Showcasing Ideas at TEDxTufts

Psychology doctoral student Jennifer Perry speaks about her TEDxTufts experience

by Alexandra Erath, A16

“I had the opportunity to talk about something I find endlessly interesting, and is critical for all of us to talk about,” says Jennifer Perry, a doctoral candidate in social psychology of her talk on "Using Motivated Empathy to Address Societal Issues” at TEDxTufts, held at Cohen Auditorium on April 17.  Perry and twelve other speakersincluding Tufts undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, and professorswere selected to present talks to over four hundred audience members. Affiliated with TED talks—the popular video speakers series that promotes active listening and the spread of new ideas—TEDxTufts is a smaller, local version, bringing members of the greater Tufts community together to share their passions, ideas and innovations—and spark discussion. The theme of this year’s speaking event, “Verge,” was chosen to emphasize the inherently collaborative feel of the TED program.

TEDxTufts provides valuable exposure for all of its speakers, and especially for graduate students such as Perry who gain presentation experience, and a wider audience for their research.

Jennifer Perry

“Many social psychologists get into the field to conduct research that will ultimately reach and help the larger public,” says Perry. “Our research is published in journals that are typically only accessible to people in academia, or presented at conferences to our fellow social psychologists. Rarely do opportunities like this present themselves for scientists to discuss their work with the broader community.”

Specifically, Perry examines how we react to people of another race—versus people of our own race—who are in physical pain.  Empathy, explains Perry, is an example of one of these reactions. “It’s an important topic within race relations, as it relates to many current events, including those that involve police brutality against black men, women, and children,” she adds. Perry’s talk focused on the fact that we are often unaware that we express less empathy for people of other races, and the societal, psychological, and neuroscientific causes behind the empathy "gap."

Although she’s not naturally inclined toward public speaking, and was initially hesitant about participating in TEDxTufts, Perry applied when she realized the unique opportunity the program presented. “It’s very important to me that my research doesn’t just stay in the lab,” she says. “Trying to find a way to collaborate with people outside academia is something I really want to make a point of doing in my career.”

To prepare, Perry met weekly with her speaker-coach, Asha Nidumolu, a junior majoring in psychology. “Together we figured out how to make it less like a typical research talk and more of a TED-like talk, which meant adding in personal experiences, an important element of TED events,” she explains. “As scientists, it’s hammered into us that that we shouldn't let our own experiences and opinions seep into our research,” she says, adding that while the process took her out of her element, it also forced her to try to trace the origin of her scientific interest in race.  “I realized that I, too, have racial biases,” says Perry. “We all do. When I realized this, I was bothered so much that I felt like I needed to study why and how this happens.”

In early April, Perry began working on speaking and presentation skills with the entire TEDxTufts coaching team. “We’d work on tone and transitions,” explains Perry, "and they would correct things I had no idea I was doing, such as swaying back and forth too much when I was speaking. This topic makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It was important that I be an approachable messenger.”

Perry believes the work paid off, and the experience has whet her appetite for public speaking. “I was really challenged by this experience and pushed out of my comfort zone, which I appreciate,” she says. “I would love to pursue similar opportunities in the future.”

More importantly, she feels she achieved her goal of the talk starting conversations among audience members. “It was meant to be a conversation about a topic we often feel too uncomfortable to discuss,” she says. “If my talk encourages people to feel even a little less hesitant about starting discussions on race, and to think about the how they might react to people of other races differently, it was a success.”