

Q. What relevance do you think your topic has to the average Yalie’s life?

A. I think Yalies care about global issues and many that I have talked to seem to care a lot about the situation in Afghanistan. It wouldn’t be fair to leave my friends with the information the media provides us with, which is indeed often a clear misrepresentation of the realities on the ground.

Q. Does Yale have enough of an international perspective?

A. I don’t think anyone can have enough of an international perspective. I definitely respect what Yale has to offer in terms of an international viewpoint, but, like any other institution, it has room to grow and chance and develop.

Q. What kind of challenges have you faced at Yale as an international student from the Muslim world?

A. I used to call them challenges, but not anymore. A lot of people know about Afghanistan and my situation but a lot of people don’t, so I don’t think it’s a bad thing anymore, and I am definitely open to answering questions. It’s what I have to do if people don’t portray the situation as it is.

Q. What are Yalies going to take away from your talk?

A. That’s going to be a surprise! I think that, if I were to attend a TEDxYale talk, I’d want the speaker to, even if they’re not shocking us or talking about something they’ve discovered, be very sincere. I want them to share something. I’m trying really hard to do that for this talk, share my personal experiences that I would not otherwise share with other people, and be very honest about Afghanistan.