Alumni forward thinkers highlight February’s Forward Fest

Forward Fest speakers

Resilience and Exploration were the themes of February’s Forward Fest, which featured alumni forward thinkers tackling these critical topics during two spirited sessions.

Heather Gerken ’91, dean and the Sol and Lillian Goldman Professor of Law at Yale Law School, artfully moderated the 10 a.m. Resilience panel – Josh Brankman ’99, Dr. Elizabeth Henry ’88 (Dr. Liz) and Suleika Jaouad ’10 — honing in on the concept that individuals often need community for resilience to develop and thrive. 

Describing people in a shared experience as a “crew rather than passengers,” Brankman, executive director of Outward Bound USA, described that communal resilience as powerful. He further explained that when a group shares an experience, not only do they feel connected by it, but, through reflection, they can also gain new understanding of how to approach problems in the future.

Dr. Liz, a pediatrician and parent coach, discussed how resilience is the ability to see the strengths individuals already possess and how to reframe them into the tools needed at any time. In the context of parenting teens and tweens, she also suggested that young people be reminded to tap into their internal strength and the support systems around them.

In her segment, Jaouad, an author and cancer survivor, described resilience not only as a muscle but an inheritance from ancestors. Like Brankman and Henry, Jaouad agreed that resilience is easier to exercise in community and noted that the most resilient people she knew had built and contributed to a support network long before they thought they would need to draw from it.

During the noontime panel on Exploration, moderator Julia Boorstin ’00, CNBC senior media and entertainment reporter, brought together alumni from different fields who described exploration with interesting metaphors, colorful examples and impactful storytelling.

Karen Roter Davis ’94, director of Early Stage Projects at X, Alphabet’s innovative moonshot factory, delivered a powerful metaphor describing the process of tackling difficult problems. Using the unlikely example of teaching a monkey to recite Shakespeare while standing on a pedestal, she suggested fighting against your instinct to build the pedestal first, the easiest aspect of the task. Instead, she said, approach the most challenging aspects first and keep challenging yourself to tackle difficult aspects of problems for greater success.

Using the metaphor of how a loose tooth’s wiggly properties can feel both good and bad, Majka Burhardt ’98, a professional climber and conservation entrepreneur, described her ideal project teammates. She explained how she appreciates their capacity to sit with the discomfort and feel the glimmer of potential that comes from it. She finds this “squishy middle” powerful and essential as she travails on her many breathtaking climbs.

Roy Swan ’86, director of Mission Investments for the Ford Foundation, provided three strong takeaways when thinking about moving big ideas forward: 1) Learn as you go and share as you learn; 2) Better is good; and 3) Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.

Author of many books, including “The Hot Zone” and “Crisis in the Red Zone,” Richard Preston *83 shared personal stories about fear, often during his book research, which tipped off a lively discussion on how fear is often the companion of exploration and how each participant manages that powerful, but necessary, emotion.

Throughout both sessions, viewers of the programming also enjoyed short videos about the University’s dance program, innovations in engineering and bioengineering and how the Princeton flag made its way to the moon in 1969.

Watch February’s Forward Fest

The next Forward Fest will be held March 18 at 3:30 p.m. EDT. Moderated by University trustee Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo ’97, the inaugural Vice Dean for Population Health and Health Equity in the UCSF School of Medicine, the event will focus on Bioengineering and feature José L. Avalos, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering; Cliff Brangwynne, June K. Wu ’92 Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and director, Princeton Bioengineering Initiative; Celeste Nelson, Wilke Family Professor in Bioengineering, professor of chemical and biological engineering, and director, Program in Engineering Biology; and Ben Raphael, professor of computer science.

Forward Fest is a monthly online series that continues throughout A Year of Forward Thinking, featuring Princeton faculty and alumni exploring a wide range of forward-thinking topics. Learn more