Singing of Science

Kevin Ahern's "metabolic melodies" have students singing in class and on YouTube
Kevin Ahern

Kevin Ahern writes one or two new "metabolic melodies" every term. He has inspired comments from students as far away as Ukraine and Croatia. (Photo: Karl Maasdam)

Like most teachers, Kevin Ahern savors the smile on his students’ faces when they suddenly get it. He remembers having those bright “ah hah” moments in school only too well.

But Ahern, who teaches introductory and advanced biochemistry classes to many of Oregon State University’s pre-med students, has another reason for wanting to drive science into his students’ minds. “These kids will be treating me sometime. I don’t want to have one of them as my physician and think, ‘oh man, you got a D in my biochemistry class.’”

Ahern’s own expertise is in viruses, and he holds a patent for a laboratory technique called “boomerang DNA amplification.” He has written regular columns for Science magazine and other publications and directs OSU’s annual Howard Hughes Medical Institute summer research program. But it’s his unusual teaching style that has earned him a reputation among students at OSU and even among distance-learners in Europe and Asia.

Despite admitting that he can’t carry a tune, he composes and sings his own “metabolic melodies” to make a memorable point. At the end of class or in the middle of a lecture, Ahern will break into songs like “B-DNA” (to “YMCA”), “Glucagon is Coming Around” (to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”) and “When Acids are Synthesized” (to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”).

Posted on YouTube

His copyrighted compositions have been recorded by students (listen to “We All Need Just a Little ATP” and “The Ribosome“) and professional singers, including Corvallis musicians Neal and Barbara Gladstone. Versions have been posted on YouTube and are available free at http://www.davincipress.com/metabmelodies.html.

A self-described ham who loves melodies, Ahern breaks into an off-key number at unexpected times in his classroom. And the reaction from his students? “You just saw this look that went across the crowd, ‘look, he’s gone nuts,’” he says. But they laugh and applaud and have told him later that the catchy tunes help them to remember arcane facts.

Whether his students go on to the Oregon Health & Sciences University in Portland (where OSU contributes a large share of entering classes) or hold policy-making positions in state or federal agencies, Ahern wants them to be well-equipped. It’s not just for technical proficiency. Inevitably, whether as physicians, administrators or policymakers, they will have to deal with controversial topics such as genetic engineering, animal cloning or nanomedicine. He wants their opinions to be grounded in facts.

These topics may generate varying points of view among students, but Ahern gives his graduates the ability to do more than work in a laboratory. “They need to talk the talk, and they need to understand the language,” he says. “I think my songs tap a musical part of the brain and help them do that.”

For his source of inspiration, Ahern credits a gifted math teacher in Fowler, Illinois (population 200) where he grew up. To hear him tell it, young Kevin had gotten in with the wrong crowd at school. He wasn’t doing the work he was capable of, and his parents were exasperated. His math teacher did something that no one else had done: He explained the meaning of the equal sign. “It resonated with me in a way that is difficult to describe. I never had to study for another math class in my life.”

Kevin Ahern sings one of his “metabolic melodies” in this podcast with Celene CarilloOSU Web Communications.

A list of Ahern’s songs from “Biochemistry Pie” to “I’m a Little Mitochondrion” is here.

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