Back in the ’90s, the golden mussel (Limnoperna fortunei) hitched a ride on ships traveling from Asia to South America. In the past decade and a half, the mussel has proliferated through South America’s river systems, destroying the native habitat and disrupting the operation of power plants and water treatment facilities. This invasive species now threatens the delicate ecosystem of the Amazon.
Computational biologist and TEDGlobal 2014 Fellow Marcela Uliano da Silva is working to put a halt to this. A native of Brazil, she’s sequencing the golden mussel’s genome for the first time; she tells the TED Blog how she hopes to use information gleaned from its molecular profile to stop current invasions and forecast future ones.
Tell us about the golden mussel — why does it pose a problem to South America?
The golden mussel originates from Asia, and arrived in South America in the early 1990s, carried in ballast water of ships. The first golden mussels were deposited in La Plata estuary in Argentina, and began to spread via the Parana River, going up all the way to the Pantanal wetlands. In these basins, golden mussels reproduced at high rates, fouling and clogging up the pipelines in power plants and water treatment facilities, as well as taking habitat away from native species. The mussels have made their way to Itaipu — one of the biggest power plants in the world — and they also do damage to many power plants in São Paulo and Minas Gerais in Brazil.
But the golden mussel doesn’t only spread via ballast water and larvae that swim upstream — the public play an active role in the invasion, too. There are several famous fishery festivals in the Brazilian wetlands, and people come by car, towing private boats from the south. When they put the boats in the water, they introduce golden mussels to new rivers. That was how it was introduced in the wetlands. That’s why awareness-raising and education are important: we need to avoid introducing mussels in new locations.
How do the mussels affect the native ecosystem?
Scientists are now calling the golden mussel an “ecosystem engineer,” because unfortunately, it changes environments very efficiently. One of its characteristics is that it reproduces a lot, creating huge populations. It’s a filter feeder, so when there are many mussels in one area, water transparency increases. Sunlight penetrates the water more deeply, changing phytoplankton levels and the balance of species living at the surface of the water. In some rivers, there is evidence showing that the fish population has increased 20% because they have a new food resource in the mussels. But when you increase the number of fish, it has a domino effect, as they are at the top of the food chain. Ultimately, when the mussel invades, it transforms the ecosystem, decreasing biodiversity and homogenizing the environment.
Map of the mussel migration. The golden mussel originated from Asia, and was introduced into the river basin systems of South America in the 1990s via ballast water. Today it has proliferated throughout the region’s wetlands and is threatening to reach the Amazon. Image: Julia Back
Nassim Assefi directed the stage program for TEDMED 2014, a conference which brought out unexpected ideas in medicine—like how one can help cancer patients with a pink tutu. Photo: Sandy Huffaker Jr.
Prosthetics as sculpture, the maternal benefits of breast milk, Cuba’s radical approach to free medical education. These are just a few of the subjects tackled at TEDMED 2014: Unlocking Imagination, hosted last week simultaneously in San Francisco and Washington, DC, with a stage program directed by TED Fellow, physician, novelist and activist Nassim Assefi. On two stages over three days, 2,000 conference-goers and 80 speakers and performers gathered for an idea exchange on a vast range of subjects relevant to innovation in health and medicine.
A medical edition of the TED conference that was founded in 1995 (it’s now independently owned), we asked Assefi what made this TEDMED different from those in the past. “This was the most diverse TEDMED conference in its 19-year history,” she said. “We had slightly more women than men, more ethnic and international diversity than ever before, and a tremendous variety of fields. We didn’t point this out much during the program, but the impact of it did not go unnoticed.”
This year, it was truly a global event. “The conference was livestreamed to 146 countries free of charge, which felt like a democratizing coup,” Assefi added. “I believe being radically open is the wave of the future.”
In that spirit, for those of us not lucky enough to attend, the TED Blog hand-picked 11 of the most intriguing ideas presented on the TEDMED stage, and asked Assefi to tell us more about them. Find them below, grouped by theme. And for more speaker highlights, visit the TEDMED blog.
Photographer Kitra Cahana turned her lens on her father to capture his experience with “locked-in” syndrome. From “Father; Inchoate, Sub-Planetary, Protozoan.” Montreal, Canada, 2013. Photo: Kitra Cahana
Reverberations in global health
1. Financial compensation for living kidney donors may be a reasonable way to handle the kidney shortage crisis. Iran is the only country in the world that has legalized the sale of kidneys from living donor volunteers. The government-endorsed program has been in existence for over 25 years and is implemented by non-profit health charities. Bioethicist Sigrid Fry-Revere went on an underground research mission to investigate, and her counterintuitive research reveals that the Iranian solution may be the least exploitative, most equitable policy given the current kidney shortage crisis.
2. Offering a free medical education could have big benefits for the world. Cuba-based American journalist Gail Reed describes a radical experiment of solidarity undertaken by the Cuban government — founding the largest medical school in the world that freely provides training to students from the Global South, educating them to be humanitarian, holistic doctors. That experiment in radical generosity is now paying off: there’s a disproportionately high number of Cuban doctors currently volunteering in the Ebola crisis in West Africa, and these new graduates are quickly becoming a significant force in combating the global physician shortage in low-income countries.
Bob Carey started taking self-portraits of himself in a pink tutu for his wife when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now, his images cheer others up too. “Jump”, from the Pink Tutu Project. Photo: Bob Carey
3. Creativity can come from something as difficult as ”locked-in” syndrome. Photographer and TED Fellow Kitra Cahana is well known for documenting marginalized communities. (Watch her TED Talk, “A glimpse of life on the road.”) But when her beloved father, a rabbi, suffered a stroke resulting in “locked-in” syndrome — he could move only eyelids but had full cognitive functioning — she turned her camera inward to document his experience. Instead of pitying himself for his near total paralysis, Rabbi Cahana finds spiritual liberation and blinks out long, transcendent sermons to Kitra and her family, who steadfastly watch over him. The result of their three-year journey is a new visual art form that’s both eerie and beautiful, matching her father’s extraordinary spiritual resilience.
4. A photograph can be grown.Zachary Copfer was a microbiologist working for a pharmaceutical company who fell out of love with his profession and escaped to art school instead. In the process, he invented bacteriographs, a new photographic process where he literally grows photographs in living bacteria — and, paradoxically, reignited his passion for science.
5. A pink tutu can be a tool in cancer treatment. Another photographer, Bob Carey, turned to self-portraits as a form of self-soothing when his wife Linda was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. His favorite prop was a pink tutu, which cheered him from the bleakness of Linda’s diagnosis and made her laugh. When she shared his images with her fellow chemotherapy patients and saw the comfort they offered, The Tutu Project was born. Today, Bob continues to do ballerina self portraits all over the world, donating a portion of profits to help cancer patients cope with health care expenses. The hilarious and beautiful photos remind us that sometimes, laughter heals best.
A stunning image of the stars in the Okavango Delta in South Africa. Sergei Lupashin gave his friend Steve Boyes, also a TED Fellow, a Fotokite to help him capture the landscape from unusual angles. Photo: Courtesy of Steven Boyes
With his tethered quadcopter Fotokite, Russian-born inventor Sergei Lupashin plans to put aerial photography and the power of unmanned aerial vehicles in the hands of of journalists, architects and artists. Interestingly, this device was actually inspired by a 2011 protest in Russia. We talked to Lupashin to find out more about this inciting moment, and about how he plans to push past the public’s fear of drones.
You’ve said that the idea for Fotokite came from witnessing a protest. Can you tell us more about that?
The protest I was referring to took place in Bolotnaya Square, in 2011, in response to massive irregularities in federal elections. Something very rare happened — a lot of people came out to protest in Moscow. For Russia, this was a huge event. But for whatever reason, the world media pretty much ignored it.
There happened to be a group of photographers nearby who usually do nature shots. They take quadcopters and octocopters to, say, the Sphinx or the Pyramids, and take these fantastic panoramas. They happened to be just around the corner, so they did a few panoramas of the protest. In a single image, you really got an the idea of the scale of this event. It was really eye-opening. Ironically, these photographers were completely apolitical. They were simply documenting what was going on near them. It struck me how powerful it is — how even a single photo from an aerial perspective can really change the world’s perception of situations and events.
This is still a motivator for us, and we’d like people to take the Fotokite to breaking news events. TED Senior Fellow Teru Kuwayama once said to me that you only need a very small shift in perspective to be able to make a great, unique photo. This is also quite interesting to me, because the Fotokite really opens up your envelope in terms of where you can place the camera.
The quadcopters we showed at TEDGlobal were part a larger system. The Flying Machine Arena is essentially a motion-capture space configured for robotics, surrounded by a net cage. Motion capture is usually used in Hollywood to track actors, but in this case, we used it to track vehicles. The quadcopters are only able to fly so precisely because they’re being tracked by external cameras, in real time, with extraordinary accuracy. It’s a very expensive—a very specialized system that you couldn’t actually use in the real world beyond performances and installations.
So the question was: how do we build something for the real world, something really simple that you could use outside of a very controlled setup? The Flying Machine Arena served as an incredible sandbox for exploring various directions and concepts with the technology. We learned to build the Fotokite in this environment.
Every photographer knows how to use a tripod. So the idea emerged to build a tripod that could extend very high up, say, 100 meters. Initially, we were using different algorithms to make this “flying tripod” work, but ultimately, a tether proved to be a very elegant solution. The tether is always taut, so we can use it for two things. One is to interact with the vehicle — you can control it like a flying pet. The other is to let the vehicle know where it is, relative to the user. This replaces expensive cameras and GPS.
Lightweight and small, the Fotokite can be launched and ready for action in a minute. Photo: Milan Rohrer/Fotokite
How does it work? Is there a camera that reads where the tether is?
That’s the magic of it: there are no special sensors. It’s using the same sensors you have in your phone, for example. The magic happens is in the algorithms. So we’re using inertial sensors, very simple sensors that have been made affordable and incredibly reliable thanks to smartphones and consumer electronics, to measure accelerations and rates of rotation. Then we apply estimation algorithms to figure out the angle of the vehicle relative to the user.
So the sensors figure out the angle of the quadcopter to the person using the algorithms, with the tether as a reference point?
Exactly. There’s always a tether, and because it’s always kept taut, it’s always stretched, it’s always producing a force pulling on the quadcopter. We can observe this force using these sensors, and therefore, if we know what that force is, we can figure out where the quadcopter is relative to the person. This means we can also stabilize and do intelligent things based on that data.
There’s something really cool there as well. The quadcopter is aware of the user, of the person pulling on the leash. So we can actually use it as a communication channel. So you can do things like walk around with the leash, and the quadcopter moves with you. But you building on top of that, you can actually communicate with tugs and things such, so you can give it commands by physically pulling on the tether and it can even give you feedback by tugging back. It’s as if it’s a flying dog.
The following is a guest post from Stella Carnegie, a Junior at Boston University, who was an intern for the TED Fellows team for a week this past summer. She is currently studying abroad in Madrid, Spain.
I had the unique opportunity of spending a week this summer working with the TED Fellows team during their selection of their TEDGlobal 2014 class and was enlightened and inspired by the time and energy the team put into each prospective Fellow during the round of phone interviews. I have a few pieces of reflection I would like to share with anyone who is applying to become a TED Fellow themselves:
1. What exactly is the TED Fellowship? The TED Fellows Program mentors individuals who have dedicated themselves to a specific cause, project, or research with which they aspire to have a strong positive impact on the world. The resources of the Fellows program include an official coaching program, PR team, and relationships with speaking and book agents, and you get to go to TED. Also, I know first-hand that the team will do all they can to support the Fellows, both professionally and emotionally, in their world-changing work!
2. Being honored as a TED Fellow is not simply an individual achievement. Once selected, you become part of a class of twenty Fellows, and after attending the TED or TEDGlobal Conference, an integral part of a loyal, vibrant, and incredibly caring network of all 348 (and counting!) Fellows from around the world.
3. When applying, think about why you want to be a TED Fellow. What specifically about the Fellows program will help you achieve your personal and professional goals? Becoming a TED Fellow means identifying specific challenges you face in your daily work, and knowing how the TED Fellows program can support you in overcoming those challenges.
4. Be yourself in the interview process! If you’re lucky enough to make it to the round of phone interviews, the Fellows team is already very interested in getting to know you and hearing more about your groundbreaking work. Stay relaxed and let your true colors show.
Good luck! Thanks to the innovation and collaboration of each new class of Fellows, the program continues to grow into a vast and diverse network making a positive impact all around the world. You can apply to be a TED Fellow here.
Most of us will, at some point, face a life crisis — divorce, job loss, illness, eviction. In the United States, 95% of social safety nets are provided by charity organizations and NGOs, so finding help in a crisis situation can be confusing and distressing. Erine Gray is the founder of Aunt Bertha, a free-to-use online platform that makes it easy for anyone in the US to find and apply for social services — anything from Medicare to food stamps to housing — just by typing in a ZIP code. Aunt Bertha serves people in all 50 states, with in-depth coverage in Texas, Colorado, Central Florida, and Richmond, Virginia. Starting this week, Aunt Bertha has added New York City to its in-depth coverage list. We took this moment to talk to Gray about how Aunt Bertha was born, how it works and how it’s shaping up to be a valuable tool not just for families and individuals in need but for policy makers, advocates and community workers as well.
Aunt Bertha started as a response to an illness in your own family. Can you tell us about your experience?
I grew up in a small town called Olean, New York, an hour south of Buffalo. When I was almost 17, in the summer of 1992, my mom, who worked as a janitor at the community college at the time, caught a rare disease called encephalitis. She needed to be rushed to Sayre, Pennsylvania, which was a four-hour drive. She flatlined twice on the way there, but made it to see a brain specialist. She went into a coma and survived, but she suffered brain damage. Her memory was essentially wiped out — everything after her childhood and the first few years of the birth of her first daughter was gone. She had no memory of me and my little sister.
She was released from the hospital three months later. It was me and my dad and my sister, just trying to figure out how to take care of her. Obviously you don’t get a certification for these types of things. Nobody is ever really prepared. She recovered, to some extent, but she suffered from seizures on a regular basis—they would sometimes knock her out for the day. My dad did the best he could to take care of her, and he did, for nine years. He did it alone for the most part. We didn’t know what services were available. And when we did find programs, it was difficult to get through the application process.
I went off to college, studied computer science, but ended up getting my degree from Indiana University in economics. I was working as a contractor in Austin, Texas, when I got a call from my dad. He needed help. My mother was getting older and started to have early-onset dementia. I flew up to New York and packed her things, and moved her to Texas, and became her legal guardian. So there I was—unprepared—trying to figure out how to navigate a system for somebody who needed help.
What kinds of services are available with people in this position?
Unfortunately there are not a lot of resources available for older adults with mental illness in the US. There are private care facilities, but these are financially unattainable for many. All too often, people either end up in the prison systems, homeless or, if they’re lucky—in a nursing home.
I went through a long process of looking for a nursing home, but many of them discriminated against people with signs of mental illness. If you think about it from their perspective, they don’t want people who might want to run away, or people who are difficult to deal with. We must have been rejected by 15 to 20 nursing homes. I had a social worker give me advice on how to find a place that would take her. She told me to dress up, wear a jacket and go meet the administrators in person. I’d be invited to submit an application—but the only response I would get would be very concise rejection letters that said, “We can’t meet your mother’s needs.” It seemed at the time to be a legal form of discrimination.
It was navigating this system for somebody who’s disabled that made me see how broken the system really is. So I went back to graduate school and got my masters in public policy from the LBJ School of Public Affairs here in Austin. I ended up working as a contractor for the state of Texas, essentially looking at improving the way people find out about social service programs like food stamps, the food subsidy program in the US, Medicaid, the US welfare program and how they apply for them. The company I worked for also ran a call center that helped people get enrolled into these programs.
During those four years, 2006 to 2010, there was a big economic downturn. Texas is the second largest state in the US—a huge, huge economy . Enrollment levels grew significantly, but the state didn’t have the capacity to deal with that much growth. So it was a challenge to figure out how to get everyone connected with what they needed. On most nights, my car was the last car in the parking lot. I’d analyze calls, and realized a lot of people were ringing just to say, “Hey, did you receive my application for food stamps?” “Or I sent you a fax, can you confirm you got it?” We figured out pretty quickly that this information was stored in the system, so our team redesigned the menu, allowing much more self-service. This meant people in need could get answers in 30 seconds rather than having to wait on hold for 30 minutes.
We worked on several big projects like this that made things more efficient. The number of calls and the amount of time spent taking them went down. These efforts helped turn the project into an operation that could scale.
It was this work, as well as my family’s experience caring for my mother, that led to the idea for Aunt Bertha. I thought to myself, “Well, if we can visualize data for complex programs like the food stamps program, would more self-service options in social services be cheaper to implement and less frustrating for the person in need?” And that was the a-ha moment—the big idea.
The TED Fellows program is a global network of 348 innovators and trailblazers representing all disciplines – from art to science to business to entrepreneurship. Twice every year, we look for twenty additional change-makers to join the pack. Think that might be you? The application for the TED2015 Fellowship is now open and you can find the application announcement in 14 languages below. The application closes on September 21, 2014, so mark your calendars and apply here!
Bosnian photojournalist Ziyah Gafić photographs the aftermath of conflict. (Watch his TED Talk, “Everyday objects, tragic histories.”) In his most recent book, Quest for Identity, he catalogs the belongings of Bosnia’s genocide victims, everyday objects like keys, books, combs and glasses that were exhumed from mass graves. The objects are still being used to identify the bodies from this two-decade-old conflict. Only 12 when the Bosnian War began, the Sarajevo native has spent the last 15 years turning his lens on conflicts around the world as a way of coming to terms with the tragedy of his homeland. Here, he tells the TED Blog about looking for patterns of violence, the relationship between detachment and empathy, and what it’s like to grow up with war.
Tell us about the overall focus of your work.
The stories I’m interested in are focused on countries that have followed a similar pattern of violence as my homeland, Bosnia. My book Troubled Islam: Short Stories from Troubled Societies covers my own journey starting with the aftermath of war in Bosnia, and then exploring the consequences of conflict in the northwestern province of Pakistan, Palestine and Israel to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Chechnya and Lebanon. “Aftermath” is a key word: the aftermaths of conflicts in these countries follow a similar sequence to that of Bosnia: ethnic violence, fraternal war, ethnic cleansing and, ultimately, genocide.
My idea was to compare countries that are thousands of miles away, on different continents, yet following the same vicious patterns. These countries have certain things in common. One is ethnic wars, though “ethnic” is probably not the most fortunate choice of word. All these countries have significant Muslim communities, or have majority-Muslim populations. In the post-9/11 world, these elements became very relevant.
How is Quest for Identity related to Troubled Islam?
I worked on Quest for Identity in parallel to Troubled Islam, but Quest is totally different from everything I do, because my usual approach to photography is very subjective. I wanted to do something on the other side of the spectrum, something extremely objective—something neutral, something accurate. By coincidence, while doing other stories, around 10 years ago I stumbled upon these objects that are being used as forensic evidence in the ongoing process of identifying over 30,000 missing Bosnians.
How do you build a civil society that functions in the midst of civil war? Lessons from Syria.
Last week, forty Syrians took the risk of leaving their homes and crossing the border into Turkey. Unlike many who cross, though, these Syrians planned to return. Their goal in Turkey: an intensive week-long workshop on how to rebuild their society.
Leaders in their communities, they came from Aleppo, Damascus, Idlib, Homs, Hama and Dara’a to talk with a group of conflict-resolution experts in Istanbul, including me, about the toughest leadership challenge of our time — helping people not only survive day to day in the midst of civil war but create a vision for the future in the face of government collapse and unbelievable human suffering.
Syria’s population before the civil war was about 18 million. Today, more than 8 million people have been displaced within Syria or are refugees outside the country. Those who remained in their homes have many reasons not to leave; among them, the high cost of leaving, risk and dangers on the road, fear of humiliation as refugees, and the international community’s inability to provide services to the millions fleeing the violence. The risks are very real: Two years ago, I met an older man in a hospital in Turkey who had lost nine members of his family while trying to escape from Syria. He was in the hospital to be near his injured daughter, who lost her leg. She was the only other survivor from his family.
For those who cannot flee, town committees strive to fill the gaps in social services. Since it’s not possible to hold elections, the success of such committees depends on the respect its members have in the community. Once it’s formed, its first task is to map the community to figure out the needs and priorities of its residents — and the human and material resources they can tap to solve problems.
Our project’s goal is to support Syrian communities by helping the local committees that represent these cities, towns and villages. The project started two years ago, when a team from the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution (CRDC) was tasked with supporting local Syrian leaders. The group included Hind Aboud Kabawat, Abdul Jaleel Al-Shaqaqi, Riad Issa, Nousha Kabawat, Dr. Marc Gopin, and me, as well as many others. Together, we represent every religious and ethnic group in Syria. Our mission: Support local leaders as they learn how to function in the absence of government services, by building civil society organizations and finding creative ways to provide social services in the midst of continuous violence.
For example, since the vast majority of doctors and nurses have either fled Syria or are overwhelmed working in the field to help the injured, villages and even some cities are facing major healthcare shortages. In one village beset by bombings, there were no nurses or doctors to help with nighttime births, and the route to the nearest hospital was too dangerous. The local town committee worked on this problem by creating an emergency response team to help in the aftermath of airstrikes, and found a doctor who could train a few locals as midwives.
Schools and educational systems also tend to break down in times of civil war. A year and half ago, for instance, I visited a Syrian school with my colleague Nousha Kabawat. The school did not have a first-grade class, simply because it didn’t have materials for the first-grade level. Other schools had been destroyed, closed or moved, or were faced with an absence of teachers. In such situations, community members must be mobilized to find safe locations for children and to volunteer as teachers. In the case of the school we visited, Nousha worked with the community to provide the materials they needed to teach first grade. We also worked with communities nearby to offer trainings for new teachers.
Food quickly becomes a vital issue. Fresh meat, vegetables and perishable dairy products vanish, leaving dry food as the major source of nutrition, and some towns even have to plan how many meals each person will have per week. Depending on their resources, they might implement a strict plan for the whole town. Worse, some cities and villages are directly under siege, facing starvation; local committees and emergency response teams must help distribute what little food they have.
One of the riskiest jobs of the leadership committee is politically navigating between competing factions, since declaring support for any one group could be devastating if that faction loses the area. However, staying “objective” can be equally problematic. In these cases, negotiation and communication skills have been extremely important for Syrian villages trying to manage their relationship with the Syrian regime’s army, the Islamist militants, and the Free Syrian Army.
Despite these dangers, it has been rewarding to see leaders come together to save their communities. In the past two years, we have worked with more than 160 local leaders who are now helping and advising one another, sharing strategies that worked in their towns. One of the cities we worked with was Manbej, a city led by a group of young people, mainly in their twenties and committed to democracy. While under air strikes, the city held elections. The leadership of the town negotiated with the militants to keep them from interfering in civil issues, and meanwhile created a police force of men and women. And in a moving display of solidarity, after the city fell to the Islamist terrorist group ISIS, hundreds of thousands of city residents launched a strike, a nonviolent action that forced ISIS to negotiate with the town.
As these forty community leaders head back to Syria, I find myself on one hand afraid for their lives, and on the other motivated almost beyond words by their courage. There is nothing more moving than a group of dedicated human beings who believe they can change the world. While these leaders are not able yet to change the political and violent conflict around their homes, they are able to save and inspire many people. They are the true hope of Syria, and I remain hopeful because of them.
TED Fellow Aziz Abu Sarah is a Middle Eastern American peace activist and founder of MEJDI Tours, a travel company that offers intercultural, bridge-building tours led by both Israeli and Palestinian guides.
Alanna Shaikh at TED2013, a year after her powerful talk about Alzheimer’s disease.
Global health expert Alanna Shaikh gave an unexpected and moving talk at TEDGlobal 2012, called “How I’m preparing to get Alzheimer’s.” In it, she told the story of her father’s struggle with the disease, and outlined some strategies she’d devised in case dementia struck her later in life, too. The TED Blog was curious: How is her experiment going?
While most of Shaikh’s goals haven’t exactly gone as planned, in the process, she’s had a lightbulb moment about how to think about dementia—and learned to be a better person, to boot. Here, a conversation about the relationship between kindness and health, and living an enjoyable life in the present while planning for the future.
What have you been up to since your talk went live two years ago?
I talked about three things I was trying to do to prepare for Alzheimer’s: physically preparing by becoming stronger and more flexible, cultivating hobbies that would stick with me through the illness and trying to change who I am to be better and nicer. What really succeeded, weirdly enough, is I honestly think I am a better person. By deliberately choosing to be kind over and over again, it seems to now come naturally to me.
What were you like before?
Very judgmental and critical. I was committed to being a good person, but I wasn’t particularly worried about being a nice person. One of my friends in college told me that his favorite thing about me was I always had something bitchy to say about someone. This is someone who loves me—he meant it as a positive. I don’t think anybody who’s known me in the last couple of years would say that now. Dealing with my dad made me realize how much nice actually matters. And kindness. I had never really thought about what kindness and niceness have to do with each other.
I’ve never thought about that. What is the difference between nice and kind?
Being nice is not making a fuss and letting things happen to you. Not protesting. Whereas kindness is about deliberately giving the best of yourself, and deliberately looking for ways to find the positive in things. The example I give sometimes is this: the office building I used to work in didn’t have enough elevators. So if you wanted to leave the building at any time between 5 and 6pm, it was just packed—the elevator would stop on every floor, it would take forever and it was all sweaty. There were these people on the third floor, and they were always laughing and flirting and holding the elevator for each other, and you’d end up crammed in the corner for five minutes while you waited for them to stop saying goodbye to each other and hugging and whatever.
At the beginning, I was like, “Those damned idiots on the third floor—why can’t they just take the stairs?” And then I started deliberately thinking, “No, these are young people enjoying life.” And so I started to think of them as the happy people on the third floor, and then realized that they are just thinking about their lives, not necessarily thinking too much about what it meant to be crammed into the elevator while they said goodbye. I started to try to take that approach to everything, to really look for the positive perspective.
Sounds like generosity of spirit, in a way.
I guess so. Because I’m an expat, I move a lot. So each new place you live is a chance to be the person you are right then. I realized that people who know me where I’m living now in Kyrgyzstan think of me as this very funny, positive, kind person. I love that. It doesn’t feel fake. I think I really am that person now, and I love that I was able to do that. It was the hardest thing for me, thinking, “I can pretend that I’m nice, but can I really become nice?”
Have you thought about kindness and its role in healing and health? Do you think it’s better for us to be kind?
I’ve never thought about that before, but I’m sure it is. For one thing, I think it takes a lot less emotional energy to be kind. Think of me getting off that elevator thinking about the happy people around me, versus me getting off that elevator being all, “Grrrr.” It has to be better for my heart. It has to be better not to get all that cortisol revved up inside of me.
There’s also the question of kindness in the healing professions — the idea that patients are more likely to respond well to compassionate doctors and healers who touch their patients.
I think that’s probably true. In my day job, I’ve been part of a lot of different trainings for physicians, and one of the amazing things we’ve discovered is that the part physicians really love is the interpersonal skills, learning how to talk to their patients gently and kindly. We started including that in basically everything we teach, whether we’re teaching infection control or HIV care or breastfeeding support or whatever. The first component is always, “How do you talk to patients so they’ll listen?” The doctors absolutely love that, because it turns out they’ve been yearning to connect kindly; they just didn’t have the tools. That is the first thing they see results from: talking to their patients differently brings them different results as medical professionals. It seems to bring better outcomes. Often, doctors are afraid that if they are kind they’ll lose their authority, or patients won’t take them seriously, so it’s valuable to have an outsider validate the idea that you can be a respected professional and still be kind and generous to people, and that you don’t have to be stern and harsh to be an authority figure.
Sri Lankan blue whale researcher Asha de Vos works for the ocean. Not only does she research a unique population of blue whales in the Northern Indian Ocean, she also works as an educator and speaker to ramp up public conversation about marine conservation. Her hard work has not gone unnoticed: de Vos has been selected as a finalist for The JCI Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World 2014 award, which recognizes individuals under 40 who provide extraordinary service to their communities.
But she needs your help. To cast your vote of support, visit www.jci.cc/toypvote, click on de Vos’s profile and hit the LIKE button at the bottom. Deadline is August 15.