Public speaking? Cool… Public singing? …Ummm

Here’s something for the annals of “you did what?”. Notwithstanding my impulsiveness in personal life (random weekend trips to Boston, Baratza coffee grinder, et. al.), my academic self is a deliberate, risk-averse animal, hewing to the standard, rarely deviating in appearance and presentation. I now have one data point against this characterization. The story goes like this…

I found out a couple of months ago that I had been selected to present my research on hemoglobin at the “90 Second Science” session suring the CORE Group’s 2018 Annual Global Health Practitioner Conference. I had 90 seconds and one powerpoint slide to describe my work. 90 seconds!

Imagine my surprise, when the first thought that entered my head I had when I found out was: I should sing this presentation. Wait, what? As a doctor and public health researcher, my presentations in scientific conferences have been pretty run-of-the-mill academic, in posters or oral sessions. I like to get creative in the trainings that I run as a technical assistance provider to USAID missions around the world- role play, learning by doing, energizers, Jeopardy! games, etc. These are underlined by my belief that I should talk less, listen more, and showing is better than speaking.  However, if there is a red line on my public performance, it’s at speaking to a beat aka singing/rapping.

The thought swirled around in my head for a few weeks and I tested the idea on a few colleagues and received 100% positive feedback and encouragement. In hindsight, that kind of painted me into a corner because I’d given the impression that I was going to do it, which was far from my state of mind! Still plagued by self-doubt, I thought I would get song/beat suggestions from the younger/far-more-hip-than-I-can-ever-be crowd at JSI (thanks, Diane, Natalie, Kelly) and these were the suggestions: Shape of you, Shawn Mendez, One direction, Imagine dragons -thunder, theme of the Big Bang Theory. Being of an advanced age, I needed a refresher on these suggestions. Heard them sing, sounded great. I was still not inspired and on the verge of abandoning the idea. I was also swamped with work, we were five days away from the conference,  and I didn’t know how someone who is not naturally gifted, musically, can write the words, practice, and sing publicly for the first time.

Cue one day later. I was with my friends Monique, Theresa, and Bob. They had one unanimous suggestion: Hamilton. I might have paled at their suggestion. 1) I don’t know how to sing or rap’ 2) I am tone deaf; (3) There are also 46 songs in Hamilton and I don’t know any of them well enough to sing, leave alone add my lyrics to their beat.

How does an Indian, nervous, never sung before and a
tone deaf, dropped in the middle of a spoken
Spot in a conference by selection, unsure, in horror,
Grow a pair to be a stage-on rapper?

It was May 31 and three days before the conference. We were at a happy hour and I was casually hinted at “Hamilton at Core Group” to Lin-Manuel Miranda superfan,  Ashley [I was still testing the waters with suggestions. My backup was to go the staid academic route, which I could so with my eyes closed.]  The song suggestion was immediate: Cabinet Battle #1. I was still clutching at straws but I know how deeply immersed she is in Hamilton lore, and I then decided that I was going to take her up on her suggestion. I still have 3 days to prepare, and lots of work piling up in my non-Hamilton life.  But if you know me, you know that, the dithering notwithstanding, once I’m set on a path, I stay on that path till the end.

I couldn’t get to Hamilton till Saturday – conference was on Monday. I spent Saturday listening to Cabinet Battle #1 on a loop, but only the first 1 minute 30 seconds (it was 90 second science after all!) I wrote out my research as lyrics, to the tune of the song. I spent Sunday with Suj and his daughter Sanvi, who were of course more important than a conference. I did convert an instrumental version of the song into a 1:30 clip. I was still playing around with the words, as they didn’t fit the beat well. And practicing.

Monday morning, 5 to 7 AM was dress rehearsal. Still not happy with words. But i needed to get the timing and pronunciation right.. trying saying “hemoglobin is definitely less” instead of “government assume state’s debt”…

I spent the day at the conference, attending sessions while subconsciously head-banging to Cabinet Battle #1 . I had a last minute practice at 3.30 pm. Then it was time, at 4 PM, and I was on first. The hitch was that the 1.30 instrumental clip I had recorded would be played through the central sound system with volume controlled by sound engineer. I’d practiced my rhythm with the music loud in my ear, so I was not sure how I was going to maintain both beat and key without the music being as loud. As I started the song with “Ladies and [music] gentlemen, you coulda been anywhere in the world tonight, but you’re here with us in Bethesda Maryland. Are you ready…for a 90 second science session”, I realized that I couldn’t hear the music well. Nonetheless, I was in it, and i forged on ahead. Gwyneth recorded it all from the front row, so I will know how I did after I see the video. [Update: I have seen the video- Ed]

Tell me how I did. Be gentle.

The lyrics are available on request.

Before you ask me about any more singing appearances, I will have to say, “I can neither confirm or deny any future musical interludes, research-y or otherwise”.

Is processed food universally evil?

Grace Dent, Guardian’s restaurant critic, has a two-sided perspective on the debate around processed food. It’s more like a one- and-a-half sided, as the processed food seems to be dear to her heart, and healthful food dear to her health. Her key phrase:

…heart of the processed-food debate is class war. Delicious, fructose-syrup-drenched, MSG-sprinkled class war.

She starts with the perceived disconnect between  people advocating for healthful food and the people who eat them (and presumably without the abilities to cook a healthful meal):

because healthy-food campaigners always sound so posh, any debate can only ever descend into a bunfight over privilege

And then karate chops that argument:

majority of British working people have disposable income, access to a four-ring stove and a GCSE-or-above-level education and are fully conscious of the links between too many Greggs pasties and a profile like Homer Simpson’s. And these people still love processed food.

She spends a few paragraphs indulging in nostalgia about processed foods and how they are connected to her memories of childhood.

London life of a Guardian columnist – knee-deep in fancy quinoa, invites to juicing bars and nutritional yeast as a condiment –

And a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that cutting out processed food has made her healthier but left her confused about her identity with their absence from her diet.

Some thoughts:

  1. Yes, processed foods are delicious. Yes they are ubiquitous. Yes, they are linked to to our past. However, the key word is “past”. We are now building our future. Notwithstanding our links to our past, doesn’t it behoove is to give our children (the future adults) an opportunity to build memories like ours, but linked with the “good stuff”.
  2. It’s an iterative cycle. The more mired we are in processed foods as the mainstay of our diet, the cheaper it gets, and comparatively the “good stuff” becomes more expensive….leading to more processed food in our diets.. and so on.. We need to break that cycle. How do you break that cycle. Look at  “ with a mother like Toni Collette in About A Boy, who never tasted mint Viennetta and were not allowed to eat Cadbury’s chocolate rolls at birthday parties.”. These “positive deviants” might show us a way, not the “posh foodies”
  3. I am a “posh foodie”, though not an extreme one. I also love processed foods. We can be both. I cook my own food. It takes patience, and time’ which someone might not have when surrounded by three hungry kids – ergo, processed food to the rescue. I also don’t think the use of processed food is an either/or. It’s not a zero sum game. You can cook a dish and use processed food to save time. Use of both, when in a time crunch, might have beneficial effects; people can tell the difference between food from fresh ingredients and food with ingredients to keep fresh. I use frozen indian flatbread paired with lentils and curries. Other days when I make the flatbread from scratch, I am not nostalgic for the frozen varieties – I wish I could make the fresh item all the time.
  4. I don’t believe the push to make “healthier” choices in the processed foods is sustainable or good for health.
  5. Stop the shaming. Stop singling out individuals or groups.
  6. It is about privilege. I have the ability to be either a posh foodie or a processed food connoisseur. Not everyone does. I use the Fred Rogers’ “Won’t you be my neighbour?” approach to encourage everyone to cook their own food. I cook for others, invite people to eat with me, share easy to make recipes. I don’t “educate” anyone on good nutrition. I share.
  7. I also share donuts. Once in a while, I buy a bunch of mini ones for my office, freshly made by a donut food truck, Word gets out and I meet more of my colleagues on that day than I would meet any other day.  [/winning social strategy] 🙂

Joel McHale and Davis Oyelowo

I’ve started watching the Joel McHale’s show – I remember Joel from the TV show ‘Community’. I thought that a show about the oddities of the internet would never be interesting – I thought that real-life internet is way more colorful that curated content! I was wrong. I am not ashamed to say that I loved it. Here is a short representative clip from his show.

Empathy – we need it more than ever

Watch the  video below from the Cleveland Clinic. We could use more empathy in our daily lives, not just in health care

No dialogue; powerful words on the screen; we could do without the background music but hey, nobody is perfect.




Jim Levinson’s Memoirs – “Tales from the Field: 50 Years of Work in International Nutrition”

The Note below explains it all, and link to the Free book and hard copy is at the bottom of the page:

Greetings to Jim’s Friends and Colleagues:

As one of those who put Jim up to this, I’m obviously delighted that he’s actually done it. Tales of 50 years of nutrition adventure, commitment and rocking of boats. I hope you enjoy these tales as much as I have.

You’ll find this likable book reflects both Jim’s compelling charm and his indefatigable efforts to see through all the hokum and creatively unclog the social constraints that keep nutrition from moving ahead more quickly.  Fifty years is a long time not to give up on something and this little book, in capturing that odyssey, has the power to resuscitate those splashing around in the Sea of Doubt. What he has produced here is an original repast from which those interested in our field can draw much nourishment. 

What Jim, of course, didn’t tell you in his note, is that he just reached his 75th birthday­. A big one, yes?  And on the chance that you might like to help him celebrate that birthday and his 50 years in the trenches, something you’d better know: Not the least of Jim’s eccentricities is his aversion to receiving presents.

But, fortunately, I am aware of the one gift he is sure to relish. That would be a contribution, in any amount, to Calcutta Kids, the dramatically effective NGO established by his son Noah to provide maternal and child health and nutrition services to slum dwelling families in India. How effective? In its 12 years operating in one of the poorest slum areas of one of the world’s poorest cities, Calcutta Kids is responsible for driving down severe malnutrition among the Calcutta Kids-registered children from 16% to 3.3%.  As a member of its board, I can vouch for its remarkable performance.

If you’d like to celebrate with Jim in this way just click on the link below.

click on “Donate,” and then, under “Dedication” write “Jim’s birthday” and he’ll be informed of your gift.


Alan Berg

Friend of—and sometime co-conspirator with—Jim these 50 years

Free PDF: Tales from the Field: 50 Years of Work in International Nutrition

If you or anyone else is interested in getting a bound copy, these are available at:

“Don’t get me wrong”

“Don’t get me wrong” – I see/hear this in written text/ conversations when someone is making a point and trying to convince the reader/audience about something

These 4 words get me thinking:

  1. You’re showing your defensiveness and I think you’re starting off the back foot if you are defending the “appropriateness” of a point that you haven’t made yet
  2. Relatedly, you’re presuming that the point you make will offend someone. Regardless of whether you say those 4 words, someone is going to get offended.
  3.  You are presuming a bias on part of your reader/audience – whether unconscious or not. Do you think folks are not capable of looking beyond what registers in their “echo chamber”- the world where only their ideas and opinions are valid. Might be some truth to that but is it worth getting into that?
  4. I’ve used these words on more than one occasion and I am guilty of these presumptions
  5.  I’m trying to be self aware about it, hence this post.

Icebreakers and Energizers

On my recent visit to Kyrgyzstan, my co-facilitator, Maryanne Stone-Jimenez  and I ran a 5-day training workshop on nutrition in Bishkek, the capital. We subsequently mentored a 3 day workshop that some of our “trainees” conducted in a distant Oblast called Naryn. We learnt a lot from them, as much as they did from us, so we should call everyone participants, and not distinguish between “trainers” and “trainees”.

During these workshop, I saw a lot of icebreaker and “energizers” being used. Icebreakers and energizers can break up the monotony of a training by getting are a way to break up expected reticence when a group of people (strangers and others) get together for a common purpose. We could see the interest levels dip, and if we used an energizer in a timely fashion, we were able to pull the participants back in! We also wanted to mix in some “learning” energizers with others that are just games, both mental and physical. We felt, at the end, that we got a good mix of both, and mostly applied at the exact time it was needed. I have an idea to create a large collaborative google document to document these and other activities that we (and others) have used – it is a valuable resource, not just for training but for any social activity. None of these are trade secrets, folks – share and share alike.

In the meanwhile, enjoy some photos from the training