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Student speakers shine at this year's TEDxUSF event

The USF Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement hosted six speakers at this year's TEDxUSF event.

Morgan Eastman, graduate student at the Patel College of Global Sustainability, used American Sign Language and an interpreter to address the audience.

Morgan Eastman stood in front of an audience and didn’t speak a word; instead, she signed rapidly as her interpreter filled the silence. Within minutes Eastman, a graduate student at the University of South Florida’s Patel College of Global Sustainability, taught her listeners some basic American Sign Language (ASL).

“When we have shared goals and we communicate our ideas clearly, anything is possible,” said Eastman during this year’s fifth annual TEDxUSF event held April 15 at the Gibbons Alumni Center.

The student-run event is meticulously produced throughout the year by the USF Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement (CLCE), a program created to help guide students into leadership roles.

“It takes a lot of dedication and belief of what this opportunity brings to the campus,” said Kayla Rykiel, TEDxUSF director and third-year biomedical sciences student.

Kayla Rykiel, TEDxUSF director, lead a lean team of student volunteers to produce the fifth annual TEDxUSF stage.

TED, an acronym for technology, entertainment and design, is non-profit global forum where speakers share experiences and ideas on all kinds of topics. TEDx events are local and independently held. The recorded event is limited to 100 on-site audience members and features extraordinary speakers. It’s a chance to create a stage where USF students and faculty can address a large audience and as the TED tagline reads, to “spread great ideas.”

Eastman was born deaf and learned ASL as her first language. So, when the audience cheeringly clapped for her by waving hands, it befitted the theme and title of this year’s event, Breaking Barriers. Six speakers were chosen out of 78 applicants. Eastman clearly met the requirements. It was her first time presenting with an interpreter on a stage before a large audience.

“People who hear typically visualize communication in only one way when a deaf person is involved,” Eastman said.

Within minutes, Eastman taught the audience how to clap in American Sign Language during her presentation on Adaptive Communication.

Her goal is to inspire nondeaf people to leave their comfort zones when trying to communicate, just as if they were visiting another country. Eastman’s presentation, titled “Adaptive Communication,” gave the audience a three-point plan: Recognize who you are as a person, be patient to allow time for understanding and be flexible.

For Michelle Lyman, a dual-degree graduate student at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine and College of Public Health, the stage was a familiar setting. Lyman called upon her theater arts background to make the case for using art as a teaching tool.

“Art is what builds human connection,” Lyman said.

Michelle Lyman, a medical student at the Morsani College of Medicine and the College of Public Health, used her acting background to create narratives to help medical students learn about victims of sex trafficking.

In her talk titled “Blurring the Line Between Science and Art: How Theater Transforms Medicine,” Lyman described a niche she found between standardized patient actors and victims of human trafficking.

“Twenty-eight to 88 percent of sex-trafficked victims encounter health care workers,” Lyman said.

Lyman compared the precarious interaction between a medical professional and victim as an off-script scenario, similar to an actor forgetting their lines.

“They too are standing on stage uncertain of what line comes next,” she added.

Lyman encouraged the audience to embrace the intersection between art and science.

Medical students learn to interact with and diagnose patients through exercises that replicate real clinical scenarios as closely as possible. Through these simulations, they are taught to elicit patient stories by talking, observing and probing for details. Lyman worked with survivors of sexual trafficking and advocates to write scripts that are then used by standardized patients, or people trained to act as actual patients. The script for a patient who is a victim of sex trafficking includes details such as tattoos or markings and cell phones to help signify the sense of being tethered to a trafficker. Her hope is that by bringing these stories into simulated medical education, medical students will learn to notice the nuanced signs that may lead to identifying a trafficked patient.

Finding solutions to prevalent social problems were at the core of the talks by Eastman and Lyman, but graduate student Andrew Koutnik, took a different approach. Koutnik focused on his scientific endeavors while living with diabetes. In his speech titled “Rethinking Nutrition for Type-1 Diabetics: A Personal and Research Perspective,” Koutnik declared his disease an asset.

Andrew Koutnick, a graduate research student at the Morsani College of Medicine, shared his scientific approach to managing his diabetes. 

“My disease benefits my life in every way,” said Koutnik who carries a medical device to help him monitor his blood sugar continuously throughout the day.

As a researcher at the Morsani College of Medicine’s Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology, Koutnik is interested in re-examining the nutritional approaches used to achieve health and disease management, with particular focus on carbohydrates (or lack thereof). He admits that this idea is controversial for people with type-1 diabetes, but he is a “walking experiment” with a “metabolic insight into how his body responses to food, exercise, and other lifestyle choices.”

Working through his disease as both a patient and scientist, Koutnik has a unique perspective. He’s translated the insights he has gained from personal experimentation into his day-to-day work in the laboratory. By limiting his consumption of carbohydrates he’s been able to eliminate the drastic spikes in his glucose levels and reduce his medication requirements by 70 percent. In fact, by maintaining a low-carb diet, and being conscious of how exercise and sleep schedules effect his insulin sensitivity, Koutnik’s blood sugar reflects the levels of people without diabetes.

Throughout the day, Koutnik continuously monitors his blood sugar levels. 

“For my situation, this may be a better approach,” said Koutnik who habitually avoids “60 percent of the grocery store,” which tends to have high-carb ingredients.

Koutnik finds that by focusing on keeping normal, healthy blood glucose levels, he avoids the drastic fluctuations in blood glucose, which can result in symptoms of high and low blood glucose. Ultimately, Andrew’s goal is to avoid a life free of diabetic complications and risks by avoiding the main culprit, chronically elevated and variable blood glucose numbers, which can be a normal part of living with type-1diabetes.

While no cures exist yet, Koutnik said, “I want to share a solution I’ve found that may help other people with type-1 diabetes avoid a life of complication and risk.”


Event experiences hosted by student volunteers gave attendees the opportunity to engage with three core values: Responsi-Bull, Sustaina-Bull and Acessi-Bull.

James A. Williams' live music entertained audiences during intermission.

Attendees learned about food waste disposal from USF students Whitney Fung of the College of Public Health, Li Zhu of the Patel College for Global Sustainability, and Phillip Dixon of the College of Engineering.

The American Sign Language Bulls Club hosted a table to promote interaction between people who are deaf, hearing, and hard-of-hearing.


Story and photos by Sandra C. Roa, University Communications and Marketing.

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