In this picture, Laura cuts a cool figure on the TED stage in Vancouver, Canada, in March 2015, as she prepares to give her talk on supercomputing, genomics, phylogenetics and the African Cassava Whitefly Project (ACWP). But looks can be deceiving, for she was not standing alone on that stage. With her stomach churning, Laura mastered her jittering nerves by imagining the whole ACWP team up there with her, taking strength from the dedication and hard work of her colleagues across Africa and the world, a constant source of insight and innovative ideas. As the red TED letters glowed, Laura’s outfit of pure midnight came into focus. The stage lights glinted on her grandmother’s Native American jewellery sparking Laura to think about her own inspirational family – especially her grandmother and mother – before making the connection with the cassava farming families of East Africa. “7,000,000 people need their story to be told,” she said to herself. Laura told the story, and a TED star was born.
What exactly is TED?
For those who are not familiar with TED, the acronym stands for 'Technology, Entertainment and Design', and TED talks are a series of conferences whose ethos is “Ideas worth spreading”. The talks usually last 18 minutes or less and incorporate elements of storytelling. Originally conceived in 1984 to explore the convergence of the fields of technology, entertainment and design, the expertise of presenters now encompasses science, philosophy, music, religion and philanthropy, among other fields. TED’s hall of fame shows an eclectic mix of speakers such as Bono, Bill Clinton, Peter Gabriel, Bill & Melinda Gates, Al Gore, and Monica Lewinsky, whilst the roll call of scientists includes Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, Craig Venter, E.O. Wilson and now, Laura Boykin.
A community of science communicators
TED is where a joint community of thinkers meets at a crossroads of disciplines, and has become a valuable platform for sharing ideas, especially sharing scientific ideas with a non-specialist audience. Laura says it succinctly, “As a researcher, I couldn’t ask for a more effective platform for science communication, and we have access, as the Cassava Whitefly team, to tell our stories there.” She explains further, “As people at TED hear our story, and I have the chance to interact with engineers, artists…creative people, what if they have solutions and can think of ways to deal with the whiteflies that we as scientists aren't seeing? What if there's a new angle?”
How did Laura become a TED fellow?
The TED selection process is pretty fierce: from 1200 hopefuls, only 20 new fellows are chosen every year. Laura initially applied online to be a TED fellow in 2014 and didn't quite believe it when she first heard back them from by email. Shortly afterwards she was invited to a series of increasingly intense late-night Skype interviews at her base in Perth, Western Australia, with the TED team in New York City, USA. She was formally selected in December 2014, though the secret had to remain with her for a taxing two weeks before she could share the good news. That’s when the TED training began in earnest.
The meticulous preparation took a multitude of hours over many months, with interviews, webinars and tutorials on presenting style, speech giving, PowerPoint slides, and script writing. Laura's talk was dissected, scrutinised, and turned upside down and inside out by the TED team. She recorded her voice and other people's, watched videos to observe speakers, and practiced non-stop before more intense rehearsals on the TED stage in Vancouver.
At the end, Laura was able to explain in four crucial minutes all about the African Cassava Whitefly Project, supercomputing, genomics and phylogenetics to a non-specialist live audience including big-name TED fellows. Her talk was also live-streamed around the world and most importantly right into the front room of 81st Drive in Phoenix, Arizona, USA where Laura's biggest fan was watching at home. Needless to say, her mom is one of the proudest people on the planet.
The process, from application to selection to final presentation is pretty gruelling, but Laura always kept in mind her motivation – the smallholder farmers struggling to eat that she'd seen on her first trip to Kenya back in 2012. On that trip, Laura also met many scientists who were collecting genomic data but struggling to carry out the analysis. There and then Laura married the idea of how her skills could partner with scientists in East Africa.
“Turn towards the heartbreak…”
Here Laura describes more about her motivation: “I saw Melinda Gates give a talk to the Stanford graduating class. She was discussing her time in India and how she had sat on the roof with a woman who had HIV. She said something that really resonated with me, “You’re going to see a lot of heartbreak in your life. Don’t turn away from it, turn towards it.” And I thought that being a TED fellow would be me turning towards it, putting more light on the situation, and it’s something that I can do. Because it’s not what you do when you’re in the country per se, it’s what you do when you’re back home in your home institution, it’s engaging properly. I thought this was a way for me to get the word out, that there are scientists that are ready to collaborate on these big genomic issues – young scientists are really interested in collecting genetic data and helping with plant genetic breeding and it’s just a little piece that’s missing. If we’re engaged properly, we can do some training and all the capacity will be in the region.”
Getting the word out
Through Laura’s engaging talk, the Cassava Whitefly Project has automatically attracted the attention of 360 TED fellows, while Project successes are posted and shared on the TED blog. Laura is featured on the TED blog, and in the Scientific American blog as one of six of the best scientists appearing in TED 2015. The online video, once posted, could potentially bring tens of thousands of views, from ‘curious minds’ who could bring something new to the Cassava Whitefly conversation. With a new TED talk posted every day, watch this space to see Laura’s video online.
Links: TED blog featuring Laura