Caveat lector: This blog is where I try out new ideas. I will often be wrong, but that's the point.

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TEDxBerkeley thoughts

Yesterday I had the honor of speaking at TEDxBerkeley alongside some truly amazing people. As I said in an earlier post leading up to the event I was feeling quite nervous and like a bit of an odd-man-out amongst such an accomplished group. My good friend Torgeir put it best when it said that the format of a TED talk is usually one wherein people distill the golden nuggets out of a long career. As a graduate student I haven’t even really begun my career.

There’s definitely a general personality type that is attracted to TED. Especially in the Bay Area, there is a strong trend toward entrepreneurship. Talking with Rick Smolan at dinner last night, I was lamenting about how many awesome young scientists decide to bail out of research and academia because of the current funding models for science. By the time you’ve established yourself as a researcher so much of your time and effort has to be dedicated to securing and maintaining research funds for your lab that little time is left for you to do actual research. For obvious reasons this is unattractive for a lot of scientists who study for 20+ years so they can do research, not so that they can be over-specialized grant-writers.

It strikes me that there has to be a mutually beneficial relationship between science and entrepreneurship. As I said in my talk, there are two tracks that guide my research: working with patients with unique circumstances so that we can learn more about basic brain mechanisms that give rise to cognition, and then turning that around to see how we can use that information to help future patients. The latter track has more obvious financial potential and is more meaningful to me, whereas the former is more “fun” in terms of scientific research and data analysis.

I just don’t know how to change that. Ideally I would like to work in an independently-funded research institute working on these problems. In fact, I’ve talked to many brilliant and talented young scientists who are craving such a thing. It doesn’t seem like a hard sell to say that I’ve got a dozen Berkeley, Harvard, and MIT-trained neuroscience PhDs who are willing to work together to solve the hard problems in human cognitive neuroscience. What is a hard sell, however, is that there’s no guaranteed financial returns. While our research does have obvious practical and medical applications, marketable discoveries would not necessarily be the focus, nor would they be guaranteed. And there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

But the point of this post isn’t to air my career fears. Instead, I’d like to talk about my personal TED speaker experience.

If you saw the talk you could probably tell how nervous I was. This is a bit of a strange feeling for me because talking about science is easy for me. But I didn’t want the talk to be just another data-driven science talk. Being TED, I wanted to share a story. I wanted to explain why I’m doing what I’m doing and how I came to be here. My work is very important to me and I genuinely feel privileged to get paid to do something I love (…well… as much as a graduate student can be said to be "paid"). But I do get paid to think, to work with these amazing patients, to write code, do math, and analyze data, to give talks and teach students. It’s amazing.

The story I shared was a very personal one. Prior to yesterday I had only told a handful of loved ones about that period of my life. No amount of practice could prepare me for getting in front of hundreds (thousands?) of people and just laying it out like that. I’m glad I did it—it was somewhat cathartic, actually. But I was worried about sounding cheesy, heavy-handed, depressing, or just plain boring. When I talk less formally I like to think I’m animated and maybe even sometimes funny. But it’s hard to be either of those things when talking about one of your saddest memories. So far the feedback has been positive and—even though people could tell I was nervous and uncomfortable—it seems like most people empathized with it in a way that I hoped they would. I was nervous and uncomfortable. That was the point.

I very intentionally wanted to do something that made me uncomfortable specifically because it would knock me out of my comfort zone. But at the same time, I really wanted to get across just how amazing I think neuroscience is and to try and get across some of the ideas that blow my mind about who and what we are. I hope you all enjoyed it. Some of the talks were funny. Some beautiful. Some strange.  Some uplifting. But they were all most definitely interesting, and I really hope to do it again some day. Thanks Jessica Mah, Kai Chang, and all the rest for giving me the opportunity!


  1. As someone who has met with you beforehand to discuss your talk while it was in its infancy to sitting in the front row watching you speak before our audience - if you hadn't admitted in this blog entry how nervous you were, I would not have suspected it at all. You came across confident, passionate and thoughtful - great traits to have in any TEDster and I am so very pleased you were on our stage.

    That you fit in so seamlessly on our stage next to older, more established fellow presenters says fantastic things about you - only way from here is up, and I expect this will be the first of many talks, TED or otherwise, that you will deliver to inspire an audience.

    Thank you so much for your contribution to our event. And I look forward to calling you "Dr. Voytek soon. :)

  2. Thanks Kai, that means a lot. I really appreciate your help throughout the whole process. If you noticed, not a single slide except for my contact info slide and the warning about graphic content had any text. The books really helped!