Tag Archives: TED Fellows

A perpetual tourist who makes his own souvenirs: The intriguing work of artist Jorge Mañes Rubio

Jorge Mañes Rubio explains he makes his new souvenirs to create interesting interactions at TED2014. Photo: Ryan Lash

Jorge Mañes Rubio explains he makes his new souvenirs to create interesting interactions at TED2014. Photo: Ryan Lash

From China’s underwater cities to Amsterdam’s neglected neighborhoods to Italy’s looted ruins, Jorge Mañes Rubio seeks out forsaken places and makes art that memorializes, reimagines and reengages them with the world. His project “Normal Pool Level” — which emerged from his exploration of the cities, towns and villages submerged by China’s Three Gorges Dam Project — is on exhibition at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester, England, until September 7. So it felt like the perfect time to ask Rubio more about this exhibit, as well as about the experiences that led him from a stable career in design to life as a perpetual tourist.

Let’s start with your current exhibition. How did you end up in China, looking for abandoned underwater cities?

My project in China was something very special to me, on so many levels. It all started when I moved to Chongqing for two months in 2013 as part of an artist-in-residence program. The city was quite tough, and pretty much nobody could speak English, so in the end I decided to travel along the Yangtze River, looking for the remains of the cities flooded by the Three Gorges Dam Project. Thousands of cities and villages have been submerged, and so far 4 million people have been forced to relocate—but very few people know this.

During my journey I came across cities that have no name, cities that don’t appear on any map. On one hand, I was really excited to be able to explore these places which very few people have seen. But on the other, I was appalled to see the conditions people were living in. We’re talking about entire cities that have been pretty much destroyed and left isolated, but where some people have refused to leave. I decided to create a series of souvenirs and symbols that would document and recognize these forgotten cities, and at the same time help me to express this inner conflict I went through during my journey.

What kind of objects did you create?

In the beginning, my intention was just to look for these cities, and to explore this area. But the more I saw, the more I understood that these places deserved recognition. I was struggling with the fact that I found some of these places extremely beautiful. It was a strange and tragic beauty, but a fascinating one nevertheless. I knew photographs were not enough to convey those feelings, so I started to gather materials and objects along the road, and later I modified them and transformed them into the symbols that compose the project.

The most representative are probably two plastic jerrycans that contain water from the Yangtze River. I collected this water at the exact point where the old city of Fengdu used to stand, now completely submerged under the water. Later on, I painted these jerrycans with traditional chinese motifs, as if they were precious Chinese vases. The result is an object whose identity is heavily questioned, which doesn’t seem to belong either to Eastern or Western culture, but that represents the clash between traditional Chinese culture and industrialization. There are more than 10 objects and installations in total, together with a series of photographs.

Fengdu Jerry Cans, from the Normal Pool Level series. Exhibition view at the 501 Contemporary Art Centre, Chongqing, China. Photo: Seethisway.

Fengdu Jerry Cans, from the Normal Pool Level series. Exhibition view at the 501 Contemporary Art Centre, Chongqing, China. Photo: Seethisway.

You call yourself a “perpetual tourist.” What does this mean, especially in the context of design? 

Until fairly recently, I worked with design companies on everyday items like chairs, furniture or small products — homeware, vases, so on. But while I was studying at the Royal College of Art in London, I joined a program that was very experimental, pushing the boundaries of design. So my work became much more about the impact design can have in our current society, beyond manufacturing everyday items.

To put it concisely, I became interested in experience. Right now, with any product that you have or acquire, what you look forward to is the experiences the product might allow you to have. So I started thinking about tourism. In a way, industrial design is about creating a product, and replicating it millions of times. And tourism is the mass-production of experiences. You create one experience — say, going to the top of the Eiffel Tower — and then millions of people have, literally, that very same experience. I also find interesting the way people behave when they are tourists. Things look different, the food tastes different, and you dare to do things that otherwise you’d never do. You’re way more open to learning about new cultures, meeting new people. You become someone else. I thought, “What if I apply that kind of behavior to everyday experiences? Can I behave like a tourist every day?”

I did a few projects that explored these ideas. One was an illegal souvenir production project on top of the Eiffel Tower. Another one — my graduation project — was a portable souvenir factory. I rode my bike for three weeks along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and attached to the bike I had a portable rotational molding machine. In every village, I met different people, and I used my machine to manufacture my own souvenirs on the road — in contrast to the experience of buying, you know, fridge magnets.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>

Freebird: Juliana Machado Ferreira leads the charge against Brazil’s illegal wildlife trade

Juliana Machado Ferreira holds an ultramarine grossbeak while doing fieldwork in Bahia, Brazil. Photo: Erica Pacifico

Juliana Machado Ferreira holds an ultramarine grossbeak while doing fieldwork in Bahia, Brazil. Photo: Erica Pacifico

Conservation biologist Juliana Machado Ferreira uses genetic data to fight illegal wildlife trafficking in Brazil—a $2 billion-a-year business that affects 38 million animals. In 2012, Ferreira founded FREELAND Brasil to raise awareness of the devastating effects of keeping wild-caught songbirds, parrots and macaws—as well as to release rehabilitated animals and support rural communities vulnerable to wildlife traffickers.

This week, Ferreira was honored as a 2014 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for her work. We caught up with her to talk about her passion for conserving biodiversity and ecosystems.

First of all, congratulations on being named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer! What does this mean for you and your work?

Thank you! It’s an immense honor to be recognized by my heroes, many of them responsible for me becoming a biologist. I was that kid — reading National Geographic, absolutely in love with every single animal I saw, and awed by every single picture. With this support and recognition, we’ll be able to reach 90 million people through National Geographic’s powerful platforms. This will help us make a huge impact in our battle against wildlife trafficking – especially the wild pet trade in Brazil. I could not be more excited and hopeful!

Tell us how you became interested in wildlife, and in birds, in particular.

During my master’s research at the University of São Paulo, when I was working with the population genetics of sub-Antarctic fur seals, I learned that there was a such a thing called wildlife forensics—the use of science in the legal prosecution of crimes involving wildlife. I was hooked instantly, and I convinced the US Fish and Wildlife Service National Forensics Laboratory to accept me as a volunteer for three months—a relationship that continued until 2013. Around the same time, I was introduced to Marcelo Rocha, president of the organization SOS Fauna, which combats wildlife trafficking in Brazil. With him, I learned about the illegal wild pet trade in Brazil—particularly the illegal domestic wild bird trade. So my PhD research—developed in collaboration with both these organizations—focused on developing population genetic studies for Brazilian wild bird species exploited by the illegal trade. The idea is that, if we can detect distinct genetic populations within each species, we’ll not only better understand the threat each species is facing, but we can produce data that might help guide future efforts to release rehabilitated animals seized from traffickers.

Ferreira takes a blood sample from an ultramarine grossbeak in Bahia, Brazil. Photo: Erica Pacifico

What is conservation genetics, and how is it related to wildlife forensics?

First, I should say that while I’m often billed as a forensic biologist, I am not one. I’m a conservation geneticist: I use concepts and techniques from genetics to develop studies aimed at understanding the current extinction rate of species—with the ultimate goal of conserving species as dynamic entities capable of adapting to environmental changes through evolutionary responses. Forensic biologists produce data that are used in court, in legal cases. At the moment, my work can’t technically be considered forensic because the genetic data I’ve produced has not been used in court. It may be included in future legal processes—but in order for this to happen, we still need to develop comprehensive databases of genetic profiles from exploited species populations. It will require extensive fieldwork to collect samples of blood, tissue, fur, feathers, and so on from many individuals from different populations.

Tell us more about the illegal wildlife trade in Brazil. What sorts of animals are typically removed from their ecosystems?

All kinds of animals get taken, but the most highly targeted group is birds—particularly song birds, parrots and macaws, which are extremely popular as pets. Small monkeys, sloths, reptiles and amphibians are popular, too. The Brazilian NGO RENCTAS—the National Network to Fight the Trafficking of Wild Animals—estimates that more than 38 million animals are taken from the country annually by all kinds of wildlife trafficking including zoos and collectors, biopiracy and the pet trade. And that doesn’t count fish or invertebrates.

So this trade is primarily to a global market?

Actually, it’s important to note that, while global illegal wildlife trade is massive in monetary terms—about $20 billion a year—illegal trade between Brazilian states is several times bigger than what gets traded internationally from Brazil in terms of numbers of animals traded. And almost 83% of the seized wild animals in the illegal domestic trade are birds. But yes, a great many animals do get traded out of the country. Bear in mind that not all of it is illegal. Most species can be traded as long as permits are in order, and according to their CITES status. But it is very difficult to have reliable estimates of what gets traded illegally.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>

Classic rock: Dan Visconti, the 21st-century composer


Dan Visconti is updating the image of the classical composer — from lone, fusty genius to dynamic community leader who creates music as a tool for social engagement. Whether he’s telling the stories of Cleveland’s refugee communities or composing a piece for the Mississippi State Prison, Visconti makes concert experiences that invite people to participate. Classically trained, but with a love of American vernacular musical traditions, Visconti infuses his compositions with a maverick spirit—drawing on jazz, rock, blues and beyond. Here, he tells the TED Blog his vision for how to break through the traditional reserve of classical music, making it accessible to a new generation.

How would you describe your compositions? Are you consistent in your style?

In some ways not. But I’m very consistent in my attitude about music. I guess the best way to say it is that I’m trying to make the composer relevant again—not this old guy with a wig and a quill pen laboring in isolation, but a cultural ambassador and collaborator, someone deeply integrated in the communities that he or she serves. One of the ways I do that is by composing music that’s open to diversity of traditions. Often my pieces sound like they’re not classical music. A piece might have the directness of expression of a great jazz performance, or the sense of audience rapport at a small club venue, or the wildness and improvisatory spirit of a really good rock performance. I also believe that music can play a strong role in social change. I think about Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, and the great tradition of protest singing in America: using music to transmit a message. What I’d like to do is to go beyond transmitting that as lyrics in a song, to create an experience that immerses the audience and causes them to engage a larger point of inquiry.

Above, watch the Kontras Quartet perform Dan Visconti’s Ramshackle Songs, a work inspired by the spirit of recreational music-making that characterized the Tin Pan Alley-era of American popular music.

Can you give us an example of how this works?

I recently completed a project with the orchestra City Music Cleveland called Roots to Branches. I set to music some of the stories of the city’s nearly 20,000 refugees, who hail from Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Congo, Iraq, Nepal, Russia, Somalia and Sudan. We created a whole music festival where we brought in musicians and dancers from the refugees’ home cultures, and the piece of music became a focal point to engage a larger cultural issue. It also had the effect of bringing the city’s different refugee communities together—now they’re working together to solve problems.

I’m also interested in anything that can make going to a concert hall special. For example, a lot of pop and rock musicians employ lighting and amplification, raising the bar so high in terms of stimulating the senses. Classical music really has to catch up and take the advantage of all of those things. Take opera. A lot of people who might otherwise really enjoy it are turned off by the operatic style of singing with vibrato. This style originated because vibrato allows the voice to project more volume in times when no amplification was available. It’s no longer necessary, and now pop singers can sing with wonderful, subtle nuance—they can whisper, sigh. But opera is still stuck where it was in 1600.

You’re also doing some exciting site-specific stuff, such as in the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Tell us about that.

That’s a project I’m working on with the Kronos Quartet, who are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. They’re one of the biggest pioneers in taking so-called classical music and updating it. They’ve brought in the world music, collaborated with people like Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits. They’ll be performing a piece of mine at this prison called Parchman Farm in Mississippi, properly known as Mississippi State Penitentiary. This is a prison where a lot of the blues greats like Leadbelly and Son House were incarcerated. It’s notorious for being cruel. What we’d like to do is create an event that draws attention to a lot of the crises in our prison systems right now.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>

One Ring to rule them all: Antonio Torres’s design firm Bittertang to create an organic outdoor amphitheatre

This summer, the design firm Bittertang, co-founded by Mexican-American architect and TED Fellow Antonio Torres, will construct this “living” amphitheater in Lake Forest, Illinois,  primarily from netted straw embedded with wildflowers and vines, which will grow, bloom and transform the theater throughout the summer and fall. The theater, which was the winning entry to the 2014 Ragdale Ring competition, will be twenty feet tall and will function as an outdoor performance space.

Read more about the Ragdale Ring here, and to find out more about Antonio and his work, read the feature-length interview “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” on the TED Blog.

Want to see more cool images like this? Follow us on Instagram @TEDFellowhttp://on.ted.com/c0B28.


Steve Boyes is passionately devoted to the preservation of wilderness, as well as to restoring and protecting species and landscapes already damaged by human intervention. At TED2014, the ornithologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer spoke to the TED Blog about his work to save South Africa’s endangered Cape parrot and his campaign to get the Okavango Delta listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Oh, and he also walked us through the profound experience of being a tiny human in the midst of Earth’s primordial wilderness. Below, an edited transcript of our conversation.

Why is wilderness important?

Wilderness cannot be restored or recreated—only destroyed. We are about to lose the last glimpses into prehistory that connect us to a time before modern man. By wilderness, I mean places untouched by modern society that are capable of completely taking you away, bringing you to tears, making you feel spiritual — all of those things that people go into nature to find. I firmly believe that in the next two decades, humans will lose our last true wilderness areas if we do not focus on preserving them.

My long-term research and expeditions focus on the future of the Okavango Delta — Africa’s last-remaining wetland wilderness, located in northern Botswana. This untouched 18,000 square kilometer alluvial fan is the largest of its kind, and is supplied by the world’s largest undeveloped river catchment — the mighty Kavango Basin. The Okavango Delta is home to the largest-remaining elephant population and keystone populations of lion, hyena, giraffe and lechwe antelopes. It’s the size of Texas, and visible from space.

Every year, my team and I pole ourselves in dugout canoes — called  “mekoro” — across the Okavango Delta, guided by baYei people, who have lived in harmony with this environment for hundreds of years. Accessing the central wilderness of the delta takes eight days, and the baYei’s mekoro are the only craft that can get us there. Twenty years ago, the journey would’ve taken two hours in a boat out of the only nearby town, Maun. It’s an indicator of how far the wilderness area has retreated.

These 340-kilometer research expeditions take us 15 to 18 days through the unexplored central wilderness. It’s a scientific investigation — we are establishing baselines for biodiversity so that we have a point of reference when things change, as they inevitably will. This pristine delta and river are threatened by irrigation schemes, agricultural development, hunting, overfishing, mining exploration, poaching, tourism and population increase, all of which have already had an impact.

The Okavango Delta expedition team poles across the vast wetland by the only possible form of transport, a dugout canoe called a mekoro. Photo: Wild Bird Trust

You are an orthinologist, so your first love is birds, right? What is the link between your study of birds and your work preserving the Okavango Delta?

Put simply, birds can choose with their wings. When things go wrong in an ecosystem, they will simply not return. One of our projects in the Okavango Delta is the Okavango Wetland Bird Survey. It is a broad-based biodiversity survey that focuses on birds as bioindicators of significant change in the water and islands of the Okavango. You’ll see all the storks come in, check it out, go hmm, and go somewhere else — and maybe die in the process. But they’ll leave. It’s almost instant. One year they’re there, and the next year they’re gone.

As for how I got to the Okavango in the first place—I did my Ph.D. on the Meyer’s parrot, which thrives there. The Meyer’s parrot is the most abundant, widespread parrot in Africa, with massive distribution and six subspecies. It’s a highly successful parrot and typically lives in remote river valleys throughout the African subtropics. It’s a close relative of the South African Cape parrot — which is, in contrast, Africa’s most endangered parrot. Yet we knew nothing about the Meyer’s parrot. I wanted to help the Cape Parrot, so I went to the Okavango to learn the Meyer’s parrot’s secrets as to why it’s so successful. I’ll tell you one:  Meyer’s parrots are the only hole-nesting birds that breed in winter in the Okavango Delta, because they are the only animal that feeds on an abundant supply of insect larvae pupating in seed pods. I wanted to learn things like this, to take to the Cape parrot and try and create context for them.

The Wild Bird Trust works to restore the population and forest habitat of South Africa's endangered Cape parrot. Photo: Wild Bird Trust

The Wild Bird Trust works to restore the population and forest habitat of South Africa’s endangered Cape parrot. Photo: Wild Bird Trust

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>







Wherefore art thou Fellows? Tom Rielly on what makes the TED Fellows special, and why you should apply

TEDFellows Retreat 2013. August 17 - 21, 2013, Whistler, BC. Photo: Ryan LashTEDFellows Retreat 2013. August 17 – 21, 2013, Whistler, BC. Photo: Ryan Lash

Thinking about applying for the TED Fellowship? The clock is ticking down!

The TED Fellows program is a global network of 328 innovators from a spectrum of disciplines. Twice a year, we select 20 additional amazing change-makers to join the pack. Last year’s 2014 Fellowship class included an eye surgeon using low-cost mobile phone technology to make eye care more accessible across Kenya; photojournalists documenting conflicts in Palestine and Bosnia; a biological anthropologist researching cancer in ancient skeletal remains; a biomechatronics engineer innovating prosthetics; a journalist investigating the fragile post-9/11 civil liberties; an astrophysicist investigating the origins of our universe; a new media artist rethinking our right to our own DNA; a space archaeologist – and many more.

In this final 48-hour stretch before applications close for the TEDGlobal 2014 class of Fellows, we asked program director Tom Rielly: “What do you look for in a TED Fellow?” Here, he chats about the unique qualities that make TED Fellows stand out, his evolving vision for the Fellowship, and why YOU should apply immediately!

The TED Fellows come from a zillion different backgrounds and are experts in a vast diversity of fields. Yet they all seem to have a unique personality streak that lets them interact with incredibly kinetic energy, on an emotional as well as intellectual level. It’s hard to put into words, but how would you describe this quality?

I’ll take a stab: intellectual, energetic, social and emotional fluency. Pick at least two or three. Add a porous-membrane attitude to collaboration, genuine optimism – and a love for playing idea jazz alone and and in “bands.”

Twice a year, you’ve got to get through applications from what must be hundreds of extraordinary people. Give us the inside scoop: what are the initial factors that indicate someone will make it through the process, and what are some of the deciding factors as you home in on the final set?

Succinctly put, we’re looking for achievement + character – that is, amazing people who’ve made major breakthroughs or have achieved outstanding output. But that’s not enough. We’re looking for certain kinds of people with strong character. Kind, genuine, generous, plus a certain je ne sais quoi. (Quirky is just fine.) We’re interested in people in the first half of their careers, usually between the ages of 21 and 45.

Towards the end of the process, we are looking at curating a class of 20 Fellows: can we create a group that is geographically diverse, from diverse disciplines, with complementary personalities? Think of it as putting together a college class. You want athletes, actors, engineers, and so on. The mix is very important.

Has it become any easier to identify what kind of person you want as a Fellow over the last several years, 300+ Fellows later?

Without question, it’s easier. We’ve evaluated thousands of submissions, and by trial and error, we’ve learned what makes stellar Fellows and correlated these qualities to their applications. We look at every application submitted, but it’s nearly at the point to where I can glance at an application and know when I’m excited to read further.

How has your vision for the Fellowship changed from 2009 to now? What is your ambition for the Fellows?

When we started the program, our vision was to bring extraordinary young people to the TED community, people who would not otherwise be able to afford to participate.

Today, it’s clear that the program’s largest value is the other Fellows. So we now think about the Fellows as a powerful network, where each node can profoundly influence each other node, and the group as a whole functions kind of like a supercomputer. We haven’t lost our focus on the amazing individuality of each Fellow, but now we look at each person in the context of a robust group that collaborates, communicates and achieves things together across disciplines, in a way they never could have alone. Don’t worry, it’s not the Borg. It’s just that each individual in a strong community benefits from that community.

The good kind of ambition is about striving towards a difficult goal. Our goal is that each of our Fellows and the group can use the Fellows program as a platform to reach seemingly impossible goals. Our focus is on the Fellows and their growth, not on the program per se.

A lot of Fellows speak of having felt lonely and isolated in their work before joining the Felllowship. While passionate about what they do, they weren’t convinced that anyone out there cared. Given this handicap, many incredibly talented folks out there might be talking themselves out of applying for TED Fellows. What would you say to them?

To address the first part of your question, it’s true that many Fellows are such mavericks they have not yet been recognized by their peers or received any validation for their work. That is one of the most amazing things about the Fellows program: it’s an instant peer group of people who understand and value you, who understand what it’s like to be on the bleeding edge, who appreciate unusual things. The Fellowship experience is transformative for so many Fellows.

If I can convey only one message in this whole conversation it’s this: If in doubt about whether you should apply, apply and let us decide. We hear frequently of people who haven’t clicked on the link because they don’t think they’re good enough, strong enough, haven’t done enough. But some we’ve heard about and encouraged to apply have been accepted. If you’re not sure, apply anyway! Only good could come of it. This is not the time to let doubt, loneliness, self-esteem issues or anything else keep you from a great opportunity. Applying is free! As they would say in a late-night American infomercial: Don’t wait – act now!

Apply to be a TEDGlobal 2014 Fellow here: www.ted.com/fellows/apply

Uldus confronts her social soul at TED2014

Above: A video selfie of Uldus in the immersive digital experience Social Soul, TED2014.

Russian artist photographer Uldus often makes herself the subject and object of her own work, both poignant and ironic as it explores the contrasts and contradictions inherent in being an individual within Russian culture. We’re working on a full-length interview with Uldus, but in the meantime asked her to share a snippet of her experience at TED. True to form, she sent us this video self-portrait…

How was your TED2014 experience?

My TED experience was awesome. Things happened in easy ways – like meeting Cameron Diaz, who said she loved my work and my talk. I met creator of Siri (for iPhone), which I use a lot, the creator of Kickstarter Perry Chen, and many people I wouldn’t have expected to meet! I also experienced meeting my social soul in the Social Soul exhibition. That’s a funny one: you log in to your Twitter handle, and when you enter the room, all your Tweets and your friends’ tweets come to life – you hear them and see them. After you exit you get your social soul mate profile, someone who is supposed to match you perfectly.
Did being at TED change your perception of your own work? 

Not really, but it proved to me that my work is more understandable outside of my own country, at least at the present time.
Uldus with TED2014 roommate, fellow photographer Kitra Cahana.

Uldus with TED2014 roommate – fellow photographer Kitra Cahana.

For the love of Tom: TED Fellows celebrate five years of fearless leadership

TED2014 Senior Fellow Sarah Parcak presents TED Fellows Director Tom Rielly with his very own muppet.

TED2014 Senior Fellow Sarah Parcak presents TED Fellows Director Tom Rielly with his very own muppet.

The Fellows turn five! During the TED2014 Fellows talks, the Fellows hijacked the stage to honor the man who has helped the Fellows program flourish from a class of 20 Fellows in 2009 to more than 300 Fellows from 80 countries in the last five years – seeding friendship, collaboration and a powerful network of maverick innovators. Senior Fellow Sarah Parcak presented Rielly a muppet of himself, and spoke on behalf of all the Fellows:

“Your vision has not only changed TED, but has profoundly changed each and every one of the Fellows’ lives. We all constantly feel gratitude and humbled that we are allowed to participate in such an incredible community of game-changers and world changers. You are part Effie Trinket, part Willy Wonka, and part Conan O’Brien. Your vision, compassion, kindness and humor are a testament to the fact that you are one of the world’s most special human beings.” 

The muppet wears a badge that says, “Talk to me about hot tubbing, my glasses, and hot men.”


Tiny and beautiful worlds: Talking molecular animation with TED2014 Fellow Janet Iwasa

At the TED2014 Fellows talks, Janet Iwasa’s astonishing video showing the process of molecular self-assembly went by very quickly, a flurry of green strands and fragments fluttering and flying into the shape of a soccer ball. If you missed it, or if you’d like a more in-depth explanation of what is actually going on, watch a longer version of the video, above. Iwasa spent years learning the 3D software that allows her to model these processes. This week at TED2014, she is launching Molecular Flipbook – free, open source animation software that will make it easy for scientists to create their own molecular animations, allowing them to visualize, modify, and share their own hypotheses. Here, Iwasa tells us about the importance of molecular animation to the research process.

What are we seeing in this video?

This is a process that’s called clathrin-mediated endocytosis. Basically, it shows how a bubble (or vesicle) is formed from the membrane that surrounds the cell, allowing molecules that were once outside the cell to get trapped and taken in.  This process is important for a number of things, like how cells communicate with other cells and how they interact with their environments. It’s a process that can also get hijacked, for example, by viruses that want to gain access to a cell.

How did you begin animating molecular processes? 

When I was in graduate school, I realized that the way we visualize hypotheses — typically using simple stick-figure like drawings, didn’t capture all of the information we had about how processes occur. We use a lot of different kinds of techniques to understand what molecules look like, how they move around in a cell, what interactions they have with other molecules, and what reactions they carry out, and a lot of these things aren’t conveyed in these simple drawings we make. I started learning 3D animation in order to better visualize the processes that my lab studied, mainly as a way to better communicate our ideas with other researchers.

Why is it important to do so?

Historically, physical models have played an important role in scientific discovery. Paper models were critical in the discovery of the structure of DNA and of proteins. Nowadays, many of our hypotheses in cell biology involve lots of molecules, moving dynamically over time and space.  It’s hard to make physical models that show these ideas, but we can use animation software to visualize what we’re thinking about. These models are important not only for communicating our ideas, but also for exploring our data, and understanding complex hypotheses. Having models that truly reflect our hypotheses will allow researchers to ask better questions and design better experiments. Animations are also a great way to share our research and ideas with broad audiences, including students and the interested public.

And this week you’ve launched animation software for molecular biologists called Molecular Flipbook. What is it for, and why do scientists need this when they can rely on animators like you?

I’ve been using a commercial 3D animation software from the entertainment industry to create animations. I’ve held workshops to teach this software to biologists, and have found that it’s really time-consuming and unintuitive for most researchers. They almost immediately forget how to do simple tasks, like rotating the screen or object, if they haven’t used the software in a day or so, and they get frustrated by that. For animation to become one of the tools that researchers use regularly, it needs to be more intuitive.

So, through a grant funded by the National Science Foundation, I brought together a team to create new animation software that’s free and open source, and designed it specifically with molecular biologists in mind. We’ve done some testing, and found that biologists are able to start creating their own animations after watching a really short 5-minute tutorial. This is amazing, especially considering the months it took me to learn the commercial animation software that I use! We’re hoping that biologists will use Molecular Flipbook to animate their own hypotheses to better wrap their heads around the complex processes they study, and to use these animations in their presentations and publications.  We’re also launching an online database in April that will allow biologists to share the models they create, allowing other researchers to tweak these animations to really reflect their own hypotheses.

In the belly of the beast: a close-up view of Shih Chieh Huang’s TED2014 sculpture

Taiwanese-born artist Shih Chieh Huang animates ordinary household materials, transforming them into magical, living, breathing creatures. Huang demonstrated one of his sculptures at the end of Session 2 at the TED2014 Fellows talks. Here, he tells us a bit about what inspires him. And for those of you who missed the Fellows talks, or if you were there and would like a closer look, watch this video – taken during the installation process – to enjoy the sights and sounds from the underbelly of Huang’s creation.

What inspired this piece? 

I did a research at Smithsonian Natural History Museum studying bioluminescent organisms in the ocean. I was looking at how the movement and some of the light patterns these creatures use in their environment to survive — and that inspired some of the movements of these pieces. When you go down to the deep ocean, everything is slow motion.

What is this piece made of?

The entire piece is made from household materials — Tupperware containers, plastic bottles, highlighter fluid, and lots of desktop computer cooling fans. All the movement of the piece and inflation of the tentacles is controlled by the fans, controlled by a micro-SD chip embedded inside.

Where did you study art?

I studied art in the School of Visual Arts in New York. I wasn’t in the computer arts department: I actually snuck into computer arts department, pretending I was a student there to learn some of the physical computing. But a lot of the electronics were tested in the studio to see what worked and didn’t.

Do you just lie awake at night thinking these things up?

Sometimes. I have insomnia a little bit. I can really only sleep on some type of petrol-engine vehicle. On a bus, on a boat. When it’s very quiet, it’s hard to sleep. Or just in regular rooms.

You think this is where your art originates?

Sometimes. Because sometimes at nighttime, I feel like the whole world’s sleeping, and I am more able to get into my own world, in some ways, when it’s dark.