Ideas for a Better World

TEDxUNT inspires audience with words of wisdom from UNT students, alumni, faculty and staff.

By Jessica DeLeon

Changing the world begins at the TEDxUNT stage. On Oct. 1, that’s where 11 speakers -- UNT students, alumni, faculty and staff -- spread their ideas and inspired an audience to make a difference in the world.

TEDxUNT, which took place in front of a live audience at the University Union and was streamed online, is a locally organized offshoot of the popular TED Talks series. With the theme “Create the Change,” the speakers encouraged audience members to be more curious, support youth who were in foster care and the juvenile justice system, advocate for people who’ve experienced sexual assault and those with mental illness, run for office, follow their dreams and more.

The event, emceed by Rudy Reynoso (’14) -- who was the first Latino student body president at UNT and a UNT System Student Regent -- also included appearances by Scrappy, Lucky and the cheer and dance teams, and performances by the College of Music’s Percussion Ensemble and Sweetwater Combo.

“I felt very emotional listening to everyone,” says Rodolfo Ruiz (’18 M.S.), who attended the event with his wife, Annabelle. “There’s so much change we can do across the board, in all sorts of different areas, and that’s what every one of the speakers showed. I want to find that inspiration in myself and my own life, to see what I can do to be that little grain of change.”

Annabelle Ruiz says she enjoyed Corinne French’s talk encouraging women to run for office.

“It inspired me to be a risk-taker despite the imperfections that I might have,” she says. “To be a leader and embrace change. It empowered me as a woman to aspire to more leadership roles, because we don’t have to be perfect to lead.”

Belliny Guevara, a junior education major, remembers seeing TED Talks in middle school.

“They dealt with a lot of taboos in society, and it helps us to be more conscious of them and know that we can make a change. No matter how small we think we are, we can influence one person, and that makes a big difference.” The speakers said they were happy to be there to spread their message. For Ione Hunt von Herbing, speaking fulfilled a goal she had for quite some time. She had always been a fan of TED Talks because, she says, “It is a way of taking all human experiences and sharing them. If there was any time we need it, we need it now.”

Von Herbing, associate professor and director of the Marine Conservation and Aquatic Physiological Laboratory (MCAPL) in UNT’s Department of Biological Sciences, especially hoped students were inspired by the event. “They don’t see the power they have in themselves,” she says. “It’s the ideas in the message you trust.”

Cassini Nazir, Curiosity is an Invitation

Designer Cassini Nazir talked about how individuals need to be more curious in a world that is deluged with information. He noted how the Road Runner would always outsmart Wile E. Coyote.

“The coyote was a true designer,” says Nazir, who is a program director and clinical associate professor at UNT at Frisco, where he teaches classes in design thinking and interaction design. “Something about it captured my curiosity and imagination. When we become adults, we lose our sense of curiosity.”

He noted screenwriters understand surprise very well -- giving audiences what they want, but not how they expected it.

“Maybe, unlike the coyote, we’ll be successful once and grasp curiosity,” he says. “The question is what will we do with it.”

Melanie Ward, Where Are All the SANEs?

“Imagine the unthinkable has happened,” Melanie Ward (’12) told the audience. A rape survivor has arrived at a hospital. But no rape kits are available. “Unfortunately, this scenario is all too real and common for sexual assault victims in the U.S.,” says Ward, a UNT biology alumna and Terry Transfer Scholar.

Ward noted that sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs), registered nurses with special training, are desperately needed -- especially since they’re the first health care provider a rape survivor meets. They collect vital evidence and give invaluable emotional support.

To help raise awareness about the shortage of SANEs, individuals can write to their public officials, and help in other ways by volunteering for a crisis hotline or donating to a supply drive for an organization that helps survivors.

“I want you to imagine a different response when you tell the nurse you’ve been raped,” she says. “They look at you with compassion and tenderly say, ‘We can help you.’”

Melanie Ecker, How Can We Use Plastics in a Smart Way?

Melanie Ecker, assistant professor and director of the Ecker Lab: Smart Polymers for Biomedical Applications in UNT’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, was there to persuade the audience that some plastics are smart.

Made up of polymers, they have many parts that come together, much like paper clips that are flexible and can be changed. They include shape-shifting polymers that can remember their original shape and can be used in many applications, such as artificial muscles. And the combination of many paper clips can create larger structures, polymer chains.

“We need to combine the right paper clips in the right way. We need to combine polymers in smart ways. By doing so, we can help many patients and even save lives,” she says. “The possibilities are endless.”

Daniel Murphy, A Single Moment in an Individual’s Life

Daniel Murphy (’21 M.B.A.) wants people to become heroes.

“Sometimes it may be difficult to visualize the breathtaking amount of power we have as individuals,” says Murphy, who earned his M.B.A. with a concentration in strategic management from UNT.

Although the enormity can make people feel powerless, he encouraged individuals to intervene in situations in which they can help others instead of remaining on the sidelines.

“Standing up for someone puts you at risk,” says Murphy, who heads fulfillment operations for the venture capital-backed startup Saltbox. “Oftentimes, compliance and inaction is so much easier.”

People often turn to large organizations -- like donating money or signing a petition -- as a substitute for individual action, such as making sure your neighbor isn’t hungry.

“When we intervene, we can save lives,” he says. “Let’s make heroic deeds commonplace so acts of heroism aren’t so hard and instead of moving mountains, it becomes a habit.”

Dellandra Adams, Fostering Success

Dellandra Adams (’19, ’21 M.S.), a doctoral student in educational psychology at UNT, talked about the importance of helping students transition from the foster care system to college life, noting that only 3 percent of foster care alumni will graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

“I noticed I needed a little bit more help and this was across K though 12 and undergrad,” says Adams, who has a disability.

But as far as mental health and academia, she also experienced other forms of trauma --such as financial and familial trauma. She called for role models and mentors, as well as trauma-informed teaching.

“It is up to us to be the change in ourselves, as I did, in order for us to be the change for others. We must seek within ourselves the strength and the empathy that we wish to find for others.”

Diana Cervantes, Person-Centered Prevention: The Key to Pandemic Progress

Diana Cervantes talked about person-centered prevention as a way that individuals can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The pandemic has presented two types of extreme emotions and reactions – germ-focused and jeer-focused lenses – that lead to stigma and the devaluing of the aging vulnerable population.

She suggested using the ASK acronym – accepting and taking action, speaking out against stigmas, and being kind.

“We always need to keep the person at the center,” says Cervantes, assistant professor and director of the Master of Public Health Epidemiology Program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.

Genesis McGrue-Johnson, The Continued Success of ALL Our Youth

Genesis McGrue-Johnson wanted the audience to help youth.

At least 36,000 U.S. youth are sent to residential placement facilities each day.

“This means at least 36,000 young lives are changed for better or for worse,” says McGrue-Johnson, who is a senior majoring in criminal justice with a minor in psychology.

As she talked about the juvenile justice system and noted difficulties with education and employment, she offered an alternative of hope for those who would like to help -- curiosity, passion and encouragement.

Curiosity could mean asking questions, such as what your community is doing to make sure all of the adolescents are succeeding. Curiosity also inspires passion, with individuals bringing more attention to the issue by talking to friends or family or mentoring youth.

“It doesn’t stop there because then you give them hope,” she says. “You teach adolescents that the once impossible is possible.”

Andrea Sasha Ortiz, The Power of Support

Andrea Sasha Ortiz captured the audience by telling them how she was clinically dead on May 18, 2008.

A survivor of intimate partner violence, she was revived a few minutes later -- and realized she needed help and had to end the relationship she endured.

She developed the STEM theory to get through. S is for Support, the family and friends who make up the roots; Time is the seeds and investment in fruitful venture; Energy is the branch from which support grows and leads to opportunities; and Money is the leaves that are the fruit of your labor. Ortiz, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in clinical psychology and the reigning International Ms. Texas 2021, says she participated in frequent journaling, reflection and art-based healing circles and is now an entrepreneur.

“I have a powerful STEM, and I believe in the power of support,” she says.

Reagan Kremer, The Criminalization of the Mentally Ill

Reagan Kremer advocated for those with mental illness by telling about a tense time in her family’s life.

Her older brother Brady was the first family member to receive a college degree, but he began speaking in codes that didn’t make sense. He was paranoid and hadn’t slept in days. When the family called 911, the police came instead of an ambulance – which escalated the situation. The police used physical force and Brady was charged with a felony and put into jail.

“It felt as though our brother had been physically kidnapped from us,” Kremer says.

He had an undiagnosed bipolar disorder and had experienced a severe manic episode.

Kremer, who is a senior social work major at UNT, says people with mental illness are more likely to be arrested. Solutions include a mobile crisis team, which does a mental health assessment on site for those who need help and follow up 24 hours later.

“I hope I was able to give my brother a piece of the dignity that was stolen from him,” she said about sharing her story.

Corinne French, Leading Lightly: Ideas for Women in Leadership

Corinne French (’16 M.Ed.), student services coordinator in UNT's Division of Student Affairs, called for women to run for office.

She compared women to caterpillars, who emerge from the cocoon and take flight to become butterflies -- although the process moves inch by inch and the changes are messy and difficult. It’s a process she knows personally, after enrolling in school as a single mother of six and being encouraged to run for a seat on the Valley View school board, on which she’s now served for 10 years.

But she had her toughest year as elected officials faced the COVID-19 pandemic and her 25-year-old son Hunter battled cancer. She wants to lead lightly, like a butterfly.

“How can we lead with the butterfly in mind?” she says. “The butterfly cannot carry the weight of the world. Women, we need to ask for help. Butterflies need to stand out. Women, do not be afraid to ask for all the space that you need. You’re not too big. You’re not too loud. You’re just right. You are confident and wise.”

Ione Hunt von Herbing, My Call to Ocean Adventure

Ione Hunt von Herbing wants people to pursue their own adventures – just like she knew she wanted to be a scientist when she was 3 years old.

She was at that age when she looked at the Pacific Ocean in Victoria, Canada, and thought, “I wonder what’s out there.”

Her mother disagreed, telling her when she was 12, “You will end up in a dirty lab coat in a dingy laboratory!”

Hunt von Herbing never let go of her dream and went on to graduate school – knowing she made the right decision in a Barbados laboratory, when she peered into a microscope and saw the egg of a bluehead wrasse larva transforming itself into a swimming, twitching larval fish while a storm pounded the corrugated roof. “It was like nature embracing me,” she says.

She heard a voice inside of her saying, “Pay attention. This is important.”

Years later, she took her knowledge of raising fish from eggs to help the aquaculture industry in Canada after an overfishing disaster. She then came to UNT, where she is associate professor and director of the Marine Conservation and Aquatic Physiological Laboratory (MCAPL) in UNT’s Department of Biological Sciences.

“Follow your call to adventure,” she says. “Find your meaningful life. Be or create the change you want to see in the world, not what others want you to be or to create – sorry mom.”

Amanda Fuller and Megan Lawton contributed to this story.