Oregon State biochem professor puts science to song

CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) — It's a Tuesday morning, and Kevin Ahern is entertaining a room full of college students in an introductory class to biochemistry and biophysics with a voice that carries and a lesson that is positively lyrical.

The class is full of young students, many of them in the second week of their first year of college. They have many reasons to be nervous; their course work is among the most difficult at the university. But Ahern, a senior instructor of biophysics and biochemistry at Oregon State University, has found a way to calm jittery nerves.

Music.

After brief announcements and roll call — during which Ahern proves that he knows his class of about 50 students by name and face — he projects song lyrics on an overhead screen that contain words like "ribosome" and "DNA."

Then, without hesitation, he begins to sing the scientific lyrics to the melody of "America, the Beautiful" — and the class follows his lead.

This is Metabolic Melodies, one of Ahern's unconventional teaching methods to cut through the anxiety that new students often feel when first entering his class.

Ahern, who jokingly claims the title of "frustrated musician," began writing the melodies in 1990.

"I originally conceived of the melodies because biochemistry itself is a pretty scary subject for students," he said.

Metabolic Melodies have made a big enough impression on the student population that Ahern often has students enrolling in his courses because of the songs.

But while they are entertaining and make the professor less intimidating, the melodies, like his other unusual teaching methods, serve a practical purpose as well.

"Some have a purpose in teaching students to remember something," he said. "I know students who use the songs in remembering metabolic pathways."

Brynn Livesay, an OSU student in chemical engineering, met Ahern about a year ago.

She said the melodies are examples of ways Ahern uses a dynamic teaching style to make "a complex and often dry subject relatable and entertaining to learn."

Livesay recalled a particular lecture about estrogen receptors and the drug Tamoxifen. At the time, her mother had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

"Learning about one of the drugs that is keeping her in remission was very real and personal to me," she said.

Ahern said there was a time at the start of his teaching career when he worried about striking a balance between unorthodox and authoritative.

"If you lose that authority, then you've really lost a great tool in teaching. It turned out that wasn't a big consideration," he said.

As he teaches four online classes a term through OSU's e-campus, in addition to advising and instructing the introductory-level course, Ahern discovered yet another way to meet students' diverse needs: video lectures.

"Students in e-campus classes are seeing exactly what students in class saw the previous year," he said.

Thanks to a drive to make class material accessible, and a grant called the LL Stewart Award from OSU, Ahern and his wife, Indira Rajagopal, recently developed a textbook for the iPad called "Biochemistry free and easy" that is free for students. There also is a PDF version of the book available for students who don't own iPads.

The ultimate goal of his unorthodox efforts, he said, is getting the information into people's heads and making them feel important.

It comes as no surprise, then, that he has developed relationships with his students.

"On the first day of class, I take all their pictures and I sit down and spend time memorizing them," he said. "You feel like you're somebody; you feel like you're important — and you should. I think students need to feel that way."