Why the Women in the World Summit Matters

Where else can you eat lunch with Pussy Riot, sit next to Senator Gillibrand as she discusses her upcoming book with her publisher as Huma Abedin rushes by to grab more coffee? Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit is an annual event bringing together exceptional women from around the world to honor the countless women battling oppression every day.


Every hyped-up celebrity formed from the marble of a crisis represents innocent people whose voices have been silenced. Take summit speakers Pussy Riot, for instance. We in the West seem to worship them. They’re considered punk rock starlets who represent all the glory, all the guts of rebellion. They’re almost too good to be true, a Hollywood concoction. Given that they’ve dined with Madonna, were honored at Brooklyn’s Barclay Center with their own concert (to raise money for Amnesty International), and have made Stephen Colbert blush as witty guests on his show, one could even say they won the protest jackpot by getting arrested.

Behind all the glamour, all the media appearances of Pussy Riot, there are regular Russians whose names the world will never know who are rotting in prisons for practicing democracy. Why doesn’t Madonna dine with them?

In Russia, just this year alone, nine journalists have been killed and 163 arrested, according to Reporters Without Borders. The Memorial Human Rights Center has identified 43 individuals in Russia as political prisoners. As I recently wrote for Forbes, the Kremlin just did a massive crackdown on the media and put Chinese-styled restrictions on the Internet. After speaking on stage in Lincoln Center, Pussy Riot will be going home to wannabe-1984.

One star-attraction at this year’s summit who benefited from being relatively unknown was Ruslana. Just months ago, the Ukrainian pop star was obscure in the West. Last month, she was honored at the White House by First Lady Michelle Obama for bravely remaining on stage in Maidan, Kyiv’s Independence Square, despite the snipers, despite repeated threats on her life. In the arctic cold, for over 100 nights, she sang the national anthem to keep protesters’ spirits up in the face of death and riot police violence. As a longtime fan of Ruslana’s, I’ve seen her in concert before. Her earthy version of pop music can best be described as pre-US crossover Shakira, when the now watered-down bleach blond was a soulful beloved rocker in her native Columbia. Ruslana, a former member of Ukraine’s parliament, easily stole the show at this year’s summit. Given my work in democratic advocacy for Ukraine, I was honored to be a guest of her delegation this year.

“Welcome to Ukraine!” she told the audience after having them shine their cell phone lights in the dark like the sea of protesters in Kyiv, during the relative peace of December. In an interview with Tina Brown, Ruslana explained how to understand Putin: “In the Soviet Union, a human life means nothing, the empire means everything.”

While it’s easy to get caught up in the famous names gracing the halls of the Women in the World Summit, the main attraction is how the event gives a voice to the voiceless. For a few days, brave women like Ruslana, like Pussy Riot share their stories of survival, of hope, and determination on a global stage. They are speaking for millions of people who need us to listen. 

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

For most of history, humans got smarter. That's now reversing.

We were gaining three IQ points per decade for many, many years. Now, that's going backward. Could this explain some of our choices lately?

The Flynn effect appears to be in retrograde. (Credit: Shutterstock/Big Think)
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Lama Rod Owens – the price of the ticket to freedom

An ordained Lama in a Tibetan Buddhist lineage, Lama Rod grew up a queer, black male within the black Christian church in the American south. Navigating all of these intersecting, evolving identities has led him to a life's work based on compassion for self and others.

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  • "What I'm interested in is deep, systematic change. What I understand now is that real change doesn't happen until change on the inside begins to happen."
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