Tag Archives: TED Talks

The Lost Art of Being Frugal

29 Jan

Worcester, Massachusetts got slammed by a blizzard this week, bringing out the hearty nature in all of us New Englanders. What’s a little (34″) snow to dampen our spirits? I made a big pot of chili, watched a couple of movies, read a little, and hung out with my pets while the snow flew. Then yesterday, I joined everyone else in the neighborhood in the first great dig out of the winter. It’s what you do when you live here. No complaining needed. Born out of the spirit of the Puritans that settled here, New Englanders have a reputation for hard work and frugality. Granted, it’s been some time since the days of the Pilgrims, and regional distinctions fade as we’ve become a much more migratory society over the centuries, but we still think of Southern hospitality, Midwestern friendliness, Western pioneers, and hearty New Englanders. And yesterday, we hearty folks were shoveling. 

Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While we praise hard work and frugality, these traits also run counter to much that Americans dream to achieve today. Retiring early, becoming a millionaire overnight, achieving fame and fortune by winning a talent contest … these are the ideas behind bestsellers and top rated television programs. We talk the talk of hard work, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, scraping and scrapping and saving for our dreams; these are the bedrocks upon which America was built and, thus, they remain a part of our societal DNA. As one of our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, said, “The way to wealth depends on just two words, industry and frugality.” In theory. But in reality, for more reasons than we can count, they are less and less the walk of America. 

Economists speak of “frugality fatigue” as a driving force behind folks living in debt. As a species, we aren’t always very good at delayed gratification. We want what we want now and we’ve built a society that feeds this human habit in so many ways. Thus, when we also hear the popular mantra “do more with less” in our workplaces and business, it’s not something that we necessarily want to hear. It becomes a very negative thing. It wears us out, after awhile. We get stretched too thin. We simply cannot do more and more with less and less. In this sense, frugality becomes our enemy.

But is it? Was Mr. Franklin wrong? Or is there a way to look at “do more with less” that prompts something beyond stress?

According to Navi Radjou, an innovation strategist in Silicon Valley, the answer to that question is yes. In his thought-provoking TED Talk, Creative Problem-Solving in the Face of Extreme Limits, he outlines his theory of frugal innovation. In this brief talk, he gives lots of examples of people living in conditions where resources are often extremely limited, yet rather than limiting their ability to solve problems, the situation actually enhances their creativity and results in solutions that they would likely never come up with in a land of plenty. 

They can magically transform adversity into opportunity, and turn something of less value into something of high value. In other words, they mastered the art of doing more with less, which is the essence of frugal innovation.

~ Navi Radjou

We hardly need to live in abject poverty to take advantage of this idea. Librarianship, and any profession struggling with finding its footing and value in tough times, can tap into the one resource that’s common in most every situation, human ingenuity. Radjou calls it our most abundant resource. We need to find ways and create situations that foster our ingenuity. Maybe, the pressure cooker of a “do more and more with less and less” work setting can be the impetus for this. Maybe not knowing what’s coming next, not knowing where we belong, not knowing how to define and/or redefine ourselves is just the environment we need to push us towards creative solutions.

In many ways, I’m glad that I’ve entered my new role as an evaluator without a lot of traditional knowledge and background in the subject. Yes, I’ve been reading and studying up on the basics, but lacking the resource of years of experience and know-how, I find that I’m able to come up with some different thoughts and ideas and solutions that I probably wouldn’t have come up with otherwise. It’s like the team that enters the big game for the first time. They don’t know enough to know to lose.

One of the great things about evaluating the impact of clinical and translational research is that nobody really knows exactly how to do it yet. This is what I tell myself. It helps me put aside any anxiety of knowing that I don’t necessarily know what I’m doing, and sets me free to try all sorts of things in doing my job. It’s my way of making the most out of my limited resources and thus practicing frugal innovation. And that can be downright exciting. 



TEDMED at Home

17 Apr

My workplace is live streaming the terrific annual event, TEDMED, this week. Many of the talks eventually become available through the TED website, so if you’re not able to watch now, do check in at a later date to see what gets posted. In particular, you might want to watch Larry Smarr describe his hard-to-imagine quest for gathering, tracking, and analyzing every kind of microbe living in his colon. Perhaps it sounds a bit dry, but trust me, it was a fascinating talk.

If you’re interested in mobile health, don’t miss Deborah Estrin’s talk on the work she is doing at Cornell towards an “Open mHealth” movement. Assessing our “social pulse,” she argues, can tell as much about our health as anything, and doing such a thing is becoming more and more possible with the advent of so many tools and apps available for mobile devices. (Visit Small Data to use/see your own small data.)

EVERY academic librarian, along with every single person who utilizes the resources of an academic library, needs to watch Elizabeth Marincola speak on, “What happens when science, money, and freedom of information collide?”  Marincola is a business person and a publisher… and a VERY strong advocate for making published scientific research available to all. “I don’t know anyone who believes that the mission of science is the comodification of data.” GREAT quote!

Max Little spoke of the role of applied mathematics and “prediction competitions” to drive science forward. Amy Abernathy proposes the wonderful idea of Info Data Drives, based on the model of blood drives, where individuals can donate their health data to build the kind of data sets needed to solve complex medical mysteries. Mick Cornett, the mayor of Oklahoma City, talked about how his city redesigned itself for people, as opposed to automobiles, and in doing so went from being on the list of “Most Obese Cities” to “Most Fit Cities” in a matter of a couple of years. Even more, building infrastructure that focuses on community, recreation, and other healthy social activities has made Oklahoma City a destination for many young adults and families, bringing with them the talent and skills needed to keep a city thriving. Sally Okun is the first nurse to grace the TEDMED stage and, not surprisingly to me, she was the one speaker so far who hit home the importance of listening to what patients say. She’s involved in some really interesting contextual language research, trying to develop a lexicon of patient language. I’ve made a note to follow-up on it.

The morning also brought a couple of terrific interludes; Jill Sobule (I loved her already, but now that I know she’s the TEDMED troubadour…) sang a song with fantastic lyrics that I’m afraid I can’t provide here on this family/work-oriented blog. Let’s just say, in the wake of bombs going off at the Boston Marathon, politicians arguing over gun control, and every eye focused on immigration reform, Sobule gives me a nice little refrain to sing over and over again in my head (“When they say, ‘We want our America back’…). Thank you, Jill. And if you’ve never seen Zubin Damania’s alter ego, “ZDoggMD” and his PSAs for different health issues, well you’ve just never seen an internist rapper before, have you? Check him out!

Finally, our very own Myrna Morales, Technology Coordinator for the NN/LM NER, worked with the students organizing today’s streaming to make it possible for a few of us to give our own TED Talks during the breaks! I’m really pleased and honored to work in a library where six people stepped up to the plate and spoke. I captured them on video and after editing (and if I receive permission from the individual speakers), I’ll share their talks on my blog. In the meantime, here is my own and very first TED Talk. Not quite ready for the big leagues, but it was awfully fun to do. Hope you enjoy it!

Dressing Up for Halloween (and work)

31 Oct

Dreams DO come true! At this past weekend’s Boston Book Festival I fulfilled my lifelong dream to dress up as a cartoon character. I don’t mean the Halloween costume kind of character, but a real character. The kind that you find at Disney World or King’s Dominion or sporting events; Mickey Mouse, Huckleberry Hound, Finz of my beloved Worcester Sharks.

It started when I received an email, the long-anticipated reply to my volunteer application:

My reaction was an email reply to Sarah at the BBF saying, “OH MY GOSH! OH MY GOSH! OH MY GOSH!! I can’t believe I got picked to be a character. It’s like a lifetime dream come true! Thank you!!” a response that neither hid nor exaggerated my excitement. Really. This was a big deal for me. Several weeks passed before I learned my assignment (Curious George). I watched YouTube videos to prepare myself – method acting, you know. I practiced George’s dance moves and tried to absorb his mischievous nature. I dodged a last-minute change in schedule that tried to thwart my big day, and come 3:45 on Saturday afternoon, I donned the sweaty padded under-suit, the furry overcoat, the bright red t-shirt with “Curious George” in yellow script across the front. I put on the big feet, the expressive hands, and, of course, the head, and I headed up from the basement level of the Boston Public Library to the awaiting throng of children and adults alike.

Curious George appears at the Boston Book Festival

For the next 45 minutes, I posed and waved and hugged and had my picture taken a hundred times or more. I wasn’t Sally in a Curious George suit. I WAS Curious George.

We’re hard-pressed to think of a superhero who gains superpowers without the aid of some transformation. Superman dons a cape, Batman a bat suit, the Hulk emerges from an angry Dr. Bruce Banner, and with a clink of her bullet-proof, Athenian gold wrist bracelets, Diana Prince becomes Wonder Woman. The ordinary becoming extraordinary is a common thread between most of these characters. Clark Kent needs glasses, but when he is Superman, he has X-Ray vision.

What does this have to do with being an informationist? Am I suggesting that I jump into a phone booth on my way to meetings with the research team? Hardly. When’s the last time that you saw a phone booth? No, embedded librarians have no superpowers, at least none that I’m aware of yet, and alas, we don’t get to wear any special costumes.

Still, think about it. What is it about a costume that can change a person?

What’s the importance of a medical student getting a white coat?

It changes perceptions – both those of the student, as well as any patients and/or family members s/he comes into contact with. A first-year med student, one month into his/her studies, knows no more about medicine than most of us with average intelligence and a bit of background in our own health. Yet, with that white coat on, the one with the embroidered name and the school emblem on the chest, the student is suddenly something more than a young adult lugging around a too-heavy backpack of laptop, books and notes. With that white coat on, the student is, in the eyes of the patient, someone who knows something of what’s in those books. S/he is someone to be trusted with a person’s health. It is an empowering and powerful thing, that jacket.

In a really wonderful TED Talk, neuroscientist Beau Lotto and 12-year-old student, Amy O’Toole, share the story of the Blackawton Bee Project, a research project conducted by Lotto and 25 students from the Blackawton School in Devon (UK). Their work, Blackawton Bees, was published in Biology Letters, making O’Toole and her 8-10 year old (at the time) classmates the youngest peer-reviewed, published scientists in history. When you have 15 minutes, watch this video.


The purpose of Lotto’s seeking out the primary school students and doing research with them was not, however, to set any new world record. Instead, it was to demonstrate his theory that science is for everyone and it is merely our perceptions of science (and scientists) that prevent us from being open to and accepting of this fact. As he pointedly states,

Perception underpins everything we think, we know, we believe, our hopes, our dreams, the clothes we wear, falling in love, everything begins with perception. Now if perception is grounded in our history, it means we’re only ever responding to what we’ve done before. But actually, it’s a tremendous problem, because how can we ever see differently?

Lotto goes on to talk about how hard it is to create new perceptions because doing so involves asking questions that, in turn, create uncertainty. And as much as we talk about wanting change, particularly in this election time of year, let’s face it… we do not like it. Human beings do not like change. We do not like uncertainty. Lotto argues that this is part of us, as a species. He says, “Now, uncertainty is a bad thing. It’s evolutionarily a bad thing. If you’re not sure that’s a predator, it’s too late.”

To put all of this in the context of being an informationist, if the perception of librarianship, both by librarians and our patrons, is rooted in our past experience(s), we’ve more than a bit of work to do to get others, and ourselves, to ask the questions that prompt the uncertainty that will ultimately lead to a new, more accurate perception. And to make it all the more difficult, we must do this without any superpowers and, for most of us, no costume changes.

There are many who argue that all we need to do to change the perception is call ourselves something other than librarians. As much as I respect this idea, in my opinion it falls short. I believe it holds some merit and is worthy of discussion, but think that it is only the beginning – the very beginning – of a longer, harder, more arduous process. The Blackawton Bee Project didn’t try to change what people called scientists, but rather, what people perceived scientists to be.

I propose that the next steps in librarianship’s pursuit of changing the perception people hold of it are found in the story of the Blackawton kids. By choosing children, Lotto demonstrated that their intrinsic abilities, i.e. their nature to play (as kids do), is the key to being a good scientist. Said another way, the key to being a good scientist is play, not age.

Play is “evolution’s answer to the problem of uncertainty,” says Lotto. Play involves five characteristics that correspond closely with the work of a scientist. Play:

  • celebrates uncertainty
  • is adaptable to change
  • is open to possible
  • is cooperative
  • and is intrinsically motivated

The Blackawton Bee Project was carried out to show that these five characteristics of play, things possessed by children, made them ideal scientists despite every preconceived perception held by the scientific community. Despite years of experience that said otherwise.

I’m just back from the annual meeting of the North Atlantic Health Sciences Libraries organization, the regional group of the national Medical Library Association. Being at the meeting, I missed the weekly meeting of my research team yesterday, so have some catching up to do there. But it’s these times of professional gathering, particularly among groups facing uncertainty, like medical librarians, that brings to focus more than ever our thoughts and discussions and anxiety over the uncertainty we see before us. And so I’m thinking this week about these things and about Beau and Amy and the other kids of the Blackawton Primary School, of the researchers who believed in the possibility of kids as scientists, and of Biology Letters who ultimately published their article. I’m also thinking about the teachers who didn’t think the kids could do the project, the funding bodies that wouldn’t fund the project, the open access journal that originally rejected (twice) the article that the kids wrote. And finally, I’m thinking about how to do my own scientific experiment; how to incorporate the aspects of play that describe so well both scientists and librarians like myself who are looking for the best way(s) to become embedded in their research teams.

We play to play, says Lotto. “Play is its own reward.” It seems a really fitting message for a day when adults dress up and tap into their childlike “trick or treat” selves. I’m going to start looking at my work as an informationist this way. It’s play. Enjoy it!