The musical biochemistry instructor

November 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Love and heartache, in all their forms, are well-established inspirations for songs. But Kevin Ahern at Oregon State University turns to another source: biochemistry.

Take, for instance, the song “Translation,” sung to the tune of “Maria” from “West Side Story”:

“Translation!
I just learned the steps of translation.
And all the things they say,
About tRNA,
Are true,”

It gives you a new appreciation for and interest in the subject, doesn’t it? That is Ahern’s goal.

Ahern is an instructor who teaches biochemistry courses mostly taken by undergraduate students majoring in a variety of health sciences.  The students are not biochemistry majors and usually have “heard all kinds of urban legends about the subject,” says Ahern.  He uses his “Metabolic Melodies” to put students at ease with biochemistry and make them feel confident enough to engage in conversations about the topic.

Ahern discovered the ability of music to make a difficult subject more approachable in 1995. That year, he was closing in on teaching his very first large biochemistry class. To commemorate the milestone, he decided to write a couple of lyrics. The songs “were very popular with the students, so the next term I wrote another one for the class and it escalated from there,” he says. “The reason I have continued writing them is that I have seen how the songs cut through the anxiety students have about the subject of biochemistry.”

Ahern draws much of his musical inspiration from the Beatles, but “lately I’ve been on a binge of writing using melodies from the 1940s-1950s era,” he says, citing “I Lost a Lung,” “Elemental Learning,” “The Weight I Gained Last Week” and “Avogadro’s Number is a Huge One” as examples. Ahern has covered gluconeogenesis, the citric acid cycle, blood clotting and many of the other staples of introductory biochemistry and molecular biology courses in his Metabolic Melodies. For the song “B-DNA” Ahern even choreographed a dance, which by his own admission is “quite silly.”

Some of lyrics have been co-penned with his wife, Indira Rajagopal, who also collaborates with Ahern on other projects that involve science outreach.  Their current project is Biochemistry Free and Easy, which, together with Ahern’s 350 YouTube lectures, two iTunes U courses, more than 150 iTunes podcasts and the Metabolic Melodies, generates more than 100,000 hits per month.

The ability to make science appealing to nonscientists is something Ahern cares about deeply. He believes the next generation of scientists must be taught how to communicate science to people who aren’t trained in it.

“The U.S., in particular, is schizophrenic about science,” he says. “It’s absolutely fascinated with new discoveries but at the same time terrified of the power that scientific knowledge brings.  If we can train students to more effectively communicate in the language of nonscientists, we have the potential to uplift everyone by removing that fear and distrust.  When we fail to do this, science as whole suffers.”

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