What are some of the biggest challenges we face on our shared human journey? Who is working to solve these challenges, and create for us all a more promising future?
One student organization not only wanted to help their fellow students discover the answers to these questions, but found some of the most important solvers of today’s most pressing problems right here at Drexel University.
TEDxDrexelU, a student organization whose mission is to bring the spirit of TED to the Drexel community, will present a two-day conference called “Odyssey” June 26–27. The event will take place from 12–3 p.m. each day, and registration is now open for all. It will feature five speakers each with deep ties to Drexel either as faculty or alumni supporters.
Muhammad Ubaid Ullah, a rising fifth-year economics and finance major who is also president and curator of TEDxDrexelU, answered questions for DrexelNow about how the student group got started, the inspiration behind the event and what they hope the Drexel community will take away from attending.
Q: Tell me about the creation of the TEDxDrexelU student group. What was the mission when it formed? Has that changed at all?
A: The creation of the organization [started] as early as my freshman year. Actually, even before that. When we got accepted — me and one of my friends, Kenji Fong [fourth-year architectural engineering student] — into Drexel, we started to think about what we want to do, how do we want to create an impact? Kenji gave a TEDx talk in high school and he thought TED was an amazing platform that we could bring to Drexel.
We started researching a little bit more and we realized that Drexel does not have a TED organization and the last event they had was [several] years ago. So we thought this was an amazing opportunity for us to step up and think about doing something bigger.
…Over time, our philosophy for why we wanted to do this really changed. At first, we were doing this just with the aim of bringing a positive impact, which was a pretty serviceable goal. However, as we spent time at Drexel, we started to realize that there is a bit of segregation between different colleges, so there was no common connection between them. There was a lot of amazing research happening, a lot of amazing speakers coming in each different college, but if you're in LeBow, you're not getting the right communication for the events happening in other colleges. So how do we bridge this gap?
Another thing I found myself experiencing was that I had to travel to D.C. or New York to find some of the influential speakers regarding different topics, and I always thought that instead of spending all that money, I could figure out a way to bring these speakers to Drexel. So then TEDx was again at the front of our mind.
We thought about TEDx in freshman year, but when the pandemic hit is when we really all came together. Arpit Ahluwalia [fourth-year, interactive digital media], who was in India at the time, and Rafiga Imanova [fourth-year, marketing and communications], who was in Azerbaijan, joined forces with us to build this organization. Everyone was spread all across the world but the virtual system really brought us all together in an amazing way. Eventually we lead our first recruitment effort through which Eva Kraus [first-year, biomedical engineering], Isabella Icolari [first-year, graphic design], and Justin Nguyen [fourth-year, business analytics, economics, and marketing] joined our team.
We thought that was just the perfect moment for us to start this organization. In a time of national racial reckoning and major political events, we saw that evidence-based knowledge and information became ever more important. So we really started this organization with the mindset that we want to create an interdisciplinary platform which works on bringing complicated, unheard, evidence based ideas in front of our Drexel community. We want to create a culture of curiosity, a culture of exchange of ideas and really build a forefront for technology, entertainment and design at Drexel. So all these factors came together to build our mission statement.
Moreover, our advisors Vivianna Bermudez [director of Communications and Events for the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design] and Charles Sacco [assistant dean of Strategic Initiatives for the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship and director of the Baiada Institute] continue to provide the support needed for the success of this organization.
Q: Tell me about the idea behind this year’s conference and its theme.
A: Once we had our team together, we started thinking about what our goal was for our first conference. And since we were in a global pandemic, we could not ignore the fact that in the past year we've experienced a lot of isolation, grief and challenges which we've never seen before, and we had to be creative.
We decided that we needed to convey a sense of optimism and hope in our community. We together came up with the idea of naming our theme “Odyssey.” And yes, we took inspiration from the Greek poem “Odyssey.” We believe we can draw parallels between Odysseus’s journey to Ithaca to our shared human journey today. Where Odysseus faced threats on his journey, today we find ourselves fighting existential threats like climate change and the pandemic to name a few.
But just like in the Greek poem, Odysseus was focused on the destination of Ithaca. We want to bring our audience’s focus toward our destination which is “a better future.” We want to showcase stories and ideas that resonate with the spirit of the theme. We want to give our viewers an insight into recent advancements across disciplines, inspiration from stories of triumph, and learnings from new important findings — all of which aim to ground us to our vision of building a better tomorrow.
So what we really want to give through this “Odyssey” theme to our audience is this evidence-based sense of hope — so they know that, while we're going through all these challenges, there are a lot of big forces that are being generated by these amazing experts in their fields which are actually taking us towards a better future.
Q: How did you determine and book the speakers for the event?
A: The speaker curation part starts much before we start planning the event, so about six months before we start thinking about our theme and thinking about what are some speakers that could fit in that criteria? We look for experts who want to share ideas which are unheard of or new or have timely importance.
We also want to make sure that these speakers, whatever they're talking about, they don't have to be the expert on it, but they should be an expert on it. They should also have experience in giving speeches or having talked at conferences before. Their ability to align their ideas with our theme is also important. Sometimes we find speakers which have amazing ideas, but if their ideas don't align with the main theme of our conference, we do try our best to accommodate them in another conference. So the whole process of curation is really meant to define experts who can deliver the main theme of our conference.
Q: What are you most excited about hearing from each of the five speakers who will take part in “Odyssey?”
A: One of our speakers is Nicole Koltick [associate professor and associate director of the MS Design Research program in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design]. She's the director of the Design Features Lab at Drexel. Her talk is really exciting because she is going to be talking about her speculative design projects which focus on solving complex interdisciplinary problems like melting glaciers etc. for which the technology may or may not exist today.
Nick Jushchyshyn [program director of the Virtual Reality & Immersive Media program in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design] is another speaker and his talk is going to be on how we create “places” in a virtual environment. When you log-on your class or meeting on Zoom, you are only entering the same black room with video cards, and it does not feel like you are in class or in your office. Nick argues that we can do much better than that and utilize virtual and augmented reality to build digital places.
Next we have Joe Callahan. He is a Drexel alum and CEO of Ciright Companies. He has had great success in his entrepreneurship. He's also an advisory board member for [The Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship]. He is going to be talking about his learnings from his experiences in the world of business through a framework — he calls the “persona triangle.”
Then we have Sean O'Donnell [PhD, professor in the College of Arts and Sciences]. His work has involved traveling the world studying how climate change effects fire ants. So, his work sheds light on how climate change can have effects on even the tiniest of us.
Last but not the least, Yury Gogotsi [PhD, Distinguished University and Charles T. and Ruth M. Bach Professor in the College of Engineering] is another fascinating speaker. He was recently ranked as the top 53 scientists living or deceased in the world. He has done amazing breakthroughs in the nanomaterial world. He discovered this compound called MXenes which have a disruptive potential across a large scope of technologies. His talk is going to focus on how his personal life has been an odyssey of discovery in science, and how his framework of thinking has allowed him to achieve what he has achieved.
Q: Tell me about the format for the event, and any in-person elements vs. what will be taped/livestreamed?
A: The audience will be able to sign up for our Zoom webinar. We will be featuring TEDx talks in our event which will be recorded a few days before the event. Some of these talks are recorded at our home base which is Drexel. Following each TEDx talk, we will have a live audience Q&A with the speakers where the audience gets to ask and interact with the speakers.
Q: How do you hope the Drexel community engages with the event, and what do you hope they get out of it by attending? How are events like this beneficial to Drexel?
A: I think during this pandemic, a lot of my colleagues and classmates have questions about what's happening in the world. What's happening in terms of climate change? What's happening in terms of solving a lot of these bigger problems? I think what the students will get out from this conference by attending is this evidence-based grounding in reality about what is some of the relevant work that is being done and how are these experts and industry leaders are thinking about fighting against these problems. I hope that the students feel empowered, they feel inspired, they feel more optimistic, and they also take away some learnings about what their purpose is in their day-to-day life. I think a loss of purpose is something most of us have experienced in the pandemic. So I think this event might help students recalibrate to what truly matters to them and how they can play their role or contribute to that cause.
Apart from that, I think having this TEDx event creates this culture around ideas. We had some students who reached out to us who wanted to do their own TEDx talks. While we were not able to accommodate them this year, we were really happy to see that enthusiasm and we hope to be able to give them an opportunity to give a TEDx talk in our upcoming conferences.
But knowing that there's so many ideas out there and there's such a big appetite for these ideas really motivates us to cater to our community.
Q: Are you looking for more students to join your group? If so, why would you encourage interested students to get involved and how may they do so?
A: We're always looking for intellectually driven students who care about finding complicated ideas and sharing them with the wider community. We really look for students who are impact-focused and have a mission for themselves. We've recruited in the past. We have an application and an interview and a case interview at the end, so we're really intentional about who joins the team. Once anyone does join our team, we really focus on onboarding, training and we’re really flexible in the way we do work. A lot of the team members we have work at different parts of the organization and they have the flexibility to move around and do what they enjoy. Hence, we also really intentional about the work culture that we have in our organization.
To apply to join TEDxDrexelU, fill out this application or reach out to Ubaid Ullah at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.
Students who make up TEDxDrexelU include:
- Vice President, Design: Arpit Ahluwalia, fourth-year, interactive digital media
- Vice President, Student Organization: Kenji Fong, fourth-year, architectural engineering
- Vice President, Marketing: Rafiga Imanova, fourth-year, marketing and communications
- Student Organization Chair: Justin Nguyen, fourth-year, business analytics, economics, and marketing
- Marketing & Curation Chair: Eva Elizabeth Kraus, first-year, biomedical engineering
- Communications & Design Chair: Isabella Icolari, first-year, graphic design
- Curation Chair: Christina Lildharrie, second-year, neuroscience policy