TEDxUConn ‘crushes’ the comfort zone

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People should question their surroundings more and expand their horizons, Robert Hale, professor at UConn Waterbury and illusionist, said at the sixth TEDxUConn conference “Crushing the Comfort Zone” at the University of Connecticut Sunday morning. 

In Oak Hall, about 50 attendees in the morning session listened to six different speakers and listened to five speakers in the afternoon session. All speakers talked about their personal experiences with how they tried something new and how they overcame their fears.   

“Everything we see is based on our imagination and preconception,” Hale said. “We really should move towards thinking beyond what is presented to us, and question things a bit more. After all, we’ve been blessed with the gift of wonder.”  


On Sunday, TEDxUConn hosts their Fall 2019 Conference at Oak Hall with the focus on “Crushing the Comfort Zone”. There were 11 speakers, including students, and two performances.  Photos by Charlotte Lao / Photo Editor / The Daily Campus

On Sunday, TEDxUConn hosts their Fall 2019 Conference at Oak Hall with the focus on “Crushing the Comfort Zone”. There were 11 speakers, including students, and two performances. Photos by Charlotte Lao / Photo Editor / The Daily Campus

In the morning session,  Fumiko Hoeft, professor of psychological sciences, and director of Brain Imaging Research Center, in her talk “From Fear of Public Speaking to a TEDx Speaker, What I have in Common with You and Dyslexia,” defined the comfort zone as anything that makes you at ease, such as fast food, or in her case, her laptop and iPhone.  

During her research in dyslexia and having to overcome her fear of public speaking while presenting her findings at multiple conferences, she learned that the key to leaving the comfort zone is to set up a support system of people, including mentors, to provide guidance and make trying something new not as challenging. 

 “Why do we push our boundaries and set up of our comfort zone? This is because it helps us take risks and experience failure and when we overcome that failure, it makes us more confident and resilient,” Hoeft said. “It expands our comfort zone so we can be prepared for our next challenge.”  


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Matthew Guberman-Pfeffer, UConn Ph.D. graduate, in his talk “Seeing Beyond Our Senses: How I bonded with Chemistry,” spoke about his experience of being legally blind and obtaining a Ph.D in chemistry.  

Guberman-Pfeffer told a story about how two of his fellow classmates were complaining about how difficult chemistry was to study because they could not see the atoms they were studying. Guberman-Pfeffer said he learned that chemistry goes beyond sight but into the nature of the university and that is why he is committed to studying chemistry.  

 “Instead of seeing chemistry as a complicated set of structures that I could not see, I learned early on that the subject was a way to transcend physical blindness,” Guberman-Pfeffer said. “The realization that chemistry is the study of reality at a resolution beyond all our senses … and even the sighted are visually blind.”   

Paul Pfeffer, father of Matthew Guberman-Pfeffer, said that his son wants to help make science understandable and he hopes he can accomplish part of that with his speech.  

 “If you make it understandable, more people will be able to understand what he discovered,” Paul Pfeffer said. 

Julie Mountcastle, head of school at Slate School in North Haven, in her talk “Changing the Landscape of Education Through Side-by-Side Learning with Children,” explained her concept of side-by-side learning, the ability for children to have active observation or participation in their work beside a mentor and followed by “reflection and wonder.”  

Mountcastle said that at Slate School, they tend to invite various guests, such as musicians, plumbers, engineers and have them demonstrate their skills in front of the children. This allows children to explore and ask questions to experts.  

“In fact, it’s better for us to see a musician struggle with a thorny passage and play it over and over again than it is to see look effortless in concert,” Mountcastle said. “We love to see people fail and try again. This is the big understanding for children.”  

Aysha Upchurch began her talk, not with words, but with an interpretive dance with no music. Her talk “Movement is a Movement: A New Narrative on Dancing Bodies” focused on how dance is the body’s way of communicating and in itself is a language. She said that dance should be used in classrooms, allowing students to move and express themselves in a new way.  

 “We can really cause change, one stanky leg at a time,” Upchurch said.  


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 April Hernandez, actor known for her role in Freedom Writers, talked about her eventual acceptance of motherhood. In her talk “The Gift of TransPARENTcy,” Hernandez talked about how she feared becoming a mother and her struggles accepting that role.  

 She wanted to create a dialogue of what it is like to not want to become a mother, postpartum depression, breastfeeding and the reality of motherhood. She wants people to talk about how they are feeling and not bottle it up inside.  

 “Being transparent is not about spilling the tea and telling everyone your business,” Hernandez said “Being transparent is ownership. Being transparent is being courageous and facing your fears and moving forward. Being transparent is self-love. Your mental health is a gift. Being transparent is asking for help when you need it.” 

 At the end of the morning session, Ryan Small, one of the two UConn undergraduate speakers, talked about his battle with panic disorders and major depressive disorder.  

 He discovered traditional medicine did not help, but modern shamanic practices and intrinsic healing has helped him handle his panic attacks. As a certified Shamanic Practitioner, Small said that there is more than one right way to do something. 

 “In my experience with the modern mental health care system, with diagnoses, and medication, I learn that I am broken and that I should put faith in solutions outside of myself,” Small said. “But now, that I am a shaman, I know that with the right tools, we can learn to heal by looking inside ourselves.” 

 In addition to speakers, there were two performances by the reggae band Souls of Zeon in the morning and Ryan Parker, “The Poet,” in the afternoon. 


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 The afternoon session had Brandon Emerick, with his talk “How the Science of Curiosity can Crush Your Comfort Zone,” Grace Cho with her talk “It’s All About the Business Plan,” Monalisa Padhee with her talk “The Reverse Youth Migration; Why Young Urban Graduates are Moving Back to Villages,”  Bridget Oei with her talk “Success Beyond Oneself” and Robert Hale with his talk “A Gift of Wonder.”  

 After the conference, Olasubomi “Mini” Ajayi, a fifth-semester allied health sciences major and human rights minor, said she attended the conference because she loves TED talks and the theme of “crushing the comfort zone” resonated with her.  

 “My minor, human rights, intersects [with the theme] and this past year, I have been trying to get out of my comfort zone academically and personally,” Ajayi said. “This is a great opportunity to go as it is right here at UConn.”  


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 Augusta Keo, a fifth-semester molecular and cell biology major from UConn Stamford, said she attended the conference because her professors use TED talks in their lectures and she wanted to be able to talk about this conference in her classes. 

 “I liked all of the talks [today] because they talk about identity,” Keo said. “All of them talk about mental health and how we aren’t alone. [It helps] end the stigma and show who we are as a person.”  

 Before the conference started, Himaja Nagireddy, president of TEDxUConn, said her team worked hard to make sure everything would be perfect, including last-minute Walmart runs for command hooks, putting up the TED Talk letters and dress rehearsals for the speakers. 

 Nagireddy said she was excited for the sixth TEDxUConn conference because the team learns so much from each conference and she said she takes pride in representing UConn.  

“We are putting UConn on the map, essentially, to a national and international community,” Nagireddy said.  


Rachel Philipson is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rachel.philipson@uconn.edu.

Nicholas Martin is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at nicholas.r.martin@uconn.edu

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