This year’s TEDxUofT was held on Saturday March 23rd, 2019 at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in downtown Toronto. Attendees ranged from children to professionals—all enthusiastic to attend the event. Each attendee received a bag consisting of voucher codes and a pen. Breakfast was provided and the items included fruits, croissants, muffins, hot beverages, and banana bread—all vegan and gluten-free. The registration started at 8 a.m. and the event commenced at 9 a.m.

The theme for this year’s TED talk was titled ‘Spectrum.’ The event focused on reflecting on “the idea that our existence is riddled with complexities, with very few things falling into an easily definable category” The aim of the talk was to look at the grey areas of being on a spectrum, and what it means to navigate through those parts.

The ceremony started off with a violin performance full of emotion by Matthias McIntire, a Faculty of Music doctoral student at the University of Toronto. Bathed in green light, McIntire played Cathedral Grove and the Gray Jay—a piece he composed himself. Explaining how he was inspired by the Cathedral Grove in San Francisco, McIntire stated that he tried to capture the “natural drama that is always unfolding” when composing the piece. The music incorporated many natural sounds such as those of chickadees, frogs, squirrels, the wind, thunder and rain. McIntire entered the stage wearing forestry socks and commented on how he did not wear shoes as he played the electronic instrument with his feet in order to enhance his “tactile sense.” Cathedral and the Gray Jay, a moving and emotionally-fuelled performance, was a remarkable start to the event.

Following the violin performance, host Samantha Yammine, acknowledged the “First Nations who were the original stewards of this land” and reminded the audience how important it was to recognize that the name Toronto—derived from the Mohawk word tkaronto which refers to a place where there are trees standing in water—was a vital reminder of the treaties made and broken with the Indigenous. She encouraged the audience to share the events through social media, remarking that the “spirit of every TED event is idea sharing”

The first speaker was Dr Michael Garton, an Assistant Professor in the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto. He recounted how he loved to climb as a child which led to a proud moment when he was featured in the Climb magazine and numerous climbing expeditions. At age 20, after climbing an iconic Swiss mountain, he returned with an “appreciate[ion] of the epic adventure [he] just had, so far removed from mundane life.” Eager for another adventure, Garton recalled his harrowing experience when he fell from the Troll Wall—the tallest vertical rock face in Europe and twice the height of the CN tower. Left paralyzed from the neck down, Garton refused to give up and went back to university to complete a Masters and Ph.D. degree. He now uses proteins which he describes as “amazing tiny machines” to design medicines and his lab has received interest from large powerhouses such as Google. Garton described his research as his next adventure and ended his talk with happily stating that “the adventure continues.”

The second speaker was by Tiffany Jefkins, a graduate student at IHPME at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, who recounted her experience as a witness of the Toronto Van Attack which occurred last year. She recalled how she heard a “wall of sound” as the van rammed into the pedestrians and following a moment of indecision, rushed to do CPR. She says that given the bystander effect—when individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when others are present—she wasn’t surprised that she had to actively urge others around her to help. Jefkins did a small demonstration where she asked everyone in the audience to stand up following which she taught them CPR. She dispelled a few myths surrounding performing CPR on someone and asked the audience to “be an inspiration to those around you” by never hesitating to help someone in need.

Third, Anna Lomanowska, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, said a few words concerning digital well-being. She explained the history of emoticons which she acknowledged as having the ability to “add meaning to the ambiguity of text.” However, she also explained how nonverbal communication between two individuals is a “nuance of synchronizing with our bodies” where two individuals conversing with one another mirror each others’ expressions. She warned the audience that “technology is permeating our face-to-face interaction,” however, ended the talk with a positive note, stating that humans are highly adaptable and with experience, can become better adapted to new forms of communication.

Following these three speakers, there was a thirty-minute intermission which included a giveaway by UTM Global Brigades and the display of the sculpture Prism which was meant to reflect the theme Spectrum.

The fourth speaker was Julia Espinosa—a doctoral student in Psychology at the University of Toronto. She evoked a warm response from the crowd when she walked on the stage with her Golden Retriever, Loki. She discussed how “animals have all kinds of secret superpowers” such as echolocation, flight, and a powerful sense of scent. Espinosa referenced an experiment to explain that dogs do not feel guilty; rather they respond to humans’ behaviour. Dogs have evolved to have childlike features such as large eyes which humans find adorable and therefore, it gives dogs an advantage of being adopted or being cared for. She detailed how dogs have 300 million scent receptors and inhale very rapidly to increase their range of smell. She ended her talk by describing some of her research and her motivation for studying dogs.

Anthony Niblett, an associate professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, walked onto the stage enthusiastically stating that “humans are amazing.” This statement was then followed up with “but we are not perfect” which was an excellent segue for his talk about the use of artificial intelligence in the law. He described how lawyers and judges are susceptible to errors which can be very costly and determine the convicted individual’s life. He firmly said that “justice demands consistency and we, as humans, cannot deliver on that promise.” The solution he proposed was using machine learning and artificial intelligence to “tak[e] human error out, not humans” and detailed many supporting reasons why artificial intelligence should be used in courts and to teach law.  

The sixth and last speaker of the second segment was Riley Yesno—an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto and an Indigenous Rights advocate. She delivered an emotional speech about how “Canada’s niceness has been reinforced by history textbooks, media, and friends, but that has never been the Canada for all.” She spoke of how although she was grateful for being able to access education as a result of living in Canada, she could never forget the injustices committed by the Canadian government on her grandparents who were residential school survivors. She also recalled the lack of clean water at the reserve she grew up in in Northern Canada and the mould in her house. She attributed the discrimination of the Indigenous population to underfunding, colonial power, and discriminatory policies, challenging everyone to examine the widespread notion of Canada being “good.” She urged the audience to not “turn a blind eye to the injustices happening within our borders” and ended off her talk by reminding the audience that Canada is still a young country and therefore change can and should occur.

For lunch, attendees could choose between Mediterranean penne pasta salad with roasted chicken, BBQ chicken sandwich with broccoli kale Caesar, jerk cauliflower wrap with pesto cranberry quinoa salad, and vegan Caesar with turmeric coconut crusted roasted tofu. There were vegan, Halal, and nut-free options along with special boxes for those with more severe food restrictions. There was a spoken word performance by Max and Eyeda, a sister-brother duo. Eyeda performed the piece “Meet Me” from her 2018 album while Max sung “Something Real.” They talked about how their mission is to promote inclusive spaces for everyone to enjoy hip hop and connected their performances with the theme Spectrum. 

The next to speak on stage was Salma Hindy, an award-winning stand-up-comedian and engineer. She delivered a rousing and hilarious speech about the pitfalls of people-pleasing and used several funny and personal examples to illustrate her point. She described people-pleasing as a “pattern of unhealthy behaviour” and as involving codependency which is an “unconscious excessive dependence on loved ones.” Hindy described her journey of using humour as a survival mechanism during engineering school and how “as a marginalized woman, [she] use[s] humour to build trust.” She acknowledged that trying to break away from people-pleasing is difficult as when one disappoints their loved ones to pursue a passion, the individual is faced with a large amount of self-doubt. She also listed a few ways to avoid pleasing others at the expense of one’s wishes and described what motivated her to change her own perspective.

The seventh speaker was Stacy Costa, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She spoke of her attraction to puzzles and the long history of puzzles. She described the essential elements required to create a puzzle and the different problem-solving methods humans employ. She stated that she “wants to convince us to incorporate puzzles into [our] daily li[ves]” and the various mental benefits of solving puzzles regularly which include improved brain health and cognitive flexibility.

Following Costa was Fanny Chevalier, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Statistical Sciences, who delivered an engaging and funny speech about the importance of data literacy. She described the preconceived expectations we have which can be exploited when data is presented a certain way. She urged the audience to “engage with data” and “viscerally experience [it]”. She provided the example about how a can of pop contains 39 grams of sugar which few really know how much is. However, when the 39 grams is translated to its equivalent in sugar cubes—10 sugar cubes—we can better understand how much sugar we are consuming while drinking one can. She ended by advising the audience that “data literacy is a skill we all must have and teach it to [our] children.”

After another thirty-minute intermission, Mohan Matthews, a philosophy professor and senior Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Perception at the University of Toronto, talked about the journey throughout history to understand how our senses work together to provide a single experience. He explained that the philosopher’s question is “How do we know what we know?” He explained how many important figures in history have tried t tackle this question and ended the talk with his own perspective and take on this complex problem.

Yubin Lee, an architect, was the eleventh speaker of the day. She described how more and more people are migrating to urban centres for better access to healthcare, education, and other centralized resources. She stated that “better urbanism benefits us all” and described the elements of a good city. She advocated for middle-rise storeys which would consist of 6 – 12 units. The units would be generally larger than many of the current condos and the medium height of the building would allow more sunlight to reach the streets.

The final speaker of the day was Nicole Mideo, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto. She talked about a rather frightening fact that humans are mostly composed of bacterial cells as there are twice as many bacterial cells than human cells in and on our body. She described how bacteria help defend humans from infections and play a vital role in digesting food. She talked about how obese and slim individuals have different gut bacteria communities and also spoke to the fact that there is a virus which can influence a mouse’s behaviour and thoughts. She explained the importance of understanding that our mind, body, actions, and mood can potentially be influenced by bacterial interests and ended of by stating that “we are, each of us, a compromise.”

The closing remarks by the Chair of the TEDxUofT Aida Mohammad consisted of acknowledging the sponsors of the event and the introduction of the eighteen students who voluntarily—and impressively—organized the whole event. The final act was a rousing performance by the RRB Dance Company which included themes of education, healthcare, and gender gap being portrayed through dance. The TEDxUofT event was an amazing experience filled with a tremendous amount of inspiration and eye-opening perspectives.