Creatives and Clinicians, Entrepreneurs and Community Builders Bring Big Ideas to Spotlight Health
Creatives and Clinicians, Entrepreneurs and Community Builders Bring Big Ideas to Spotlight Health
March 25, 2016 by Peggy Clark


Visionary thinking, science-fiction-made-real breakthroughs, and can-do optimism will be on full display this summer when the third annual Spotlight Health kicks off the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 23, 2016. Speakers from around the globe will come together to explore new pathways in science, medicine, and technology; take on hard questions about who benefits from innovation, and who pays for it; and help navigate the disruptions that are transforming lives.  For two-and-a-half days, big ideas about health will percolate vigorously across the Aspen Institute campus.
Thinkers and doers
The storytellers and scientists, start-up pioneers and activists, artists and clinicians who will converge in the verdant valley of Aspen, Colorado, are masters of the possible, and together, they offer an antidote to fearmongering and naysaying. They know, of course, that infectious diseases can cross all boundaries, food scarcity undermines human potential, chronic diseases are on the rise, and childhood trauma has enduring consequences. But Spotlight Health panelists and presenters also know how to turn obstacles into opportunities and make change happen.
Just a few of those who will be on campus:
  • Vivienne Ming – one of 10 Women to Watch in Tech, according to Inc. Magazine – will be explaining how theoretical neuroscience and artificial intelligence can help maximize human potential.
  • Six former Commissioners of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will look both forward and back as they tell tales of a federal agency that regulates almost 25% of every dollar spent by Americans – almost all of the nation’s pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and tobacco, and much of its food.

Spotlight Health is legendary not only for the rich accomplishments of its presenters, but for their ability to “wow” an audience and get them to jump into the conversation.  Hands are often still raised as an event draws to a close, and the dialogue continues in the auditorium aisles, around buffet tables, and in strolls around campus. Presenters and participants tend to mingle without much concern for titles or credentials. The man wandering around in shorts and a T-shirt might head a United Nations initiative or a global foundation, the woman pouring herself a cup of coffee could be a world-class artist, a chef, or an inventor.

Atypical agenda

Spotlight Health can’t really be compared to other scientific or medical conferences. The differences begin with the global talent on the podium, and the lodestar principle that it takes much more than clinical trials and physician visits to generate health. But what really distinguishes the event are the serendipitous encounters, offbeat activities, inspiring setting, and passion that reaches the heart as well as the head.

Pathbreakers will be describing work they are already advancing in the lab or pushing into the field. Tools are being developed to engineer mosquitos so they don’t spread malaria and to transform human waste into potable water.  Artificial organs may soon be produced by 3-D printers and an ever-greater number of screening tests are identifying genetic mutations in utero and at birth. Chips implanted into the human brain allow prosthetic arms to operate normally, and stem cell research might lead to biological hybrids that are only partially human. With every such advance comes hype, hope and the possibility of unintended consequences, and Spotlight Health sessions cover all of those angles.

Reaching vulnerable populations and widening the circle of opportunity are themes woven throughout the agenda. Speakers will champion the rights of girls, weigh fair pricing for drugs, describe new ways to deliver vaccines, and advocate for meditation to tamp down on bullying.

As always, efforts to shake up established practice will get plenty of attention at Spotlight Health.  Invited speakers are overhauling the medical school curriculum to put patients at the center of the learning, asking whether young athletes are putting their minds and bodies at risk, and opening minds to the possibility that GMOs just might help feed the world. They will also undercut treasured assumptions with answers to questions like: Do we really need to drink eight glasses of water and get eight hours of sleep every day? Who says women don’t enjoy sex unless they have emotional connections with their partners? Does body mass index (BMI) really matter as a measure of health?

Expecting the unexpected

Art is woven into Spotlight Health in unexpected and provocative ways.  Participants can wander the campus and pause to add color to a black-and-white poster.  Or, after viewing a haunting display of masks created by veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, they can design a mask of their own.  Curated photographs from the Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor will dramatize the variations in how bacteria grow after being exposed to different sound frequencies. And there will be options to join an early-morning yoga session, attend a wearable tech fashion show, network over cocktails, and watch films late into the evening – and in between, to jump onto a bicycle provided through Aspen’s WE-cycle bike share program for a short break in the action.

There’s no predicting everything that will happen at Spotlight Health -- last summer, for example, Elmo popped up at the closing session to engage with Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General.  But a few things are certain: innovators with the determination and know-how to change how we live, work, learn, and play will gather in Aspen, Colorado, this June and fresh thinking will saturate the campus. And afterwards, novel ideas will hopscotch across continents, and projects and partnerships spawned by new connections will get underway.

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