An Interview with Rachel Armstrong

1 January 2012

If there were one message or thought that you wanted your audience to come away with from one of your lectures or speeches what would it be?

There is a wonderful future ahead of us that is within the reach of everyone. We need to place obstacles behind us, put opportunities before us and use our creativity to navigate the marvellous adventure that lies in-between.

How did the speaking all start?

I had never considered speaking professionally until I came in contact with TED. I was greatly impressed by the charisma and ingenuity of the speakers. Instinctively, I knew that these were skills that I wanted to develop in order to share my research and ideas with a broader audience.

Can you remember your first speaking engagement?

I enjoy communicating. My work has always involved talking to people, whether that was when I was a medical practitioner during a consultation, as a television presenter, writing or giving informal lectures. The most memorable talk for me, of course, was my TED University talk at TEDGlobal in Oxford 2009, which was a truly amazing experience!

Which event has been your favourite and why?

TEDGlobal conference in 2009 when I gave my first TEDtalk was unforgettable, mainly due to the intensity, quality and variety of activities that took place around the scheduled talks. I remember being fully engaged in back to back thrilling conversations that left me with the feeling that it was absolutely possible and even inevitable, to change the world for the better.

If you could speak at any event, past or future, what would it be?

I would, of course, love to speak at future TED conferences. In the past, it would have been thrilling to participate in the event at the Royal Society in which Darwin and Wilberforce debated Darwin’s publication ‘On the Origin of Species’. Since women were excluded from such forums at this time, it would have just been the most amazing experience (with cherries on top!) - not only to be the first woman to speak at such a historic institution, but, also on such a monumental scientific occasion.

Who would you most like to share a platform with?

Bjork, who is the embodiment of unfettered creativity. If this wish could indeed be fulfilled, it would be fruitless to anticipate the outcome!

Do you use PowerPoint?

I use PowerPoint as my research is very visual and it is easier to capture the elegant complexity of the systems using a visual medium.

Are you as happy speaking to 50 as to 1,000 people?

The size of an audience makes no difference to me! What matters most to me is that people understand what I am talking about so that they can see why I am so excited about my area of discovery! It only takes one other person to continue talking about the possibilities to keep the process of communication going. Of course, if the potential of my research excites a thousand people, this process becomes a thousand times more effective!

How do you like to be introduced?

I identify as a Senior TED Fellow. Since my work is very interdisciplinary and innovative it often takes a while to summarise my various projects, passions and skills. Being affiliated with TED has meant that I am able to condense all of this into an instantly meaningful phrase that encapsulates ‘ideas worth spreading’.

Do you always like to do a briefing call before the event?

I prefer to have a briefing call before an event so that I can listen to what the event organisers are trying to achieve so that I can figure out how best to support these aims. I can also perform well without a brief or with an open brief. In these cases, I will use background research to make an intuitive assessment of the conference and audience needs and deliver a presentation accordingly.

What are the most asked for topics?

Sustainability, innovation, interdisciplinary practice and future scoping.

Is your speech at all interactive with audience participation?

I use a TED approach - ‘Technology Entertainment Design’ – in my talks, which takes the form of a public presentation with an accessible personal account of my innovative research area.

Do you have any funny/embarrassing speaking anecdotes you care to share?

I once ‘abducted’ an audience dressed as an alien ‘Gray’, locked the doors of the theatre and told them that they would only be released when we had reached a consensus on the concept of ‘humanity’. I don’t think that the audience was expecting this and there was a stunned silence before I then introduced four expert ‘witnesses’ to help them reach a conclusion through which they could negotiate their release with a vote. The unique quality that was agreed as an endearing characteristic of humans was their sense of ‘humour’. Exactly what this meant was very, very difficult to explain.

Your favourite film?

My favourite film is one of my protocell movies, which are artificial agents without DNA, where there is an inexplicable phase transition between two populations of protocells, It’s the most incredible thing I have ever seen. I don’t know how to explain it so I just enjoy watching this film again and again and again! You should take a look for yourself and see! [I have a You Tube link!!]

Favourite book?

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. I love this science fiction novel because it represents the ultimate challenge in human survival in the face of disaster and adaptation to a new way of being, despite the odds. It is also a wonderful love story!

Favourite holiday destination?

Having time to explore my imagination rather than dealing with everyday chores is my favourite place to be! I will also confess to being utterly partial to exploring any place with a rich cultural mythology. This only ignites my imagination further and makes for a difficult homecoming!

What’s your tipple – wine, beer, champagne?

Soy chai latte, please. I am teetotal.

Who inspires you?

I find inspiration from meeting new people, from conducting research in a novel field of study and from being on the most amazing planet in the known universe! There have been many generous mentors and teachers in my life.

I would like to pay special respect to Helen Chadwick, the artist and Turner Prize nominee, who taught me to look beyond the scientific framework that I had been schooled in and encouraged me to re-open my mind to new possibilities by looking for connections between things rather than limiting myself by focussing on their differences. Also, I would like to credit Peter Gabriel for sharing a scale of vision through WOMAD, which aspires to reconnect the world through music and dance. Peter Gabriel was enormously inspiring and generous when Helen died prematurely at the tender age of 42. Peter’s work convinced me that it was possible to think bigger than I had ever previously dared and realise that the only obstacle to reaching my dreams was through incarcerating my imagination.

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