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TEDxUSF Speakers Encourage Audience Members to Live Limitlessly

TEDxUSF speakers spoke of surviving cancer, turning adversity into positive change, and noninvasive ways of diagnosing and treating neurological disorders.

One by one, six TEDxUSF speakers took the Marshall Student Center Ballroom stage on Wednesday night to share stories from their own lives — and to challenge members of the audience to live theirs differently.

TED, short for technology, entertainment and design, is the nonprofit behind the popular TED Talks series, in which speakers share cutting-edge ideas, or as the organization’s popular tagline goes, “ideas worth spreading.”

TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events. This is the fourth year USF has presented TEDxUSF.

Presented by the USF Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement, the theme of this year’s TEDxUSF was “Limitless,” an adjective speakers used to describe everything from the possibilities after surviving cancer to alternative ways of organizing our society.

Dr. Marleah Dean Kruzel

“I refuse to be limited by something that may or may not happen,” said Marleah Dean Kruzel, PhD, the first speaker of the evening, who recounted her mother’s battle with breast cancer and her own experiences since testing positive for BRCA2, a genetic mutation that increases one’s risk for the disease.

“I choose to embrace uncertainty and, like my mother, make the best decisions with the information I have at that time.”

Dr. Kruzel, who as an 8-year-old child imagined breast cancer as “a snake swallowing bits of my 38-year old mother,” is an assistant professor of health communication at USF, studying the communication that takes place between patients, health care providers and families about hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

Patients who carry gene mutations for these types of cancer feel uncertainty about their health and their future ability to have children. To manage their uncertainty, they seek out information and try to create a plan of action, Dr. Kruzel explained.

“Seeking, organizing and utilizing information makes them feel safe, empowered and in control,” she said.

“But the magic solution doesn’t exist. Testing positive for BRCA makes us realize that we are only certain about uncertainty … Life is uncertain, and it is in the uncertainty that we learn and grow.”

Dr. Kruzel offered members of the audience her advice for coping with the uncertainties of life.

“Live life fully. Don’t wait for the right time or place. Live in the now … Cut people slack. You don’t know what others are experiencing. We are all doing the best we can with the information we have at this time … Embrace the uncertainty,” she said.

Dr. Kruzel was one of three USF faculty members to speak at TEDxUSF.

Dr. Sal Morgera

Sal Morgera, PhD, a professor of electrical engineering, presented research that shows the 100 billion nerve fibers in the brain transmit electrical impulses not only to other parts of the body but also to one another.

“They talk to each other like neighbors, or like users in a social network,” Dr. Morgera said.

By listening to the brain it may be possible to noninvasively diagnose and treat neurological changes such as Alzheimer’s disease, autism spectrum disorder, or multiple sclerosis, which afflicted his own mother, Dr. Morgera explained.

“We are learning to listen to the brain and its dynamic language,” Dr. Morgera. “This is a game changer, I believe, a paradigm shift.”

Dr. Bernd Reiter

Bernd Reiter, PhD, a professor of comparative politics, used his turn on stage to discuss “the crisis of liberal democracy.”

“I have spent 20 years analyzing the problems and shortcomings of democracies,” Dr. Reiter said. “I decided that instead of becoming a specialist on problems, I would become a specialist on solutions. What has worked? Where? When? Under what conditions?”

America, Dr. Reiter said, is experiencing economic and political crises.

“Politics has deteriorated into a spectacle. Most people feel powerless and alienated from politics,” he said.

With a graphic showing home values in St. Pete Beach behind him, he added:

“Economically, there is no end to the competition. Average people have to wait for a crash or a natural disaster to find opportunity.”

The core promises of democracy and free markets, Dr. Reiter said, are self-rule and equal opportunity, respectively.

“Most countries lack both, but we are told there is no alternative,” he said. “This is a lie.”

Examples can be found throughout history, and in places such as modern-day Vermont and Switzerland, of societies that have successfully practiced direct democracy, in which the people govern themselves, and established more equitable economic markets.

“If we want democracy, the people need to be involved. Lawmaking should be the business of all citizens. Communities need to make serious decisions about how to spend money. We need laws and regulations to limit the power of politicians. And we need to start thinking about maximum wages — or upper limits to wealth — so that the wealth accumulated by some becomes available to all of us when they die,” he said.

Dr. Nick Joyce

Nick Joyce, PhD, a psychologist in the USF Tampa Counseling Center, rounded out the lineup of professional speakers for the evening. Dr. Joyce has long studied Eastern mindfulness and the act of “letting go” of unhelpful thoughts.

“We are not our minds and we are not the thoughts our minds give us,” Dr. Joyce said.

“Anxiety, stress, and sadness are normal parts of being human, but we’ve become so afraid of them that we’ve messed up the process of dealing with these things.”

In nearly every counseling session he conducts, students ask for his help in eliminating negative thoughts and feelings — but that’s impossible.

“You can’t get rid of what you’re experiencing right now, but if you practice these skills, you can learn to manage your thoughts and feelings,” he said.

Dr. Joyce encouraged his audience to begin creating space for their thoughts and feelings, meaning rather than letting them rule their lives, to mentally step back, observe them, and then decide how to react. He likened this practice to the difference between looking through or at a pair of glasses.

For instance, the night before his TEDxUSF talk, Dr. Joyce had the thought he would fail. Had he not been prepared, that thought could have served a purpose, spurring him to turn off the TV and practice. However, because he had rehearsed his talk many times, he recognized his mind was merely causing him unnecessary stress. He chose to let the negative thought go and continue with his evening, rather than wasting his time worrying.

“If you can learn to let go, you may find yourself closer to a limitless life,” Dr. Joyce said.

Some of the most rousing moments of the evening came from the student speakers, Emily Pickett and Yasmine Ezzair.

Pickett, a junior studying communications with a minor in history, was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, cancer of the retina, when she was a child, and lost her left eye to the disease.

Emily Pickett

“I can’t see 3D and I can’t be a fighter pilot,” said Pickett, who wears a prosthetic.

Despite the challenges she faced early in life, Pickett has remained optimistic and determined to live every day to its fullest. She is director of chapter activities for Delta Gamma sorority and tutors homeless children for a nonprofit called Starting Right, Now. In high school, she spearheaded a fundraiser for cancer patients, raising $18,000, more than three times her goal.

“Adaptation is everything. It is your choice to adapt in positive or negative ways. I will never have two eyes, and I will have doctor appointments and an uncomfortable fake eye for the rest of my life, but I will never let those things define me. Having one eye just means I see life from a different perspective,” she said.

“I don’t need any eyes to be happy, confident and excited about life.”

Yasmine Ezzair

The final speaker of the evening, Ezzair, a first-generation Moroccan American studying chemistry, described her experiences as a young Muslim girl.

“I remember the night before I began wearing my headscarf. I was in middle school and I called all my friends, asking them if they would still be my friend if I wore a headscarf. I received some reassurances and some rejections,” she said. “Sept. 11 was still fresh in the minds and hearts of Americans.”

Throughout middle and high school, she encountered discrimination and misconceptions about her religion. Then at 18, she survived a car accident.

“”I started thinking about who I am and what people would remember if I had gone,” she said.

While people often draw incorrect conclusions about her based on her headscarf, assuming she can’t speak English or that she is oppressed by her family, Ezzair chose to rise above and live a life of meaning. She created an organization called Drawings for Impact. Individuals from all over the world submit photos to her via social media. She turns them into drawings and donates 100 percent of the proceeds she receives to relief operations for Syrian refugees.

“We don’t know when our next breath will be. Everything I went through, I went through for a reason, to use it for positive change,” she said.

“I challenge you to take on any barrier or hardship you have known, take it and use it for good. You are limitless.”

Between speakers and “Indelible: Veterans’ Stories of Love,” a special performance by students from the USF Theatre, Dance and Music Departments, attendees participated in a poll to select the theme for next year’s TEDxUSF.

The winner: Breaking Barriers.

For more information on TEDxUSF, visit

Story by Rachel Pleasant, University Communications & Marketing, Photos by Stahl & Cooper Photography

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