Instructor draws passion, success from pre-med, science students

Senior instructor Kevin Ahern shares a laugh with Yuko Iwanago of Beaverton and other students in his "Scientists in the Public Eye" class. (photo: Ed Curtin)

Senior instructor Kevin Ahern shares a laugh with Yuko Iwanago of Beaverton and other students in his "Scientists in the Public Eye" class. (Photo: Ed Curtin)

“Have fun,” exhorts Kevin Ahern to a visitor leaving his office in Agriculture and Life Sciences.

And with those two words, Ahern, senior instructor in biochemistry, summarizes the message that has brought him high accolades and his students high accomplishments.

Co-winner of the 2008 Beaver Champion Award for outstanding effort and achievement of the highest quality, Ahern blends a zest for life with modern technology to help students overcome their fears of biochemistry and, at the same time, find their passions.

“I want them to feel hopeful,” said the Midwest native who made a conscious choice to teach and not to research when he earned his doctorate from OSU in 1986. “I work at getting them over the hump of fear and foreboding and into the lab, investigating new stuff. That’s exciting, that’s cool.”

Teaching some of the largest classes on campus, Ahern talks fast and covers lots of material. But he also videotapes himself and provides his undergraduates with online streaming of his lectures, MP3 podcasts, video podcasts, and, now, high resolution video that allows them to view full screen.

Using his iMac and the iMovie program, he can produce all four forms of a one-hour lecture in 90 minutes, making it available to students almost before then can get to the library or back to their rooms.

Ahern also advises pre-med students, and has a nearly perfect success rate for acceptance into medical school – 46 out of 49 over the past several years, easily 20 to 30 percentage points above the national average.

“I’m very proud of that,” he smiled.

His formula?

 Performance, but grades are a minor part of that equation; entrance exams count for more.

 Diversity of knowledge, and he urges his students to branch out into classes in Liberal Arts.

 Diversity of experience, including volunteering in medical clinics, leadership and social clubs.

“If they do that,” he says of his pre-med charges, “it really works.”

Ahern also gets his students into real labs with real research professors across campus and around the world.

The program he directs, which gets core funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and support from the College of Science’s Cripps and Jaworski Scholarship Funds, the College of Engineering’s Johnson Scholarship Fund, the OSU Honors College, the OSU Foundation and the OSU Undergraduate Research Innovation, Scholarship, Creativity (URISC) Program, employed 45 students last summer.

One worked in the Bahamas, another in South Africa.

When advising some of his 150 students or talking with lecture halls full of 350, Ahern might suggest they consider taking a couple of years off school.

“They resist that at first, but they come back and say they’ve found out so much about themselves that they are even better students,” he explains. “They are so programmed in life, from age 5 to 22, with soccer moms and all that’s scheduled for them. I want them to get out of that box.”

And if a student drops out of pre-medicine or biochemistry, and they find something else they’re interested in, “that’s a good thing; I push that.”

“I love what I do,” Ahern says. “I don’t consider it work at all.”

And if his students are listening, what they end up doing might just be the same: “having fun.”

~ by Ed Curtin

“In the Classroom” is a periodic feature of LIFE@OSU, highlighting innovative practices in the classrooms and laboratories throughout campus. Along with LIFE/Work, Mentors, OSU Around Oregon, and especially Commentary, we encourage submissions and suggestions of articles such as this that would be of interest to the staff and faculty of Oregon State University. Send them to  Also, consider commenting on this and other stories. Just click on the “comment” link below each piece. Thank you. — Editor

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