The University of Pretoria’s annual TEDx talk was held on 13 September 2019. The theme for this year was Chasing Change and the phenomenal line up of speakers showcased varied interpretations of the theme. The event began by observing a moment of silence for victims of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) attacks. In Vice principle of student affairs and residences, Professor M.T. Mosia’s opening remarks, he ascertained that “The University of Pretoria (UP) is a very progressive and vibrant space” that embraces change. He mentioned that TEDx is a stage to showcase students who are influencing people’s lives in a positive manner. He went on to remark about the prestige that the TEDx stage holds and how it provides students with an apt platform to share innovations.
The process of shortlisting the night’s speakers began with 100 candidates and through a two-part selection process, it was narrowed down to 6 speakers. The idea search part 1 began after the closing of applications on 18 June, where the speakers were shortlisted by the Executive committee. Then, the idea search part 2 was conducted by a team of independent judges. The judges included Susan Moloisane, a consultant from Oyona consulting, Bokang Kelepa, a speaking coach, and Tebogo Thothela, from the Gauteng Department of Health. These judges then decided on the 6 final speakers.
The first speaker of the event was Palesa Hlela, who is currently pursuing her honours degree in Sport and Recreation Management. Her presentation was titled, Locker room: Conversations of the Quota. Hlela accuses South African society of hindering the peak performance of athletes by aiming the word “quota” at black athletes. She maintains that individual talent should supersede the colour of one’s skin.
Hlele further highlighted how many aspiring black athletes are made to believe that their predominant role is to fill the quota system. This, she argues, manifests itself into poor athletic performance and the worth of black athlete becomes reduced to a mere “quota player”. In her speech, Hlela alludes to national incidents like the notorious rugby match cake that had the words “Quota Squad Vs. The All Blacks” on its surface in response to a crippling defeat. She questions how a team can succeed when there is no individual success. Hlela ascertains that “the quota system is tired of being South African society’s scapegoat” and implores that these conversations should not be confined to the locker room.
…individual talent should supersede the colour of one’s skin.
Julanie Stapelberg, a former UP student who obtained her BSc in Genetics and Plant Sciences, as well her MSc in Plant Science Biotechnology, was the second speaker of the night. Stapelberg interweaved humour into her scientific presentation on the use of biopolymers made from algae as an alternative to plastic. She tells the audience, “I’m not here to ask you to invest in a boat before Pretoria becomes a coastal city” as she argues how the need for alternatives to plastic is a current problem.
Stapelberg equates the weight of plastic in global landfills to three times the weight of the South African population. She believes that by turning to microalgal biopolymers, we can make a conscious effort to move towards a 0% carbon footprint. Stapelberg claims that the $14-billion-project is relevant to South Africans as it has the perfect climatic conditions for microalgal growth. She argues that this shows that “We are not limited by our status as a developing country” and urges aspiring scientists to chase the biopolymer way.
“I’m not here to ask you to invest in a boat before Pretoria becomes a coastal city”
In order to improve the access to information in developing countries, Richard Hay, who is currently pursuing his Masters in Plant and Soil Sciences at the University of Pretoria, spoke on how many farmers do not have access to scientifically-sound solutions. He believes that the use of phones and mobile networking can “revolutionize the interaction between economy and rural farming”. Hay’s project aims to use multiple device types to connect remotely over large geographic areas to a diverse audience. He believes that the reluctance of farmers to interact with social media is bypassed by informing them of the easy access to solutions that the platform can offer.
As per the changing internet dynamics of today’s world, Allan Asti’s idea of internet snacks piqued the audience’s curiosity. Citing a street art piece in Istanbul as his inspiration, Asti explained that he had a great urge to carry this experience from the streets of Istanbul to his home. He was able to do this by crafting magnetic cubes. Each face of the cube had a QR code meant to be scanned that would lead to articles and information that correlated with the mysterious statements etched on the surface of the cube. Asti invited audience members to take home a few samples.
Some of the statements that were etched on the cube surfaces were “how trees secretly talk to each other”, “The biology of our best and worst selves” and “How Einstein’s brain was stolen”. These magnetic cubes equip the common man with the necessary tools to escape the bubble of biased algorithms that feed users with redundant information. Asti deems his innovation as “fortune cookies for web content”. Asti maintains that “the visual environment has great impact on our mental state” hence being visually stimulated means that ideas like the internet snack, aid us in making positive associations with information.
“the visual environment has great impact on our mental state”
Mental health is a recurring problem that humanity faces. Kathleen Boshoff, a second-year Medical Sciences student declares that mental disorders have the potential to make us question our very existence. Boshoff kick starts her presentation entitled, “The Effect of the Gut Microbiome on Mental Health”. Boshoff stresses the importance of the need to pursue promising lines of research in mental health disorders because contrary to popular belief, we cannot conclusively prove that mental illness arises from the brain. She mentions that only 3-5% of crimes are committed by mentally ill people and urges the need to vanquish the taboo that surrounds mental health in order to direct more research in that direction. Gut microbes have been found to interact with the human nervous system by producing neurotransmitters that boost good mental health.
Furthermore, it was found that the same type of microbes that exist in soil are unable to produce the same neurotransmitters, thereby unearthing a link between our gut microbes and low mental health. Individuals with mental disorders were found to have a lower gut microbial count than those with positive mental health. Ironically, Boshoff mentions that “the weight of your gut microbiota equates to the weight of your brain”. Boshoff concludes by mentioning how further research into this new association between gut microbes and mental health will aid us in understanding “Why our very minds revolt against us”.
Ngwalemorwa Matsapola’s speech urged the need to conjure up a mental rebellion against conformations in our consciousness. In the rush of the industrialized world we live in, Matsapola argues that we have all conformed to a pattern of mediocrity in order to make us more relatable to society. Furthermore, Matsapola mentions that this pattern of mediocrity has made us form a “self-imposed system of checks and balances” that mould our falsified identities. Matsapola urged the audience to “stop being passengers of our own minds” and recognize our ignorance in conforming to a mediocre standard in order to fit in.
“the weight of your gut microbiota equates to the weight of your brain”
In light of a strong gender-based violence (GBV) ambience, Thato Tshukudu took to the stage with his presentation of a guide on How to raise the 21st-century man. He observed the need to cultivate healthy child-raising practices in order to bypass toxic masculinity. He argues that by failing to do so, unhealthy practices of masculinity can “cascade down to future generations”.
The lineup of this year’s TEDx event reflected the multi-faceted nature of the society we live in. The diversity in speakers and content informed the audience of the varied innovations, ideas and realizations that tend to get lost in the hubbub of society. In line with the theme of chasing change, the speakers weaved profound ideas into the audience’s consciousness and as Prof Mosia predicted, “challenged the minds of the audience”.
The flawlessness of the event was accredited to the dynamic team who helped organize the event segments. Head organizer, Emmanuel Adu-Awuku, called his team up to the stage and thanked them individually for the hard work that was channelled into making it a success. Members of the executive committee included Malebo Nkois, Vice-chair, Nhlakanipho Brian Ngube, Secretary and head of communications, Nolwazi Sinethemba Radebe, transformation officer and Azhar Joosub, treasurer. A total of 13 subcommittee members and 11 volunteers share the credit for crafting this informative event. According to Nolwazi Radebe, the transformation officer, the theme set for next year is “Failing forward” but mentions that the subcommittee has leeway to change the theme if they wish to do so.