Friday, May 24

Speaking Their Minds

The Daily Bruin interviews speakers who will be presenting their life stories and resarch at TEDxUCLA on Friday and Saturday.

Don Vaughn, a neuroscience graduate student, drummer and part-time DJ, will speak at TEDxUCLA Saturday. Vaughn will discuss his research into using the brain’s plasticity and sensory substitution to solve neural problems. (Keila Mayberry/Daily Bruin)


After working an eight-hour day at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, Don Vaughn changed out of his lab coat and drove to Los Angeles International Airport last week to catch his flight to New York, where he performed the next day.

Vaughn, a graduate student in neuroscience and part-time drummer and DJ, will speak at TEDxUCLA on Saturday about his research on brain elasticity. He will discuss how sensory substitution can be used to rewire the brains of those with neural problems.

“I want the audience to take away an appreciation for the incredible flexibility of our brain to rewire itself,” Vaughn said.

Pam Douglas, an assistant neurology professor at UCLA, said she will help Vaughn demonstrate his research with a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine after his presentation.

Vaughn recently assisted Dr. Mark Cohen, a neurology professor at UCLA, and Victoria Vesna, director of UCLA Art|Sci Center, with a live experiment that examined how brain waves react to music and color, Cohen said.

“Don is as excited about science as he is about his music, and I think that’s really rare,” Douglas said. “He brings a level of positivity to the learning environment that isn’t always present because scientists tend to be very skeptical.”

Vaughn, a San Diego native, began playing the drums at age 13 because a girl told him she thought drumming was cute. He continued to play at local shows with his high school band, Forensik.

Vaughn released an album and a single in September 2014. Since then, he has collaborated with various DJs and producers, and performed at music venues across the country.

“I am really into high-energy, high-intensity drumming and music,” Vaughn said. “I really want concerts to be an immersive and communal experience.”

Kathryn Vaughn, his mother, said Vaughn showed an interest in science and music at a young age.

“Don used to play with the circuitry on the Christmas lights and try to figure out how things fit together,” Kathryn Vaughn said. “Before we bought him his first drum kit, he would bang on everything around the house.”

Vaughn graduated from Stanford University in 2008 and pursued neuroscience research at the Baylor College of Medicine under the guidance of neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman.

Eagleman and Vaughn developed an iPhone app called eyeFi in 2011 that allows users to sense the world through auditory feedback. Users can monitor their surroundings using aural cues rather than eyesight, Vaughn said.

The pair created an extension of the application Friday, called ChatterBaby. Vaughn said he hopes the app will allow hearing-impaired parents to communicate with their children.

Vaughn said he came to UCLA for an opportunity to learn from new people.

In 2013, he enrolled in the NeuroImaging Training Program at UCLA, a grant program that allows pre-doctoral students to learn the fundamentals and tools of neuroscience in a two-year graduate program.

Vaughn said he plans to complete his degree and further integrate his neuroscience research with music. He will deliver his TED talk Saturday in Carnesale Commons.

Joan Hanawi, a third-year international development studies and geography/environmental studies student, is one of the two undergraduates who will present at TEDxUCLA on Saturday. (Hannah Ye/Daily Bruin)


Before Joan Hanawi left Ecuador for California, her host sister said she thought Hanawi would soon forget her time in Ecuador.

But her host family realized her genuine intention to help the people in Tena, Ecuador, after she returned last summer for the third time.

Hanawi, a third-year international development studies and geography/environmental studies student, will be the one of two undergraduate students to speak at TEDxUCLA on Saturday. She will discuss the digital storytelling project she launched after working to improve sustainability abroad by working with the Ecuador Ministry of Environment and the German International Cooperation. She translated entire scientific bodies of work into English that helped with conservation environment research.

The project, called Nova Narratives, is a collection of stories featuring individuals who Hanawi and other writers have encountered while volunteering abroad. The collection highlights the individuals’ struggles and successes. The five stories currently on the website encourage readers to become involved beyond reading the narratives, by donating money or volunteering themselves.

“Stories are great, but if they aren’t encouraging you to do something, what’s the point of sharing?” Hanawi said.

Margarita, Hanawi’s host sister while she lived in Ecuador, inspired her to humanize the research she was doing through the narratives of the people she met. Margarita’s story is featured on the website, and her last name has been omitted to protect her privacy.

Margarita, the oldest of eight children, didn’t pursue a career in biochemistry so she could take care of her siblings, and later, her daughter. She later developed ovarian cancer but still cared for her family while taking four-hourlong bus rides to receive treatments Hanawi said she could barely afford.

Hanawi said Margarita’s story inspired her to share the triumphs of the people she met.

“I think (volunteering in Ecuador) taught me … our actions have much bigger implications than we realize,” Hanawi said. “It made me conscious about the way I do my work and travel, and about the way I tell my stories.”

Abigail Hindson, a volunteer who traveled with Hanawi for 10 months in Ecuador, said Hanawi was good at respecting cultural boundaries while being upfront with everyone she spoke with. She added Hanawi was careful to protect the people she wanted to write about.

“I came out of (Ecuador) realizing the most important thing one can do is spread important stories, empower other people … and humanize living in a third-world country,” Hindson said.

Hanawi said she wanted to highlight the commonalities and stark differences between the people she encountered and potential readers. She also wanted to humanize international development issues, but was careful to avoid reducing people to their problems.

“Margarita’s story is not just (about) cancer,” Hanawi said.

Hanawi had experience with these differences before her international volunteerism. She said she grew up California, but the rest of her family is from Indonesia. She said her peers as a child, and even her peers now, sometimes do not understand the circumstances in the stories she shares.

“Stories are the only way you can teach people to care about something they know nothing about,” Hanawi said.

Hanawi started a blog when she returned from Ecuador in 2012 to track her experiences while she volunteered. In late 2014, she launched Nova Narratives.

Hanawi said it was difficult to receive consent from the people she featured because of distance, language and cultural barriers. She also said it’s hard to explain the purpose of her project – Hanawi aims to create an emotional change in readers that will motivate them to take action, rather than to reach a finite fundraising goal.

Hanawi said a friend encouraged her to apply to speak at TEDxUCLA.

“I really want to emphasize that everyone has a story worth sharing,” Hanawi said.

Hanawi added she thinks people forget the importance of stories because they associate them with children.

Hanawi also worked with other UCLA students to open a global development lab at UCLA. They received funding for the lab last month, and expect to open it in the fall.

David Joseph, a fourth-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student who volunteered in Uganda, worked with Hanawi to develop the lab.

“Her most valuable quality is her ability to move beyond the surface and politics (to) actually work with and understand people’s points of view,” Joseph said.

Hanawi said she wants to include translated stories written by individuals from underdeveloped nations. She also hopes Nova Narratives will progress from a website to a printed book.

Architecture and urban design adjunct professor Roger Sherman who co-founded cityLAB, a research and design center at UCLA, will be speaking at the TEDxUCLA conference. (Kristen Payne/Daily Bruin)


Architect Roger Sherman founded cityLAB, a research and design center at UCLA, with his colleague Dana Cuff after realizing a need for an outlet for UCLA architecture students and faculty to solve contemporary urban problems.

Sherman, an architecture and urban design adjunct professor and co-director of cityLAB, and his colleagues use the think tank to commission studies and develop pilot projects. Faculty and students use sustainability ideals and new technologies to propose ways to make cities more livable and sustainable, said Cuff, an architecture and urban design professor and cityLAB director.

Sherman will discuss the impact of the advent of the smartphone on urban design during his talk at the TEDxUCLA conference. He said he will suggest a project that brings people into the Westwood community and off their cell phones.

Sherman said he noticed people today prefer to communicate through their smartphones rather than interact face to face. To counter the problem, Sherman will propose “Westwood Village Blows Up,” a program that encourages Westwood businesses to create teams and interact with other community members, during his presentation Saturday.

Participants would use their smartphones to find pieces of monuments designed by Sherman and his colleagues and bring them back to a meeting location on Broxton Avenue. Teams would work to collectively build three different monuments over the course of six weeks. Sherman said he is currently working to fund the project.

“If the smartphone makes it infinitely more convenient to do things electronically, what’s left for the city? What reason do people have to appear in public and do anything together in person?” Sherman said.

Sherman added he knew he wanted to be an architect since he was a kid.

“Architecture is the kind of thing that finds you more than you find it,” Sherman said. “I love to draw, and I love to travel and I wanted to be a part of the way cities and buildings were made.”

Sherman said growing up in Chicago exposed him to famous architects at a young age. He added his interest in architecture accelerated when he traveled during college and experienced classical architecture in Turkey, Greece and Rome.

Sherman earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1980, and a doctoral degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1985. After working for an architect in New York City for several years, he won an international design competition for the West Hollywood Civic Center and moved to Los Angeles.

Cuff said she thinks Sherman is a unique architect because his ideas are unconventional.

“When you look at any of his design projects for cityLAB, they don’t (just) color outside the lines,” Cuff said. “They completely shatter the box that anybody would have put the project in to start with.”

Legg Yeung, a UCLA alumna and one of Sherman’s former students, said Sherman influenced her own views on architecture. Yeung teaches an undergraduate building design class at UC Berkeley.

“He believes that architecture and urban design can make a difference in the real world,” Yeung said. “That’s why he’s very interested in urban strategies (and) working with communities.”

Sherman said he thinks architecture is both work and a hobby.

“It’s one of those fields that you never escape – it’s kind of your vocation and your avocation at once,” Sherman said. “It lives so much inside of you, and that’s the fun (of it).”

Andrea Letamendi, a clinical psychologist and assistant director of the clinical training program at a nonprofit mental health agency, will speak about her contribution to the Batgirl comic series at TEDxUCLA on Saturday. (Courtesy of Andrea Letamendi)


Two years ago, Andrea Letamendi became Batgirl’s psychologist. Letamendi appeared in two issues of the comic series as a clinical psychologist who helped Batgirl cope with the trauma of being paralyzed by the Joker.

Letamendi, a clinical psychologist and assistant director of the clinical training program at a nonprofit mental health agency, has a lot in common with her comic book alter ego. She will speak at TEDxUCLA on Saturday about the psychological power of superhero stories.

Gail Simone, author of the Batgirl comic series, created the character after consulting with Letamendi on how she could portray mental health treatment in her comics.

“She wanted (Batgirl) to receive psychological help,” Letamendi said. “I worked with veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and I drew from that to … provide personal experience and empirical evidence.”

At the TEDxUCLA event, Letamendi, a longtime comic fan, plans to explain how superhero narratives apply to the field of psychology, and how she integrated them into her professional life.

Her passion for superhero stories began at a young age when she first watched the TV show “Batman: The Animated Series,” Letamendi said.

The show fueled her passion for superheroes, and she began to scour the aisles of local comic stores to add to her growing collection of comic books.

But Letamendi didn’t find it easy to maintain the hobby growing up. She said she was bullied in school for liking comic books and decided that being open about her passion wasn’t a good idea.

Letamendi was heavily involved in the science fiction community while she studied for her doctoral degree at UC San Diego, but she said she was still afraid that revealing her secret hobby to her colleagues would invite ridicule.

“I was writing stories and analyses, I was cosplaying and I was really involved in the (science fiction) community,” Letamendi said. “But I began to deny that part of my identity and find conflict between my passion and my profession.”

It wasn’t until Letamendi became a postdoctoral researcher at UCLA in 2011 that she began to embrace her love for superheroes more publicly. That year, she launched Under The Mask, a website where she analyzes psychological themes in superhero stories.

She also examines psychological themes in individual episodes of “Batman: The Animated Series” in her weekly podcasts, called “The Arkham Sessions.” The podcasts touch on many psychological issues, including toxic relationships. In a recent episode, Letamendi discussed the abusive relationship between the Joker and his henchwoman Harley Quinn.

“(Letamendi) brings her knowledge of clinical psychology to the table by saying what kind of symptoms a villain is exhibiting and how a clinical psychologist would treat them,” said Brian Ward, her co-host on the podcast. “One of her missions in life is to break down the stigmas about mental health and make mental health education more relatable for people.”

After she was portrayed as a character in the Batgirl comics, Letamendi said she realized her personal and professional lives could come together naturally, and there wasn’t a need to separate them anymore.

“I personally was jumping out of my chair,” Letamendi said. “I was so excited … that there was accurate representation of a mental health professional and a positive representation of someone receiving mental health treatment.”

When she gives presentations and professional conferences for Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services, the nonprofit mental health agency where she works, Letamendi now uses science fiction culture references to make her material more relatable.

“I bring those fictional worlds into my message,” she said. “Whether they’re scientists or children, these stories usually resonate.”

Letamendi uses role-playing as fictional characters to create a safe environment in which she can discuss threatening topics such as bullying.

“I think it makes it very interesting and more meaningful to the participants,” said Emily McGrath, vice president of clinical training at Hathaway-Sycamores. “It’s very unique and creative, and makes her one of our favorite trainers that we have.”

In her TEDxUCLA talk, Letamendi plans to discuss the insecurity and self-doubt she struggled with regarding her passion for superheroes.

“I want (the audience) to consider their own masks,” Letamendi said. “If they were bold enough to break through the masks, what potential would they discover from that?”