PopTech 2012

Posted: October 23rd, 2012 under education, philosophy, psychology, science, technology.

Me with my official PopTech badge.

PopTech is a great source for positive change and collaboration. It brings together a global community of innovators from many fields to share insights and work together to create lasting change. Brent has been volunteering for the audio visual crew at PopTech in Camden, Maine, for the past few years, helping presenters with their slides in the green room. I’ve always enjoyed watching the videos on the website and hearing about Brent’s interactions with the amazing speakers. I decided to volunteer this year. After I was registered, however, I ran into a plethora of medical problems which included hospitalization and rehabilitation. I told Mary, the event operations manager, that I was limited as to what I would be able to do. She expressed to me how much they love Brent there, and that he’s been so good to PopTech. She’d also read Brent’s blog about my medical condition and offered me the amazing opportunity to attend the PopTech 2012 conference this weekend. Executive Director and Chief Creative Officer of PopTech Andrew Zolli kicked off the conference with an inspiring talk about resilience and adaptation, the theme of PopTech this year. I thanked him afterward for allowing me this opportunity to attend. I will highlight the presenters which resonated the most with me.

The “Green” Room

During the first session I particularly enjoyed the presentation by neuroscientist Moran Cerf. He explained how patients could regulate their emotions, control their thoughts, and alter their decisions after having electrodes implanted in their brains. Science fellow and Harvard staff scientist Sriram (Sri) Kosuri spoke about DNA synthesis technologies in bioengineering. He actually encoded a book (several times over) in a molecule of DNA!

Seventeen-year-old boxer Claressa Shields spoke about overcoming adversity and winning the first olympic gold medal for women’s middleweight boxing. She exhibited incredible enthusiasm and spunk. She spoke about a girl she’d beaten, and said “she quit boxing and started playing soccer.” I was impressed by her determination and drive, and had the pleasure of meeting her after her presentation.

My view from the balcony in the Opera House Theater

Adaptive snowboarder Amy Purdy, who lost both her legs due to bacterial meningitis, gave a particularly inspiring presentation. She won three back-to-back Paralympic World Cup gold medals and is currently training for the Paralympic Games. After the struggle of dealing with her illness and amputation, she looked at it differently. She said that instead of being limited BY her legs, she began to picture the unlimited possibilities WITH her legs. “Embracing adversity,” she said, “means going from merely enduring to thriving.” Her story and her positive attitude were truly inspiring!

I thought science fellow and Harvard behavioral scientist David Rand gave a very interesting presentation about cooperation, generosity, and altruism. His stance was that the more intuitive we are, the more cooperative we are, whereas the more reflective we are, the more selfish we tend to be. His study is illustrated in an article I read prior to the conference in Science magazine. “We should try and keep our eye out for situations where we feel an initial impulse to do good, but on further reflection, rationalize and say we don’t have to,” Rand said.

Inventor Jay Silver gave an entertaining and interesting presentation sharing his creative ideas. Brent enjoyed talking to him as he was preparing his slides, and didn’t waste time ordering an invention kit from Jay’s “MaKey MaKey” website.

My lunch tickets

All attendees and presenters were given lunch tickets to specific restaurants around Camden. The purpose of this was to meet a variety of new people. This gave me the opportunity to meet and dine with social innovation fellows Josh Nesbit (who spoke at PopTech last year and cofounded Medic Mobil) and Daniel Zoughbie who created Microclinic International. He gave a compelling and inspiring speech about the contagiousness of good health behaviors.

I was impressed by Asenath Andrews who founded an alternative public high school for teen mothers which also provides early education for their children. She was very passionate, and I appreciated her discussion about the way we think, and how important it is to think with new and fresh perspectives. “We are shaped by the conversations we have,” she said. “It’s about the conversations we are having. We have to make sure kids have conversations they haven’t had before. We need to have think tanks with kids in them, not grown-ups.”

Margret Pala also spoke about childhood education. Her background is in developing pedagogical methods of teaching. She advocated using open-ended material for play to encourage creativity. “Break the rules,” she stated. “Do something unexpected, and try new things.” Her words particularly resonated with me, especially when I consider my medical circumstances and want to make the most of my life.

Jason Hackenwerth’s Balloon Installation

I was looking forward to social psychologist and science/social innovation fellow Amy Cuddy’s presentation. Brent enjoyed working with her last year when she presented at PopTech. I was intrigued and inspired by her “power posing” video from her previous presentation. In her presentation this year she talked about her own emotional sensitivity. She said that resilience is the ongoing process of balancing toughness and tenderness. She said the two most important traits we want to see in people are warmth (that we trust them) and strength (that we respect them). This led her to talk about leadership. She stated “Leaders must connect before they can lead because trust is the conduit for influence.” Interestingly, people with lower cortisol make better leaders because they are better able to listen to other people and are less stress-reactive. Conversely, the more testosterone one has, the more confident he or she is, which also makes a better leader. I had the opportunity to meet Amy, although I wish I could have had more time to talk to her.

It was also a pleasure to meet David Agus, one of the world’s leading cancer doctors and pioneering biomedical researchers. I only spoke with him briefly, but Brent spoke with him at length about my medical issues, including cancer. Dr. Agus told Brent I was a zebra rather than a horse, and that I should go to Mass General to see doctors who are familiar with my combination of illnesses. I will be reading his book, The End of Illness. In his presentation he shared his perspective of the relationship of the body to health and disease. “Sitting for 5-6 hours per day is equal to smoking 1.5 packs of cigarettes per day,” he said. I suppose I should get up and move around more. ;-)

Tiffani Williams and Brent showing off their hula hoop skills

Science fellow and associate professor of computer science and engineering at Texas A&M Tiffani Williams gave an amazing presentation in which she reconstructed the tree of life with algorithmic tools. I enjoyed talking to her before her presentation. She was very approachable and charismatic. I had the unique opportunity to witness her master the hula hoop at the farewell party. :-)

Science fellow and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Thaddeus Pace spoke about cognitively based compassion training. Brent and I had the opportunity to talk to him at the farewell party. Because he studies endocrine and immune system changes in people suffering from stress-related illness, he had some interesting insight on my cortisol-related endocrine problems.

Professor of psychology David DeSteno gave a great presentation on how practicing compassion creates resilience in society. He shared an interesting study in which subjects were given the opportunity to punish cheaters. Half of the participants were made to feel compassion toward someone else first. The results showed that those individuals who were made to feel compassion toward someone else showed more compassion toward the “cheaters” afterward. This demonstrated his idea that as you feel compassion toward one person, your punishment and aggression toward others should go down, even though they’re not seeking your forgiveness. He later posed the question “How do we determine who is worthy of our compassion?” His answer: “It is not the severity or the objective facts of a disaster that motivate us to feel compassion and to help. It is whether or not we see ourselves in the victims.” He encouraged the idea of joint movement: individuals coming together for a joint purpose.

Jer Thorpe and big data

The idea is that synchrony is a marker for separate identities to merge into a larger one; people are made to feel similar to each other, and therefore more compassionate.

I was fascinated by science and social innovations fellow Jer Thorpe. He is an educator and artist specializing in electronic media design, with a background in genetics. He spoke about digital art and big data. His website offers tools and workshops working with data. He brought up the Keplar project which uses data visualization. Its purpose is to look at data in a non-analytical way and to get it to the public. He explained how visualization and art allow people to understand better and create interest. It has the power to share emergent levels of information that we can’t see from other perspectives.”Everything I’ve learned,” he said, “is perched precariously on a mountain of a thousand failures.” He introduced his newest project, Office for Creative Research to pose, refine, and ultimately solve difficult problems with data.

Friday night we participated in Up: The Umbrella Project by Pilobolus. PopTech participants and Camden residents gathered together carrying clear plastic umbrellas fabricated with multi-colored LED lights created by the MIT Distributed Robotics Laboratory. It was amazing, and very well done. Brent was very concerned about people bumping into me and knocking me over, so we stayed to the outside of the crowd.

All the umbrella handles had red, green, and blue LED lights on them.

Brent participating in UP: The Umbrella Project

Pilobolus’ project was very cool!

Investigative journalist Amanda Ripley has been studying kids, parents, and public schools around the world. She presented charts and statistics representing schools around the world. She proposed the best tests to be those that give credit for sound reasoning with the purpose of measuring resilience and critical thinking (learning how to think). There is a pattern in top performing schools: School is harder, sports are just a hobby, and kids believe there’s something in it for them; they make a connection between their effort and the future outcome. Amanda concluded: “Want to know what is wrong with education? Ask students; particularly foreign exchange students. They’ve contemplated.” She wrote the book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes–and Why. I’m looking forward to reading her upcoming book, Where the Smart Kids Are: How Other Countries Taught Their Kids to Think.

Ever since reading his book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, I’ve been wanting to meet neuroscientist David Eagleman.

Brent with the Camden library in background

I am fascinated with neuroscience, and his studies and insights are thought-provoking. David proposed that the unconscious mind is in control, dominating the conscious mind. “If free will exists,” he said, “it is a small player in our system; we are tied to our biology.” He asked what this means for our notion of culpability, and suggested that biological understanding leads to rational sentencing, customized rehabilitation, and realistic incentive structuring. I was delighted to have the opportunity to speak with him after his presentation, thanks to Brent who introduced us.

I had a wonderful time and feel very fortunate that I was able to attend the PopTech conference. I’m a bit of an introvert, but I really enjoyed interacting with so many amazing and interesting people. Being among so many scientists and other innovators was utopia for me. PopTech couldn’t be hosted in a better place. The town of Camden is beautiful, with so much character and such nice people. I will definitely be volunteering next year.


  1. Excellent write-up of your experience, Kirsten. I’m so glad you were able to go and be a part of the awesomeness that is PopTech. I’m especially thrilled you were able to meet so many amazing and important people. I’m already stoked for next year!

    Comment by brentdanley — October 24, 2012 @ 9:53 pm

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience, Kristen. You sure packed a lot of great stuff in those few days. I will be checking out The End of Illness.

    Comment by Beth — October 25, 2012 @ 3:52 am

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