College of Sciences at TEDxDouglasville 2016

College of Sciences at TEDxDouglasville 2016

About 30 miles west of Atlanta lies the town of Douglasville. Described variously as “charming,” having a “small-town ambiance,” and “historic,” this town of close to 32,000 people away from the frenzy and busyness of the big city would not be an obvious site for a TEDx event. And yet for the second year in a row, TEDxDouglasville is happening, thanks to two Georgia Tech students driven by a deep sense of gratitude to their hometown: Joshua Barnett, a third-year physics major, and Mahdi Al-Husseini, a third-year biomedical engineering and public policy major.

For the two undergrads, TEDxDouglasville is a means to give back to a town and community that supported them as they began their undergraduate studies at Georgia Tech. Looking ahead to their graduation from Georgia Tech, Barnett and Al-Husseini regard TEDxDouglasville as a way to stay connected to their community of origin even as they might move farther away in search of their individual futures.

Barnett and Al-Husseini have known each other since their freshman days in Douglas County High School. “By the time we graduated, we were best friends and bound for Georgia Tech,” Barnett says. Al-Husseini masterminded the creation of TEDxDouglasville, asking Barnett to join soon after the TED license was approved. Barnett did not hesitate to take the role of co-organizer. “Both of us were deeply affected by a philosophy course we had taken in high school,” he says. “And we were convinced by the power of ideas and the impact of how ideas are conveyed.”

A big surprise of the event last year was how much younger the audience was than the organizers had expected. “A large number of high school students attended,” Barnett says. “This year we have made tickets more accessible to these students, and we’re even holding the event in a school that many of them attend.”

That would be Douglas County High School. When TEDxDouglasville 2016 is held there on April 9, two College of Sciences faculty members will speak:

Brian Hammer, from the School of Biology, will talk about cooperation and conflict in the microbial world. “Microbes are ubiquitous on Earth and interact with one another and their surroundings in diverse associations that maintain the health of our planet and all of its inhabitants,” Hammer says. His research is helping to explain how bacteria cooperate and compete. And he hopes the knowledge “will allow us to monitor and manipulate these behaviors to prevent and treat human diseases and to mitigate perturbations to global ecological systems.”

Laura Cadonati, from the School of Physics, will describe the discovery of gravitational waves. “Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space and time that are produced by cataclysmic astrophysical events,” Cadonati explains. One hundred years  after Albert Einstein predicted their existence,  one such wave was detected for the first time on Sept. 14, 2015; the wave came from the merging of two gigantic black holes 1.3 billion years ago. Cadonati will explain how gravitational waves open a new way to probe the universe.

“Events like TEDxDouglasville speak to Georgia Tech’s and the College of Sciences’ tradition of educating and nurturing the whole person and not just the engineering or the physics aspects,” says College of Sciences Dean Paul M. Goldbart. “They also underscore the College’s commitment to sharing with nonscientists everywhere the excitement and promise of our researchers’ breakthrough discoveries.”  

With an average age of 21, Barnett, Al-Husseini, and the organizing team of TEDxDouglasville are on a steep learning curve to achieve their aspirations for TEDxDouglasville. Following are edited excerpts from a Q&A conducted by e-mail. Responses are from both Barnett and Al-Husseini except where indicated.

Why is Douglasville a good venue for a TEDx program?

It’s hard to resist Douglasville’s southern charm, incredible past, beautiful parks, and strength of community. Douglasville is where history meets modernity. This little, big city rests on the fringes of Atlanta, but remains far enough to stay humble.

This event is a way to engage our community. It would give people a chance to meet and converse with individuals with whom they might never interact otherwise. Diverse interactions is important in the development of a wholesome, interconnected community.

Who are the people you are trying to reach with TEDxDouglasville?

Students, construction workers, teachers, businessmen, janitors, social workers, doctors, lawyers. Anyone with a sense of curiosity. We seek to get people thinking, dreaming, and achieving.

What is your measure of success for TEDxDouglasville?

Exposing our audience to different people and new ideas was one of our goals from the beginning. But we must also consider the impact on the wider community. TEDxDouglasville inspired a new level of civic engagement: It led to a proposal for the Douglas Youth Department and catalyzed the creation of a service organization, Progressive Action Towards the Health of Douglasville, a lasting legacy.

It is also great to have scientists from Georgia Tech speak to a general audience, especially to high school students. TEDxDouglasville not only gives the audience a chance to connect with scientists on a tangible, accessible level, but it also helps to steer youth who are considering majoring in the sciences by providing a realistic snapshot of what scientific research looks like on the collegiate level.

Give us a preview of TEDxDouglasville 2016.

Our theme for this year is “Laying the Tracks,” which is rooted in the city’s origins from a railroad track. TEDxDouglasville 2016 will explore the intricacies of pioneering and building in the sciences, arts, education, and business. The event is laying tracks for ideas worth spreading, in hopes of building something extraordinary.

What happens to TEDxDouglasville when you graduate from Georgia Tech? 

Al-Husseini: We aim to transform TEDxDouglasville from an annual event into a continuous platform for creative thinking and community outreach. The proceeds from this year’s event will be stored in a scholarship fund dedicated to high school students in Douglas County.

I intend to spend four years on active-duty with the US Army, after a spring 2018 Georgia Tech graduation. Upon completing my service contract, I hope to attend graduate school and eventually return to Douglasville.

Barnett: I hope to take an advisory role for a successor who will come to organize the event. With plans to attend graduate school, I must commit more and more time to research and my courses. Meanwhile, we will explore various options.

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