Brandeis students and alumni spoke to inspire the campus community at the TEDx BrandeisU event on Saturday, April 2. Titled “New Paths to Discovery,” the speakers discussed ways to transform one’s life and ways of thinking, as told through their own personal stories and experiences.

Thabong Matona

Matona ’24, planning to major in HSSP and Business, spoke first. From South Africa, he graduated from the African Leadership Academy and helped organize youth leadership development programs before coming to Brandeis. Matona shared his ideas on how to create a more equal society through his speech, “One banana is better than no banana at all.”

Matona began by talking about his grandmother. He explained that despite working very hard, his grandmother and others like her remain impoverished because they don’t receive credit for the work that they do. Instead, all of the credit and pay goes to those at the top. “I’m convinced that my grandmother is stuck in poverty because, unlike me, she’s not receiving accreditation. And if people like her did, we can effectively end social inequality,” he said. “I know that this sounds like an oversimplified solution to one of the world’s most complex problems but…I’m here to share an idea that could help us reimagine the world we live in.”

Matona explained this idea further through a metaphor where banana farming chimpanzees are similar to the current culture of our society and where fishermen are similar to the society we should strive to have. In the chimpanzee society, he said, one chimpanzee runs a banana farm from which he and his investors profit immensely, keeping most of the bananas for themselves as well as earning credit for running such a successful business. However, the laborers doing the actual farmwork are only rewarded one banana each and are not recognized for their efforts. Conversely, Matona continued, in the fishermen society, all of the fishermen split the fish they catch evenly and each receive credit for their work –– the ideator, investors, and fishermen alike.

“How do we make human society less like the chimpanzee society?” Matona asked. The answer? “Recognizing that everyone is important in making the endeavor possible,” he said. By showing respect to our fellow colleagues, classmates, and others around us and by crediting each person involved in a project, business, etc. for the important work they do, we will change ourselves and society for the better, Matona explained. There needs to be a “willingness to just give people the credit they deserve,” he said, adding later that we need to teach people “to value their own hard work and, more importantly, to value the work of others.”

Moreover, Matona said that this ideal of crediting and respecting others should be taught as the norm to the next generation so that it becomes “ingrained in the fabric of who we are.” He concluded, “Just normalize giving other people credit for their work. It could truly be the first step towards changing social inequality.”

Herlyne Das

Das ’18 was the second speaker. Das, who earned her Bachelor’s degree in Biology and HSSP at Brandeis University and her Masters of Science in Biomedical Science from Tufts University, is now attending St. George’s University School of Medicine and is involved in youth nonprofit and mentoring programs. She spoke about the journey she went through overcoming personal challenges and failures in pursuit of her dream to go to medical school in her speech, asking,“What if failure is the key to success?”

Das began with a story about how she suffered serious injuries from a car accident while she was in high school, leaving her partially blinded and with a long term concussion. This proved to be a challenging setback as she tried to keep up with her demanding college-level classwork, exams, and sports, as well as be on track to go to university and medical school, she explained. Das expressed that she had been worried that she would be “defined by failure” because she was falling behind and letting down those who had high expectations of her.

However, a quote Das read on a fortune cookie turned her life around and defined her new optimistic philosophy going forward: “Success wouldn’t taste so good without failure served as appetizers.”

Das explained that failure is just a necessary step toward future success and that it opens up opportunities for growth. Failure makes us uncomfortable, but it also forces us to question and seek out what we are truly passionate about, she said. By embracing this, she added, we can “embody resilience, perseverance, and confidence…and unlock our untouched potential.” Das also said that by embodying this optimistic mindset surrounding failure helps one to have a growth mindset and manifest opportunities for success. “Your untouched potential are the qualities and skills that allow you to think beyond your capacity of greatness and that allows you to reach your future success,” she said.

“My failure became my motivation to prove I was still capable of success,” Das said. Her dream was to be a doctor and she did not let her setbacks get in the way of that goal, instead using them to motivate herself to keep working hard and find meaning and purpose in her work. “I believed my failure was going to be a limitation toward my success, but I realized it made me limitless,” Das said.

Jeremy Huey

Huey, who is currently pursuing a Masters in Computer Science at Brandeis, was the third speaker. As “a composer, conductor, music instructor, pianist, language specialist, and data curator,” as according to his biography presented at the talk, Huey intersects his interests by studying how meaning is made from music. He discussed this idea in his speech, “Music, Metaphor, and Meaning,” which he intertwined with playing interludes of piano music to immerse the audience in the experience of finding meaning in song.

Huey played a few notes on the piano to start –– B, then B, C, and D together. He said that a single musical note is a “symbol of language” or a “unit of communication,” like a word, whereas a series of notes is a larger unit of communication, like a sentence; an entire piece of music is a full thought. Through music, therefore, thoughts and feelings can be expressed and meaning can be found, Huey explained.

He then defined three ways to map musical symbols and realize the meaning of a piece. First,  “melodic motion or direction” is the way that musical notes move up and down. Second, “harmony” is a composition of notes that are played together, which creates different wavelengths –– “consonances,” where the waves align and the notes vibrate in equal harmony, and “dissonances,” where the waves do not align so the notes are jarring. Third, “rhythm” is grouped notes. Huey explained that we have bodily associations of musical notes having positive and negative connotations and that we can use logic and rationality to connect these associations through metaphors in order to create meaning from a piece of music.

“Music sounds like the idea it’s conveying,” Huey said. “The qualities of the symbols in groups retain the shape and the features of the ideas that they represent through metaphor, our body knows these associations and explains to us what is being expressed in the music, and this is how musical interpretation works.”

At the beginning of his speech, Huey said, “I have a thought to express and will show why it’s expressed by this music,” starting with playing just a few notes. By the end though, he had played an entire piece titled “A Hymn in Conversation.” Through mapping the meaning of the music through its direction, harmony, and rhythm, Huey expressed that the piece had a sense of “hopefulness, peacefulness, calm, [and] steadiness” –– feelings that we wanted the audience to walk away understanding from the music. “I’d like you to think about the associations that we have and any new associations that you can pick up to bring the communicative meaning of these musical samples from my heart to your heart,” he said before concluding with playing the full melody.

Jeffery Arnold

Arnold, a Master of Public Policy student at the University’s Heller School, was the fourth speaker. Arnold has been a soldier in the United States Army since 2015; he also earned an Associates degree in Tagalog Studies from the Defense Language Institute and a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from Liberty University. Upon graduating from Brandeis, he will become an officer in the U.S. Army. In his speech, “Social Justice Warrior: The Warrior Ethos,” Arnold spoke about his military experience living by the “warrior ethos” code and how its ideals can be applied to the advancement of social justice.

Arnold began by explaining the “warrior ethos,” a code of the U.S. military that states the following: “I will always place the mission first,” “I will never accept defeat,” “I will never quit,” and “I will never leave a fallen comrade.” This code is one that everyone should live by in order to better advance social justice in the world, he said.

Although social justice may not usually be associated with the military, Arnold said, the U.S. Army is working to take strides to increase racial and gender equality within its soldiers and officers, combat climate change, and protect all civilians worldwide. The goal is “not leaving anyone behind,” he added, referring to the warrior ethos idea of “I will never leave a fallen comrade.”

That being said, Arnold explained that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done in terms of advancing social justice both in the military and beyond, but that doing so is possible if we live by the warrior ethos. For instance, he told a story about an army sergeant he knew who despite having extensive education, training, and combat experience, was denied a promotion that Arnold himself was able to achieve –– the only difference was that the sergeant was Black and Arnold was not, he said. From this experience, Arnold realized that the mission of social justice and racial equality cannot be abandoned –– only 22% of the army overall and only 11% of the military intelligence career field is Black, he said, adding that there is a very low percentage of women in the military as well, and that these discrepancies need to be recognized and work needs to be done for improvement. “By acknowledging past mistakes and moving forward, we can live the warrior ethos and advance racial and gender equity within the military,” Arnold said.

He continued, “Racial and gender equity within our own ranks are noble goals. However, much the same way that racial and gender discrepancies exist within our ranks, they exist in the ranks of those who suffer from war –– women, people with disabilities, marginalized communities, and other vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected by war.”

Arnold finished by telling another story of how he helped bring civilians off of the battlefield in Syria when he was deployed there in 2019. “To truly live the warrior ethos, we must make sure that we safeguard others with the same vigor that we use to protect our own people,” he said, concluding with an emphasis on the importance of fighting for social justice and how doing so will shape the future of America and the world for the better.

Dr. Xu Simon

Dr. Simon was the final speaker of the night. She did her postdoctoral degree at Brandeis after earning a Ph.D in biophysical chemistry and molecular structure from MIT in 2008 and an M.B.A. from Bentley University in 2015. Simon also served as an American Association for the Advancement of Science and Technology Policy Fellow in the U.S. Department of State’s diplomatic anti-chemical-weapons program office, worked for two start-up companies, and was an adjunct biology professor at both Brandeis and Bentley. Now, she is the Chief Technology Officer at Enozo Technologies in Andover, MA, according to her biography presented at the talk.

Simon spoke about how to work within one’s own limits in her speech, “Working at Your Resonant Frequency.” She began with a story about how she had been fired from her job for “incompetence” within six months of returning from maternity leave because she was no longer able to work with the same level of energy as before. Instead of recognizing and being transparent about her own limits, Simon said she had been working at the limits of others, taking on more than she could handle. This particularly became a problem when she returned from maternity leave with the company’s expectations of what she could take on being too high.

“The world is defined by physics,” Simon said, adding that everyone operates at a different “resonant frequency,” or rhythm. She defined resonant frequency through an explanation of pushing someone on a swing. If you push at the correct rhythm, the swing goes steadily back and forth, but pushing too slow will cause it to stop and pushing too fast could lead to disastrous consequences because the swing becomes dangerous. Simon said that putting effort in at one’s job is the same way –– “putting energy in at the wrong time yields poor consequences,” she said.

Simon added that today, more than ever, people are subject to burnout, especially with the added stress of dealing with and adapting to a global pandemic. She said that the way we used to do work is no longer possible and we also need to be able to recognize the extent of our own abilities and limitations. She added that one’s resonant frequency can change too, so learning to recognize and adapt to how one’s energy and capabilities fluctuate is important –– as is being able to advocate for oneself and be transparent about limits. “The signature of authenticity is resonance,” Simon said.