Tag Archives: TED Fellows

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.

Working for the health of the many: How Asher Hasan is bringing insurance coverage to Pakistan’s low-income workers


Growing up in the UK and coming of age in Pakistan, TEDIndia Fellow Asher Hasan observed a vast discrepancy: those with and without access to basic healthcare, and the devastating social consequences of this disparity. He tells TED Blog the story of how he witnessed a single health disaster ruin the hopes of his childhood friends, and how this compelled him to attempt to transform a broken healthcare system with his Pakistan-based health micro-insurance company, Naya Jeevan, which offers not only quality, affordable healthcare to the urban poor, but also the financial and social inclusion the rest of us take for granted.

What does your organization do, and why?

The name Naya Jeevan traces its roots from Sanskrit, and means “new life” in modern Hindi and Urdu. We are committed to bringing low-income families in the emerging world out of poverty by providing them with affordable access to quality healthcare, financial inclusion and socio-economic opportunity. This is important because in many developing countries, catastrophic medical events trigger financial shocks that can decimate low-income families, especially as they have no public support system or safety net.

We collaborate with large, multinational corporations, and cascade our health plan up and down their value chains, essentially targeting low-income businesses and workers — mainly informal workers, domestic workers, factory workers and so on — who are either on the supply side or on the distribution/retail side. We encourage corporate executives and managers to enroll their informal domestic employees.  So, for example, you could be a small-hold farmer supplying milk to a dairy company. You could be a retailer — or a micro-retailer, in some rural village — who happens to be selling a basket of products that includes products by Unilever, P&G, and so on.

For example, Unilever, which is re-launching our domestic worker plan this year, encourages its officers and managers to enroll their domestic staff — their drivers, maids and those workers’ families — in our healthcare program. The premiums are deducted from the payroll of the Unilever manager or executive. Or a corporation might directly finance the healthcare of micro-retailers who are selling their products.

The beneficiary can make co-payments, typically by mobile phone, using mobile financial services now widely available in South Asia. Enrollment in a mobile bank account will soon be part of the health plan we offer, because the people we typically serve are also unbanked. This way, they get the additional benefit of building up a financial transactional history that serves as a de facto credit report for them.

Naya Jeevan addresses socio-economic empowerment as well, tackling the informal system of what I call socio-economic apartheid in many developing countries, where there’s a rich, elitist class, and then there’s the other 90%  that serves them. The rich get so used to this social dynamic that they almost start treating those who work for them like subhumans. I’ve seen many instances where even friends and family, in certain instances, have abused their domestic staff — yelled at them, beaten them, and so on. It’s absolutely disgusting, and it has to stop. Because this master-servant mindset is still pervasive, employee benefits of any type have never before been extended to these informal employees. Prior to Naya Jeevan, nobody ever considered the possibility of giving health insurance to their maid, or to their driver, or to their driver’s child, for example.

There’s a personal hook to this story…

There’s very much a personal hook to the story. My father was born in India, but some of his family members were raised in Pakistan. As a young man, he went to the UK, so I was born and raised there until I was 11, when my dad passed away from cancer. My mom, who was also born in India but raised in Pakistan, brought us back to Karachi, and I finished my schooling there.

When I first travelled to Pakistan, I was really shocked to see the tremendous disparity between rich and poor — between the elites who had unlimited access to resources and opportunity, and everybody else, who didn’t. I was especially shocked about the lack of access to healthcare in comparison to the UK, where everyone, regardless of income, has access to a national health insurance system, and where, relatively speaking, people of varying incomes have a fairly comparable quality of life.

I had direct exposure to this disparity between rich and poor. My mother had a maid with six kids, who were all within my age range, between 8 and 14. I was 11 when I first moved to Pakistan, and grew very close to these kids. Essentially, they were like my siblings. These kids were brilliant, dynamic — and I’m convinced that if they had the opportunity or had they been born in a different country, they could have become leaders of our country. They were far more intelligent than I was, that was for sure. And even though their parents — the maid and her husband, who was a mechanic — were very committed to educating them, there was a glass ceiling, a predefined trajectory that their lives seemed to be taking.

The year I left for the US for college, their father had a stroke. He’d had many, many years of uncontrolled blood pressure. Typically, in the lifestyle of low-income laborers, there’s no concept of preventive health care. It’s very much crisis management. He was taken to a public hospital, not diagnosed in time, not treated in time, and ended up paralyzed and completely incapacitated.

This had a devastating effect on the family. The kids’ mother, a very proud lady, did not want to depend indefinitely on charity, so she made the rather fateful decision to pull all six kids out of school and place them in different child labor situations. Two ended up in houses working as maids, two ended up on the street selling candy, two ended up working in apprenticeships. All six of them ended up being sexually, physically and psychologically abused.

When I returned to Pakistan during my sophomore year for a visit, I was really disturbed to see the profound impact their father’s incapacitation had on their lives. These once dynamic, bubbly kids who were full of life were completely jaded and disillusioned. It was almost like their lives had been sucked out of them and they had simply given up. Rabia, who is three years older than me, said, “You know, I’m the daughter of a maid and I’m destined to be a maid. This is my ‘kismet’ (fate). We can’t expect to be treated like royalty, or to come out of poverty.” Her father’s stroke was the first trigger event that put me on the path of doing what I do.

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

The Rare Genomics Institute celebrates World Rare Disease Day 2014

Last Friday was World Rare Disease Day – an event launched in 2008 to galvanize public awareness and research momentum for rare diseases. In the United States, a disease is considered rare if it affects fewer than 200,000 people. Yet there are more than 7,000 known rare diseases. This ratio means that there’s little funding for rare-disease research, so even getting a diagnosis can be a years-long odyssey, never mind treatment. Rare disease patients — the majority of them children — too often fall through the cracks.

“World Rare Disease Day unites all the thousands of rare diseases to speak with one voice and raise attention to this often overlooked sector of health research,” says Jimmy Lin, a TED Fellow and the founder of the Rare Genomics Institute, which serves the needs of patients suffering from rare diseases.

To mark World Rare Disease Day, the RGI has released a free ebook — Diagnosing Rare Diseases: Giving Families Hope Through DNA Testing, Crowdfunding, and Access to Experts — for families of those living with rare diseases. Written by Ana Sanfilippo and Jimmy Lin, the 150-page resource features interviews with the first-ever patients to be diagnosed using genomic sequencing, inspiring stories of those whose lives have been saved, advice for parents, as well as conversations with respected rare-disease physicians and genomics experts.

“We hear so many amazing stories of heroic parents fighting for their rare disease children and the amazing scientific results from this work that we think it will inspire many families in the trenches,” says Lin. “Plus, we get a lot of questions about the science and thought an information guide may be helpful.”

RGI helps individual patients with by giving them access to state-of-the-art genomics sequencing technology (see video, above). It offers a crowdsourced platform to raise funding for research, pairs patients with doctors and researchers, and helps families tap into the support of other affected families. To learn more about the Rare Genomics Institute, read the TED Blog’s conversation with Lin.

Today, the Bionic Woman can just go ahead and print her own parts

David Sengeh tinkers with his design for a 3D-printed prosthetic socket. Photo: Allegra Boverman.

David Sengeh tinkers with his design for a 3D-printed prosthetic socket. Photo: Allegra Boverman.

A persistent sight in David Sengeh‘s childhood, growing up in Sierra Leone: amputees. Losing a limb was an all-too-common fact in the civil-war-torn region. But as if the loss of a limb weren’t enough, the aftermath was almost worse, Sengeh saw, as he watched family members and friends struggle with ill-fitting, uncomfortable prosthetics that hurt too much to wear.

Here, the 2014 TED Fellow, now studying at the MIT Media Lab, talks about his idea of redesigning the socket that connects an artificial limb to a human body — and his dream of creating custom-designed, low-cost, comfortable sockets that 3D printing technology could make accessible to anyone, anywhere. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

You’ve chosen to work on one of the major after-effects of war and help those who have lost limbs regain some quality of life. Why?

I wanted to be part of a generation that solved problems instead of creating them; a generation that created products, services and opportunities for our own children; a generation of action-oriented youth who could correct some of the wrongs from the generations before us.

What was your initial goal?

Originally, my dream was to build a prosthetic bank in Sierra Leone, a place where people, especially growing children, could bring in broken prosthetics and get a new one. But I had also observed that many of the amputees in Sierra Leone would not use their prostheses even though they had received them for free. The reason? They were uncomfortable. At the end of day, it doesn’t matter how powerful your prosthetic leg is, if the socket is poorly designed and uncomfortable, you won’t wear your leg.

Is that a common issue?

When I talk to my friends with amputations either back home or in the United States, it is obvious how debilitating current design approaches are. Patients are often left immobile because their discomfort is too high to use their legs. This takes away independence and that limits the ways in which they can create value in society.

What’s going on? Why are current designs so inadequate?

Because prosthetic sockets are designed with plaster molds and casts, modified based on the prosthetist’s experience, and dependent on the patient’s limb on that single day, the final socket is almost never comfortable. There is uneven pressure over the entire limb, leading to pressure sores and deep tissue injury. This subsequently leads to secondary problems, including back pain. The current carbon fiber socket or polyurethane sockets are not conducive to a changing anatomy.

Where are you at with your thinking now?

In my last year at Harvard, I met Professor Hugh Herr of MIT’s Media Lab – who works on the design of bionic products and is himself a double amputee. I told him about my prosthetic bank idea. His immediate response was that it would not work, because comfortable prosthetic sockets would need to be custom-made for each patient (two people cannot use the same socket) in a cost-effective, repeatable and reliable way.

Even Professor Herr himself faced the same problem: it takes on average three months, and often years, to get a comfortable prosthetic socket. But to me, forcing a patient to use a product that is not optimal is unacceptable in an age when we have advanced tools for imaging, design, modeling and manufacturing.

So how are you thinking about creating a new, more comfortable prosthetic?

We are using advances in medical imaging and computer-aided design and manufacturing to create custom prosthetic sockets that are more comfortable. I use MRI images to develop models for each patient — making it possible for patients to send in scans from anywhere in the world — and from those results develop a multi-material 3D-printed prosthetic socket. Because this socket could be printed anywhere, it could also be immediately delivered to the patient. The 3D printing process allows us to use flexible, rubber-based materials over specific anatomical landmarks where pressure should be relieved. These products are being tested by patients, including US veterans. In one of our trials, an active veteran who has been an amputee for over 20 years said of a socket: “It’s so soft, it’s like walking on pillows.” Another noted: “It’s effing sexy.”

What’s your hope for the design in the future?

Disability in this day and age should not prevent people from living meaningful lives that enable them to create value for society. In many cases where solutions exist, the products are developed for those who can afford the premium price. My hope and desire is that the tools and processes being created in our research group will bring low-cost and and highly functional prosthetic sockets to patients all over the world. For me, a place to begin repairing the bodies and souls of those affected by war and disease is by designing comfortable and affordable interfaces that will help them take the step that moves them from disabled to living a meaningful and productive life.

This article was published as part of our “Questions Worth Asking” series. This week’s teaser: “Should we redesign humans?” See also a playlist of talks featuring thoughts on this topic from the likes of Juan Enriquez and Anthony Atala — and an admittedly incomplete tour of the history of biomaterials.

Cross-posted from the TED Blog >>>

Biohacker meets Willy Wonka: Lucy McRae on the making of the incredible edible music video for Architecture in Helsinki

TED Fellow Lucy McRae (watch her TED Talk) is a body architect — an artist who explores how technology and the body may someday meet and merge. Her latest project is a fantastical and frothy music video for “Dream a Little Crazy” by Australian band Architecture in Helsinki. Watch the mouth-watering video above, and then read all about how McRae and her collaborators wove futuristic ideas about synthetic biology, food-as-sculpture and 3D printing technology into a mad lab full of flying gloop and powder.

How do you describe to people what you do?

I do speculative story-telling. I create parallel, alternate worlds — underpinned by science fiction. The idea is to render possibilities to how technology will change, thinking about how people will embody the future in technology. But I do it in playful ways. In a way, I’m designing the connective tissue between science and imagination. I’m not a technologist, I’m not a scientist. I’m an artist inspired by scientific thinking, and I use that to steer the narratives of my films and concepts.

How did you come to collaborate on the video with Architecture in Helsinki?

A lot of my projects begin with serendipitous encounters, and this project was no different. I got an email from the band at a completely random time when I was at the LimeWharf, a cultural innovation hub in London where I’m now doing a residency. I’d been a Architecture in Helsinki fan for years, while the band’s lead singer, Cameron Bird, had seen my work, but had no idea who was making it. Then he investigated and saw that I was Australian, too, and was like, “Huh? Why haven’t we ever contacted her before?”

So he wrote to me and said I’d love for you to interpret the song. They had no brief, except that they wanted a surreal, infectious, absurd clip, and to have a strong synergy between the album artwork, made by this Finnish illustrator Santtu Mustonen, who hand-crafts analog, globby, dripping illustrations over sharp 3D geometries.

How did this lead to the concept of the biological bakery?

Our concept was to explore how synthetic biology might enter the home, but in a humorous way — using music as a superhighway to illustrate quite a complex idea. My collaborator Rachel Wingfield and I were interested in synthetic biology and the way food is industrially mass-produced, the way balloons or candies are made. We looked at how we could merge these industrial machines with the representation of the body. We started experimenting with the concept of printing the band’s faces with multicolored bacterial strands — using different-colored edible liquids composed of flour and water to symbolize this.

Everything in the film was edible. The band were scanned in Australia with a medical-grade 3D scanner, all the files were sent over to us in London, 3D printed and made into miniature versions in pop-confectionery.

There’s a scene where Cameron’s face-planting the band’s faces into corn flour. This is the way that candies are molded in factories: they create huge, big trays of corn flour, and they emboss, for example, Haribo shapes into the corn flour, and then the liquid is poured in. We piggybacked some of these confectionary techniques and made them for an installation gallery setting.

Two days after the music video, we re-created and built the whole set for a live event. We invited the audience to enter into this world, and we performed the scenes from the music video, exploding the liquid and painting this sort of fantastical tattoo skin over the body. In the end we were merging film and experiential art into the gallery setting.

Did the audience actually get to eat the props from the film? What were they made of?

Yeah, we worked with a chef at the LimeWharf and used the 3D-printed molds to make edible faces with a Prosecco, pear and thyme jelly. The audience members were eating the band. We made chocolate versions of the band as well. Everyone was asked to wear white, so it was kind of like this Willy Wonka–esque experience. Cameron was playing music, it was sort of like this chamber where this liquid was overflowing and spilling everywhere, and people were eating the props.

Now, back in Australia, the band has collaborated with a confectionery company, so the molds we made are being turned into lollipops, which they’re launching as part of their album release. It’s interesting how the evolution of this project started as a conversation, became a music video, then an experiential installation, and now a real-life biological bakery!

I’m interested in transforming materials, and food is a great material to sculpt. By representing the anatomy through food, it’s a way of experiencing sculpture in a different way. You can touch it — eat the contents of a gallery — breaking down the barrier of just being a viewer.

And you’re ingesting into your anatomy the anatomy that was represented by the food.

Exactly. And this points to the bigger picture of whether, in the future, we actually will clone ourselves, or eat ourselves in order to enhance our senses. So it’s kind of tapping into those different areas of research, but in a playful way.

[Cross-posted from the TED Blog.]

Celebrating the cultural in-between: Fellows Friday with musician Meklit Hadero

Meklit Hadero’s voice is earthy and soulful, sinuous and untethered, and she’s about to unleash a new album on the world. She has just launched  a crowdfunding campaign for her second solo recording, We Are Alive, and is currently touring the East Coast of the United States.We caught up with her between shows to ask about her musical vision and her latest news, including an exciting new initiative promoting food sustainability in the Nile basin.

You’re often billed as Ethiopian-American singer. Did you grow up in Ethiopia? Tell us about your journey to becoming a singer-songwriter.

I grew up all over the place. I was born in Ethiopia, and left when I was about 2. We went to Germany briefly and from there to DC, Iowa, Brooklyn, Florida, Seattle, now ten years in San Francisco! I like to say that my upbringing was a good training for life as a touring musician.

I studied political science at Yale, but I always thought of a liberal arts education as developing a relationship to language, writing, and complexity, learning to take streams of thought from multiple disciplines and develop your own opinions about the world, to engage with information and culture in a present-time way. Even though I’m no longer in the field of political science, those meta-ideas are ones I put into play every day.

After college, and after a few years in Seattle, I moved to San Francisco and found the Red Poppy Art House. That tiny little arts and culture hub was my introduction to artists and musicians from around the world who were thinking big and making work with substance. I started organizing there, and ended up co-directing the space for two and a half years. The community around me really supported me in making the transition to being a full-time artist.

Do you identify strongly as both African and American? 

Yes, absolutely — I feel deeply African and deeply American. I was born in Ethiopia, my parents are Ethiopian, so I grew up in many ways steeped in that culture. At the same time, I was raised in Brooklyn, equally surrounded by early hip-hop, street-level jazz, and Ethiopian classics. I like to say I walk the road of hyphens. That’s actually where I’m most comfortable, in between and celebrating it. I grew up always wondering where home was, especially because we moved so much. It became a wonderful driving question in my music, especially early on.

I remember the first time I went to Ethiopia as an adult. It was me and my mother. Growing up, she always referred to Ethiopia as “back home.” Then when we were in Addis Ababa together that first trip, she kept referring to the States as “back home.” It was then that I realized just how fluid that phrase and idea were. It didn’t mean a place — it meant a state of being. And that freed me in a way to both accept the searching, and let go of it too. Culture is funny – there are no firm lines, only fine ones.

Above: Watch “Leaving Soon” — a music video from Meklit Hadero’s first album, On A Day Like This.

You’ve just launched a Pledge campaign for your new album. What is it about, and how is it different from your previous work?

We recorded in November and the new album, titled “We Are Alive,” will be out March 18. The PledgeMusic campaign just launched earlier this week. We really had fun creating the campaign and got as creative as we could with the perks, including visual art, homemade covers, songs written just for you, all sorts of stuff!

The concept that ties the whole thing together is simple. As hard as life gets, and as sweet as it gets, we are alive. It is the through line in all our experiences. It’s an anthem that celebrates the ups and the downs as equal parts. Sugar and salt. Rock, paper, scissors. After my first solo album, On A Day Like This, I spent a lot of time on side projects. You see, every artist has their whole life to write their first solo record, and they usually have a year and a half to write their second one. I didn’t want to fall into that trap. I wanted to take a few years to explore and experiment. We Are Alive brings all that time of experimentation together into one cohesive sound. I’m really proud of how this turned out. It feels really good.

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