At 9 a.m. every morning, Julien Advaney (E '18) gets the same email: an automatic count of how many tickets have been sold to this year’s TEDxPenn conference on April 1. Each sale is proof that the late night emails, meetings and spreadsheets are finally coming together.
“I think beyond just physical time spent together, TEDxPenn is a huge emotional commitment,” said Helen Nie (C'18), who is the event’s co–curator with Julien. “I am constantly thinking about ways we can improve. At the end of the day, we [students] don’t get any of our names on the program, but it’s not about us. It’s about the speakers and putting together a conference that is really badass.”
Founded in 2010, TEDxPenn has grown from a 100–person lecture to a 1,000–person conference. As an independent, student–organized TED event, the program follows the TED Talk format in which leaders in technology, entertainment and design take the stage to share their ideas. Julien and Helen became involved with TEDxPenn when they were freshmen, and today, they lead the 30–person team of undergraduate and Ph.D. students. Highlighting some of the boldest minds at Penn and the world, TEDxPenn allows students to step back from focusing on exams and applications and to remember the power of learning that brought them to a research university in the first place.
“I think the big thing that makes us different from a professor giving a lecture versus a professor giving a TED talk is that TEDx is really about learning for the sake of learning,” Helen said. “You will have a professor that is teaching intro physics, but his real day–to–day research consists of measuring the diameter of the universe. You never really hear that professor talking about those cool things, so this is another venue to hear professors talk very passionately about what they do.”
Featuring 12 speakers from a range of industries and walks of life, this year’s lineup is their strongest yet, according to Helen and Julien. L. Scott Levin, the chair of the department of orthopedic surgery at Penn Medicine, performed the world’s first pediatric bilateral hand transplant. “Logo prodigy” Sagi Haviv has designed some of the world’s most iconic logos. Photographer Araba Ankuma (C ’17), the only current undergraduate speaking at the event, has taken on a new project exploring and documenting Cuba to promote cross–cultural understanding.
“We like to pride ourselves on that we are TEDxPenn, so we are focused on the Penn community. When eight out of 12 speakers are of the Penn community, it makes more of an impact. We have more of an identity as a school, and I think that is one thing we want to get across,” Julien said. “We are not TEDxPhilly, which also does exist. We are trying to pull from what represents Penn as a research institution and the diversity we have here on campus.”
He said they get a lot of submissions from interested speakers, and as early as August, they begin their audition process to narrow down the list. Once speakers are chosen, both sides work together to develop a 12 to 15 minute talk catered to the audience and yearly theme. This year, the theme is "rise and run."
“On the one hand, [the theme] has to do with quantitative aspects, so you can think of slope and rise over run," Julien said. "It also corresponds to positive correlations and trends. So maybe things that are becoming more popular in the world. And the last thing we threw out there is what gets you up in the morning and makes you literally go on a run or whatever the case may be. We tried to allow the speakers to come at it at all angles.”
Megan Ryerson, an assistant professor specializing in city planning, transportation, and electrical and systems engineering, interprets the theme in terms of running or mobility. Specifically, she said, she will discuss how self–driving vehicles will change intercity transportation networks and the way humans perceive time. She hopes with the help of the student writers, her intense passion for transportation will come through her presentation and engage the audience.
“The students are excellent to work with. I find this event so compelling because it’s a way to really communicate my research to a wide body,” Ryerson said.
Philly residents outside of the university make up a good portion of the event’s audience each year. To stimulate a broad demographic, the organizers work to ensure diversity is present in all aspects of the show—not only in who is speaking but also when they are speaking. The event is split into three sessions; Julien said they avoid packing all the same subjects or emotionally heavy speeches in one session. As with any TED talk, the goal is for the speakers not to intimidate or brag, but to inspire.
“Learning about the speakers made me realize career paths don’t have to be linear and there really is so much that you can do,” said Victoria Meng (W’20), who works on the marketing team.
Before the break, each session ends with a performance. This year’s headliners are as impressive as the speakers. Philly native Brayton Bowman, a soul R&B pop artist, was named by Entertainment Weekly as one of the top 10 performers to watch out for in 2017. Joe Castillo showed off his sand art on America’s Got Talent. And the Philadelphia Dance Company is known for breaking barriers and building connections across cultures through dance.
“It took lots of cold emailing,” Helen laughed.
Helen and Julien attribute the success of the event to the students working behind it, with each member bringing their own skills. Getting to know the speakers and leading the team has been one of the most rewarding aspects for the duo over the three years. By opening these conversations up to the public, they hope more Penn students will experience this wealth of knowledge.
“Being associated with TEDxPenn, you are constantly working with people that are passionate about what they do and that in itself is inspiring mentality,” Helen said. “You really engage with people that at their core are passionate about making the world a better place by whatever medium that may be.”
(Ed note: Students can buy tickets to TEDxPenn for $17 online here or at the Annenberg Center Box Office).