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As American astronaut Jerry Linenger finished his riveting description of life in space, the full house in attendance for Saturday’s TEDxUNC event “Taking Flight” soared to its feet. The crowd at UNC’s Memorial Hall expressed enthusiastic appreciation for the Tar Heel hero, who twisted, turned and arched on stage to accent the extraordinary story of a life lived in pursuit of the dream to soar in the heavens.

Linenger, who received a master’s degree and doctorate degree in epidemiology from UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health in 1989, was part of a gifted lineup of speakers and performers whose work spans the globe and includes some notable Carolina stars. With music, movement, art, spoken word and powerful narratives, the speakers helped the audience explore what it means to discover lift, gain altitude, navigate turbulence and ultimately gain perspective from above.

Chancellor Carol L. Folt talks with a student during a TEDxUNC breakout session.
Chancellor Carol L. Folt talks with a student during a TEDxUNC breakout session. (Courtesy of Connelly Crowe, TEDxUNC.)

TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. From its initial conference in California 26 years ago, TED has grown to support world-changing ideas with many initiatives.

At a TED conference, the world’s leading thinkers and doers are asked to give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes or less. The goal is to inspire, ask big questions and motivate positive change in the world.

Saturday, it appeared to succeed.

Attendees at “Taking Flight” were challenged to re-imagine nonprofit education, push new frontiers of collaboration in entrepreneurship, take on the plight of pollinating bees to save our food supply and re-examine our relationship with contemporary social justice icons such as Martin Luther King.

Chancellor Carol L. Folt opened the event, and UNC faculty and students speakers and performers included:

  • Safiyah Ismail, a junior Environmental Health Science major who founded UNC’s American Sign Language club. She explored the connections between language, community and accessibility through the lens of her experience as a proficient sign language interpreter.
  • Bobby Mook, a senior business major, probed the effect that social media have on our ability to feel secure and appreciated. Mook proposed that technology exacerbates a condition that students are particularly vulnerable to – FOMO. The Fear of Missing Out makes it challenging for individuals to stay in the moment, be connected and achieve goals that require focus and sacrifice.
  • Debra Barksdale, director of the Doctor of Nursing Practice Program at UNC, told the audience of her journey from poverty to accomplished nurse. Her motivation: a fictional TV character of the 1960s balanced by the real-life support of a beloved teacher-mentor.
  • Beat Academy, headed by Chair of the Music Department Mark Katz, performed a sample of the work it does around the world to use music as a way to connect cultures and explore common themes.
  • Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science, spoke about his interest in collective action and social movements, politics and civics, complex systems, surveillance and privacy.
  • Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic Studies at UNC, challenged the audience to go beyond its iconic view of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and confront the difficult social justice issues underpinning his teaching that remain ingrained in society.
  • Lee Weisert, an assistant professor of music who teaches courses in musicianship, music technology and composition, showcased recent collaborations in music composition using recorded underwater sounds.

The event was emceed by Terry Rhodes, Senior Associate Dean for Fine Arts and Humanities; and Judith Cone, Special Assistant to the Chancellor for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The theme “Taking Flight” was selected by the event’s co-curators, students Cameron Kneib, Julia Ramos and Chenxi “Chex” Yu, and it gave the organizing team a chance to craft a vision that was played out through the course of the day. They were hesitant to take credit for any particular part of the event’s success, instead pointing to the number of talented students that lined up early in the year to participate.

Yu, Kneib and Ramos said the experience of the day – feeling the energy of participants in the breakout sessions at intermission, and the nervous excitement of speakers as they prepared to take the stage – would be their lasting memory.

The group helped raise $50,000 from on- and off-campus sponsors for the event, and $20,000 was set aside for next year.

More than 1,800 viewers participated in the live stream from ten different countries. The recording is available at

By Michelle Bolas,

Published and updated February 17, 2014.