♪ BRUCE WARD: Because I now had a future, instead of spending the money, I did what every good, nice Jewish boy from the suburbs does: I invested it.
JENNIFER JASMIN: Which is how he found himself in a dress shop, surrounded by sequins, helping me pick out my first prom dress.
ABEL SANCHEZ: If you think that what you do at M.I.T.
in any way prepares you for stepping into a high school classroom, you're out of your mind.
(laughter) WES HAZARD: Tonight's theme is "Breakthrough."
ANNOUNCER: This program is made possible in part by contributions from viewers like you-- thank you.
HAZARD: Tonight, we're gathered here to hear what I'm sure is going to be an enlightening slate of stories on the theme of "Breakthrough."
That's right, you're going to see some supremely talented storytellers come up here and share their stories of discovery, realization, growth, and achievement.
None of those things are arrived at easily.
You start off in a place where you're facing insurmountable odds, or what seem like it, and somehow you're able to break through and reach a higher plane of understanding.
♪ WARD: My name is Bruce Ward, and I'm an actor, and a writer, and a teacher.
And I'm from Boston, but I live in New York now.
And I've also had a history of being an AIDS educator.
HAZARD: Would you say that AIDS education is the focus of your work?
WARD: Now, I would say it is.
I feel like my, my purpose right now is to remind people and, and show people for the first time, the young people who weren't around during the 1980s and early 1990s, to bear witness, really, about those first 15 years of the epidemic before there was a viable treatment.
HAZARD: And at some point you decided to not only focus on the AIDS epidemic as a whole, but to start sharing your own personal story.
Was there a motivating factor for that?
And was that difficult?
WARD: I did a one-man show, actually in Boston, where I wrote it and first performed it, in the 1990s, called "Decade: Life in the '80s."
But I wasn't ready to play myself.
I played ten different characters.
And the opening monologue to that piece was based on my real life.
But, you know, I wasn't ready to portray it in my real life, so I portrayed it as a character.
And then later, when I started writing a book, a memoir, I was able to then translate it back to my real life.
A lot of things I think contributed to that, I think just the internet, and social media, where I felt I was able to finally kind of reveal parts of myself.
And also realizing that I had a story to tell.
♪ In 1992, I bought my very first, and only, life insurance policy.
I'd been living with H.I.V.
for eight years already, and my immune system had taken a hit, and there was no real treatment in the foreseeable future.
But I had a friend who was a life insurance agent, and he told me that there was one policy that was still possible for me.
It was very small policy, but it was the very last possible policy that I could purchase in this window of time.
And he said that he had some friends who had bought life insurance policies years before, and they were able to sell it to these companies called viatical companies.
And what these viatical companies did was, they would buy your life insurance policy, and cut you a check for a percentage of the policy's worth.
And then, in exchange, they would collect on the death benefits on the case of your demise.
Which, for them to benefit financially, was as soon as possible.
The longer you stayed alive, the less money they made.
I had a friend who had done this.
He actually received, like, $100,000 from this viatical company, was able to take a trip around the world, a cruise, and bought a house with his partner.
My policy was going to be much smaller than that.
I thought that I could maybe throw one big fabulous farewell party for my friends and my family, and maybe take a less modest trip to, like, Peoria or something.
(laughter) So I bought the policy.
The catch was that you had to wait four years from the time you bought the policy to the time you sold it to the viatical company.
So, I waited.
And four years later, I was still alive.
Now, the year was 1996, and that year was incredible, because something amazing and unpredictable happened.
This new class of treatment-- these protease inhibitors, the first pharmaceutical treatment cocktail-- was introduced, and it changed the face of the epidemic forever.
I look at 1996 as a real marker in the epidemic.
There was a Before '96, and an After '96.
Before, I knew 93 friends, colleagues, and one relative who died of AIDS.
In the after, there was just a handful.
So I had a future.
So I sold my policy to this viatical company, but because I now had a future, instead of spending the money, I did what every good, nice Jewish boy from the suburbs does: I invested it.
(laughter) And so, the viatical company had to, of course, then find a way to keep track of you, to make sure that you didn't die on them and so they could collect their benefits.
So I started getting these quarterly emails.
The first email I received was in October-- "Happy Birthday!"
It was from this guy named Al.
They were thinking of me on my birthday.
Of course, they were just trying to find out that I didn't kick off and they could collect their benefits.
The next one was three months later-- "Happy New Year!"
(laughter) I was beginning to sense a pattern here of holiday emails.
Still from Al.
These emails went on for about a decade, and always from Al.
He became a sort of a fan.
(laughter) Or, or a stalker.
(laughter) You can choose the lingo.
He would look me up on the internet.
He found my website, and that I'd done some acting work-- he'd ask me about it.
I had no animosity towards Al.
I mean, he was doing his job, and I found it rather comforting, actually, that someone was keeping track of me.
(laughter) And I had no ill will, either, towards the company.
I mean, I knew what I was getting into.
We were business partners, we gambled-- my money or my life.
And I won.
So... (laughter and applause) Those emails, it stopped, like, a decade ago.
They either gave up on me or the policy ran out.
But I wonder what happened to Al.
You know, I... Did he get a promotion?
Or did he leave his job and finally pursue his great ambition of being a chef, or a circus performer, or a barista?
(laughter) But I think about him, and he would never...
When I received these emails from him, I, I would never write back a snappy answer to him, like, "I haven't died yet, have a nice day!"
I'd usually be very pleasant, and just say, "No changes yet, happy fill-in-the-blank to you too."
But on some of these days when I was still adjusting to this, this new life-- it was a difficult resurrection-- I knew that Al would understand when I wrote back just with two simple words.
I knew he would get it, when I would just write back, "Still here."
(applause) ♪ JASMIN: My name is Jennifer Jasmin.
I grew up in Vermont, and I'm a registered dietician.
I work in the health and fitness industry.
HAZARD: So I think a lot of people might have an idea of what a dietician does, but I'm not certain that they, or myself, are ever actually accurate in that.
So can you please tell us, what exactly does a dietician do?
JASMIN: People, I think, often imagine that dieticians are scary people who just, like, wag their fingers and say, like, "Don't you dare ever eat that cupcake!"
Like, "Put it down right now!
You can't do anything fun with food."
In fact, registered dieticians are just people who learn about food and health from a science-based background.
So we're taught to seek reliable sources and look for the science in this mad, mad world, where it seems like everyone and their cousin is talking about how they eat and what their diet is.
HAZARD: If I'm not mistaken, tonight is your first time sharing a personal story in this manner.
I was wondering, was it challenging, and what have you done to prepare?
JASMIN: It was both challenging and not.
I do a fair amount of public speaking in my job, and I love it, but preparing something personal was hard.
I knew the story I wanted to tell, but I had to actually see the pieces come together, go over it time and time again, and really kind of script it out to get the points across that I wanted to make.
And there's kind of two big ones.
In the spring of 1996, I was a junior in high school, in Vermont, and I did all of the typical things that girls my age did.
I shopped for a prom dress.
I shopped for my first car.
I shopped for colleges.
And I shopped.
The only thing remotely interesting about this is that I did all of this shopping with my father.
And he was a man's man.
He idolized Willie Nelson, he wore cowboy boots, and he once gave me a keychain with a picture of him in it dressed as the Marlboro Man.
(laughter) True story, it was hysterical.
We got along great, but, unfortunately, due to my parents' divorce agreement and his travel schedule for work, we only saw each other once a week.
He did his best to make this time together special for us, but I knew there must have been a part of him that wondered why his only child could not have been a son.
One that, instead of all this shopping, he could have gone huntin', fishin', trackin', and truckin' with, as we say up north.
But he was a great sport, and if that was true, he never let on.
Which is how he found himself in a dress shop surrounded by sequins helping me pick out my first prom dress.
"Good afternoon, ladies," he boomed, as we entered the store.
"You're about to get some of my money today, "so let's start working for it!
"Pull out all of your smallest dresses and grab the pins, "because I am certain no one even makes a dress small enough for my daughter."
I was wishing that I was not small, but, rather, invisible.
He had so much to say that day about strap width and hemlines and cleavage.
It was mortifying.
(sighs) Ultimately, though, we found a dress we could both agree on, and I did in fact need to have it taken in.
I remember thinking that I just couldn't understand the praise he thought this should get me, because in high school, I was teased for being scrawny and flat-chested.
We also shopped for colleges that year.
He took me to career fairs, campus tours, and together, we pored over college catalogues.
I remember telling him that I'd seen a woman on TV called a registered dietician, and I thought it was cool that she helped people figure out what to eat.
He looked at me, and I was pretty certain he did not see this as a viable career, but he humored me.
And we found a catalogue with a school that offered a major in nutrition.
Immediately, he pointed to the entire page of science classes that were required, and he said, "Jen, you hate science.
"It says right here you'll need to take biology "and dissect a human cadaver.
"Last year, you asked me for a note because you skipped school on sheep's eye day."
(laughter) He said, "You can't do this."
I needed a new plan.
So, together, he and I discovered Emerson College.
I remember telling him that I liked that Emerson offered classes in creative writing, acting, TV and film.
And he told me that he really liked envisioning me as a successful executive wearing a pantsuit.
(laughter) I went to Emerson, and I majored in advertising, and we called that compromise.
All through college, I waited tables at restaurants, and he really liked that I was earning my own spending money.
But I knew, after graduation, I would need to get a "real job."
So, naturally, I became a bartender.
Years went by, and I rose through the ranks of the Boston restaurant scene, and ultimately was laid off while I was working at this hotspot because it was going to be renovated to become even hotter.
At that time, I was in my early 30s.
It had been 15 years since that cadaver discussion with my dad.
And it had also been six years since he suddenly passed away, without having ever seen me wear a pantsuit.
So in my unplanned time off, I took a vacation.
And I remember sitting on the plane, glancing over at the woman next to me, and she had this stack of magazines that included "Elle," "InStyle," and "Vogue."
And I kind of chuckled, because I, too, had a stack of magazines, but mine were "Eating Well," "Cooking Light," and "Health."
I had no interest in fashion, but to be completely honest with you, I wasn't sure what I was interested in.
But as I dove through the pages of those magazines, I found this article, of all things, about vitamin B12.
And I was, like, into it!
(laughter) And in that moment, I realized that I didn't know and I didn't care if pink was going to be the new black, but that I could do it after all.
And I enrolled in a graduate program to become a registered dietician.
Over the next five years-- yes, five-- I envisioned myself taking this information that I would learn about nutrition and distilling it down into advice that people would use to lose weight, or eat well, or, you know, ditch the junk food.
And I honestly never thought about that day in the dress shop, or the comments that I grew up hearing my father make when he saw a woman that he thought should "lay off the doughnuts sometimes."
Immediately, though, when I actually started working, and counseling people, these memories came rushing back to me.
And it was obvious to me that my father's comments about women's bodies, both large and small, were not just hurtful, but they were normal.
Everybody seemed to have an opinion about how women should look.
It wasn't just men and my father, it was the media, it was women telling stories about their mothers, their sisters, and their friends.
And worst of all, it was women themselves.
And I grew to see this as the definition of unhealthy.
Today, I do talk with some of my clients about the science of food and nutrition.
But what I've come to realize that they really need from me, both the men and the women, is a judgement-free space, where they can escape our diet-crazed culture, and where, together, we can dismiss the work of advertising executives and we can forget about the messages that we have all heard for our entire lives that have told us our self-worth comes from looking like fashion models and Marlboro Men.
(cheers and applause) I'm not perfect and I think that's one of the biggest things that I try to work really hard in my life to convey to everyone, is that dieticians are not some sort of perfect eaters.
We're people, too.
And I work really hard to help show people that there can be joy in food, and also there can be health goals reached.
It can happen all at once.
♪ SANCHEZ: My name's Abel Sanchez.
I'm a faculty member at M.I.T., I'm a research director, and I also lead the Geospatial Data Center.
HAZARD: I understand that you've presented your work all over the world, you know, to different audiences.
But tonight, you're telling a personal story, a particular kind of style.
Is this your first time delivering a story in that particular way?
And how do you feel about it?
SANCHEZ: Pretty scared.
(laughing) It is a scary thing.
I tend to sit down, as you mentioned, with a lot of different audiences that come from all over the world-- from industries, from universities.
But this is very different.
You have to get it down into a set amount of time, you have to connect.
And I'm used to the hour format, right?
And people are a lot more forgiving.
So this is certainly very scary.
HAZARD: And I'm wondering, is there anything that you're hoping that the audience will take away from the particular story that you're telling tonight?
SANCHEZ: I think it's the opportunity that, if given, all groups will surprise.
I grew up in the developing world, and I got to see tremendous talent not realized, in many different places.
I lived in other countries other than Mexico.
And this is something that haunts me to this day.
The school valedictorian in my own high school in Mexico said, from the outset, from the time he was a freshman, "I'm not going to go to university.
"This is not for me.
It's a waste of time," right?
And I got to see many cases like it, of tremendous talent, right?
And as I am telling in this story, if you open the door, you know, most people jump with both feet in.
And so, giving access, giving opportunity is one of those things that...
It's core to one of my missions in life.
Growing up, my mother told me a story, as parents often do, about scoring a perfect score on an exam, and later being taken to the office to explain how she had cheated.
Because it was not possible that a woman had outperformed the men in the class.
50 years later, we're still struggling with representation.
In my field, the field of computer science, 20 years ago, the percentage of women was 20%.
Today, that number is actually lower.
Report after report from the federal government, from leading institutions, have identified computer science as one of the new basic skills necessary for economic advancement and social mobility.
Now, if you think about that small 20%, think about the percentage of those that are minority women.
Think about the percentage of those that are Mexican women like my mother.
And you're starting to approach zero.
I teach a pretty successful course on computation at M.I.T.
And as I was wrapping up my last semester, I got this crazy idea.
I thought, "What if I was to take this course down to Mexico "and teach high-school-aged young women "to try to motivate them to consider careers in computation?"
Now, when I came home, I was pretty excited about it, and I shared this idea with my wife, who is an educator.
And her response was, "If you think that what you do at M.I.T.
"in any way prepares you "for stepping into a high school classroom-- "mind you, full of women-- you're out of your mind.
(laughter) You're crazy."
Now, in a long tradition of husbands not listening to their wives, I went ahead with the idea, anyway.
I reached out to peer institutions within Mexico, I shared the idea, and, luckily, they were like me.
(chuckles) And they decided to promote the course and to reach out.
And we agreed to reconvene in a month's time.
Now, when we met next, they were pretty disappointed.
They said, "We have tried, we have reached out, "we have worked really hard, but, unfortunately, women don't care about these topics."
However, they said, "The word has gotten out, "and a lot of the men, the boys, have heard about the course, "and if you want to teach it to them, we can sell out the course overnight."
Now, at this point, I said I didn't want to give up on my original idea-- maybe I didn't want to look bad in front of my wife.
But I thought, "No, let us take another chance."
And I sat down with my graduate students, and we thought long and deep and hard about these topics that we are so passionate about, that we dedicate our lives to.
We changed the name of the course from Computation to Beautiful Patterns, because, really, this is what they are.
We came back with lecture topics such as "How to Use a Boyfriend," "How to Keep a Secret," "How to Pack a Bag."
And if you think we were talking down to them, we were not.
"How to Choose a Boyfriend" is a variant of the stable-marriage algorithm, which won a Nobel Prize.
"How to Keep a Secret" is cryptography.
"How to Pack a Bag" is an optimization problem that freshmen around the country, computer science freshmen, see every year.
And so, with this new content, we tried again.
And we went from having zero interest to the course being sold out.
In fact, parents were tracking me down and leaving messages on my answering machine trying to get their daughters into this course.
Now, with this initial success in mind, we set out, we gathered our materials, and we flew down to Mexico.
And I was about to land in the city of Monterrey, I started having second thoughts again.
I thought, "Abel, be objective about this.
"Take a step back.
"Think about what you are trying to do.
"You're packing a semester-long course into a week.
"You typically teach a couple of hours a week, like most faculty.
"You're going to be going eight hours a day, 9:00 to 5:00, "Monday through Friday, "perhaps having tricked a lot of these girls "into taking your course.
(laughter) This could go very badly."
Now, I'm happy to say that I was completely off-base.
What I saw in the classroom was something I've never seen before.
I've had the opportunity to speak before many audiences around the world, in many different countries, and I've never seen the level of engagement and interest that I saw in this classroom.
A lot of stories stick in my mind.
One of them is binary clocks.
If you've never seen a binary clock, this is one of those fun things computer scientists like to do, because nobody can tell time unless you've studied binary numbers.
Typically, most classes have four or five variants.
My students at M.I.T.
In this classroom, I saw well over 20 clocks, many of which I've never seen before-- well thought-out, interesting.
One of the girls that was presenting her clock, with a gleam in her eye, said, "We understand this clock "is more complicated than it needs to be, "but we want it to be a piece of art that sits in someone's living room."
So not only has she understood the technical challenge, she had seen beyond it to an artistic expression.
We had a number of these experience.
In fact, at the end of each day, my graduate students and me would just stare at each other and laugh, because we couldn't believe what was happening in the classroom.
Coming back, we knew we needed to work hard to scale this program.
And that's what we did.
Last summer, we taught 1,000 young women, and we're planning to teach 10,000 next summer.
Now, it's not without its challenges.
Think of any resource and multiply it by a thousand, and now 10,000, and you can imagine what that challenge is.
However, there is something pretty interesting here.
These humble, exceptionally bright young girls are now a source of inspiration.
At last count, over ten countries have reached out to me trying to replicate the program.
In their own countries, the representation of women is even worse.
So it is surprising, the role that they're playing.
So, without a doubt, it puts a smile on my face and it warms my heart.
For women, like my mother, it's no surprise.
They knew it all along.
(cheers and applause) So we have many countries knocking on the door, as I mentioned.
I've been telling everybody, "Wait, wait, wait," because I can't deal even with the growth that's happening in Mexico.
But the ones that are in queue and we have made commitments to are Chile, Argentina, Spain, and the most recent one is Saudi Arabia.
ANNOUNCER: This program is made possible in part by contributions from viewers like you-- thank you.