On Campus

The pet projects of tomorrow's innovators

UBC hosts panel of young leaders at its second annual TEDxTerry Talks

Jennifer Kaban, Iris Amuto, Eric Ma, Tahira Ebrahim, Azim Wazeer @ UBC TEDxTerry Talks 2009
Iris Amuto, Eric Ma, Jennifer Kaban, Tahira Ebrahim, Azim Wazeer: TEDxTerry Talks speakers

On Oct 3, UBC hosted more than 250 students and alumni to the second annual TEDxTerry Talks 2009, a UBC student conference that provides a platform for its young leaders to share innovative ideas and discuss personal projects they are passionate about. This year, the speakers were seven undergraduate students, one graduate student and a young alumnus.

TEDx, where the x = independently organized TED event, is a program initiated by the group widely known for their Ideas Worth Spreading Series of annual conferences and inspirational videos of invited speakers. TEDx is designed to provide an opportunity for anyone to self-organise and host an event that will bring people together to share in a TED-like experience.

TEDxTerry Talks (tag: TEDxTt) emerged out of the Terry Project, a collaborative initiative between the UBC Faculties of Arts and Science. Its key purpose is to educate primary undergraduate students about current global issues such as malaria, H1N1, and poverty through organising events and fostering conversations using social media such as Twitter, Facebook and their blogs.

Jennifer Gardy @ UBC TEDxTerry Talks 2009
Jennifer Gardy, alumnus speaker: “Public Health in the 21st Century: the Open-Source Outbreak”

Dr. Jennifer Gardy, an alumnus speaker at the event, is co-leading the new genome research lab at the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC). She is also known as “Nerd Girl” from her Globe and Mail blog of the same name. In her talk, Gardy shared how advances in technology have provided increased collaboration on scientific research and scholarly publications — what she labelled as public health 2.0.

For example, she showed how one publication had 36 authors. After leading the audience through the origins of H1N1, she stated how it only took five days from the sequencing of the virus to the first open-source paper. Gardy ended her talk emphasizing how students should be willing to explore the benefits of Open Access publications, collaborative research, and emerging technologies.

Via email, Maclean’s OnCampus asked Gardy, along with other speakers, about her pet project:

Q: What is the value of open-access (OA) publications? Are these types of publications being supported by scientists?

Gardy: OA publications have value because they remove access barriers to knowledge. To access anything more than an abstract of a scientific paper in the pre-OA days, someone who was interested in the paper either had to a) be affiliated with an institution that had a subscription to that journal (and then be able to access that subscription either online or by traveling to the library to see the print copy) or b) willing to pay the per-article charge, generally $30-$50, to be able to download or access that article.

This excluded all sorts of groups from being able to access information: researchers whose institutes don’t have enough money to pay for a subscription (e.g pretty much all of the developing world) and people who are interested in a topic but don’t have an institutional affiliation (e.g. a patient trying to do research into a rare disorder they have) are two of the most obvious groups, but there are others you wouldn’t think of it….OA removes all these headaches and barriers and lets anybody see a paper, taking knowledge out of the domain of just the ivory tower and giving back to the people.

Q:What was the role of open-access publications in the discovery of H1N1?

Gardy: As far as H1N1 goes, virtually all of the big, early papers on the virus were published in non-OA journals but the authors chose to pay the extra costs and make the articles freely available. Many other important papers were published in weekly online OA journals like Eurosurveillance and MMWR. Thus ANYBODY could access the most up-to-date knowledge and contribute to the investigation into the virus.

Also, the outbreak catalyzed the creation of PLoS Currents, an online OA “pre-journal” where authors can submit works in progress that are vetted a by a small team of experts but nor formally peer-reviewed, and which can then be published later once they are more developed. The first PLoS Currents site (there will be one site each for a range of topics) is on influenza research, and launched a few months back at www.ploscurrents.org/influenza. It’s a neat new model for scientific publishing.

Iris Amuto @ UBC TEDxTerry Talks 2009
Iris Amuto: “The African Paradox”

At the event, Iris Amuto, a fourth-year student completing a double major in Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies read an excerpt from Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden to start her presentation, which attempted to correct misconceptions and negative stereotypes about Africa. Her portrayal of African culture through music, dance, food, and literature showed Africa as a colourful continent rather than a troubled place. She also emphasized this point: “Not all Africans are fighting or starving”.

Q:What is the African Dream project?

Amuto: The Africa Dream is the UBC Africa Awareness Initiative’s project to push for more African courses that go towards the African Studies Minor program. We want students who are interested in the minor and Africa to mobilize effectively to voice their concerns about the current minor as it simply draws different from other disciplines such as Anthropology, Political Science, Sciences and so on.

Q: What is the take-away message from your talk?

Amuto: The takeaway message from my talk was simply to look at Africa’s positive, vibrant side. I have problems when the continent is constantly viewed in one dimension – poverty, disease, war, HIV-AIDS. Africa has SO MUCH MORE to give to the rest of the world. I’m not saying that these issues do not exist. They very much do. But we tend to forget that Africa has humanity that other parts of the world do not have. It is time to look at culture, ordinary life, traditions, music and so on on a more regular basis.

Nadine Qureshi @ UBC TEDxTerry Talks 2009
Nadine Qureshi: “Malaria: How We Are Biting Back”

Nadine Qureshi is a third-year Cell Biology and Genetics student and the co-founder of Mission against Malaria. She spoke about her project’s efforts to deliver malaria prevention kits to 600 families in Tanzania, the birthplace of her father. At present, a vaccine does not exist.

Q: What is Mission against Malaria and why was it important for you to co-found this organisation?

Qureshi: I was thinking of starting an organization for several years before I actually went ahead with it; I delayed because I was wary that a cause like malaria would not generate enough interest in Canada. I’ve learned a lot about both AIDS and malaria through my studies and my own readings and what struck me the most was that both diseases result in the same number of casualties, even though one of them actually has a cure. AIDS is a serious issue in our world, and the cautions to prevent it have become well known in all corners of the world. A disease like malaria has gone under the radar in many ways, because the strategies to prevent it don’t have the same basis as AIDS, and require more than just decision making; malaria stems directly from poverty, populations that lack the basic supplies – such as mosquito nets – to prevent its spread.

I could have simply joined another organization that works towards this cause, but for me, I wanted that challenge of creating and building upon a vision in Tanzania, a country that means a lot to me. I found out that Tanzania is one of the five most malaria-stricken countries in the world. I knew that in co-founding an organization I could have the flexibility to put my ideas into action, and connect other organizations in ways that could not be possible otherwise. By next summer, our goal is to have three other organizations as sponsors- to share our ideas on joint projects, working toward spreading the word and not the disease.

Q: Why is it important to supply malaria prevention kits in Tanzania and why isn’t there a vaccine?

Qureshi: The problems in creating a vaccine lies mainly in the science behind the malaria parasite itself; the parasite is extremely resistant and it changes its ways so that our bodies often cannot recognize it twice. It is relatively straightforward to make a vaccine on a given strain, but it will not be useful because the parasite mutates more rapidly than a vaccine can be made. Also, the parasite has 3 distinct stages in it’s life-cycle and relies on two hosts, which is a huge hurdle for scientists. One vaccine cannot come close to targeting all three stages at once. Even if a vaccine were to be made, distributing it will be tough; if it needs to be refrigerated, it’s difficult to get vaccines out to tropical areas without extra costs of keeping it cool, for instance.

The videos of each presentation will be rolled out beginning this month on the TEDxTerry Talks website and the conference pictures that were tagged TEDxTt 2009 are available on flickr.

This year, the itinerary of speakers and TED videos included:

After the success of the event, it’s likely that these TEDxTerry Talks will become an annual event for many of the students in attendance. Perhaps they will be inspired to share some of their own projects that are making a difference on campus.

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