He turns Christmas carols into studies of protein synthesis, and Bob Dylan into a vegetarian preacher. For over a decade, award-winning Oregon State University biochemist Kevin Ahern has taught his subject through music and poetry, and claims it is key to his students’ success.
Metro: Your website claims you are "wildly popular." Is this true?
Ahern: I can’t sing worth a crap, but I perform all over the world and a lot of people want to listen.
Are you the only biochemistry singer, and by default, the best?
There are a few people doing something similar. What inspired me was a British professor [Dr. Harold Baum] who wrote "The Biochemists' Songbook." I got a copy and was impressed by the clever rhymes and thought "I can do that."
Why do music and biochemistry go together?
Students find biochemistry very intimidating and I wanted to cut through that, to make it more fun and less scary. It helps academically, like the ‘"Metabolism Pathway" song takes students step by step through how metabolism works, how glucose is made, etc. If they learn the song, they learn the process.
Kids can be cruel. Do you never get heckled?
I look at student evaluations every term and one a year says, "I’m tired of songs," but most really like them.
Do you worry other academics will think you sold out?
I worried at first; some of them call me "The Song Guy," but generally reactions have been better than I expected. You can have academic entertainment but you have to be careful not to be a clown and detract from the message. There is a tightrope to walk.
Do you have a favorite memory or moment?
One lecture and song on hemoglobin always leaves me with a very positive feeling.