CORVALLIS — On Tuesday afternoons in a small upstairs classroom, Kevin Ahern blows the stiff-collared stereotype of science academia to bits.
Ahern, a biochemistry instructor and director of undergraduate research at Oregon State University, doesn’t consider it disruptive to break out in song during class. On the contrary, the songs become the subject matter on Tuesdays, when he teaches the class “Sing a Song of Science” to a dozen honors students.
“Music brings back memories,” he tells the group of future veterinarians, philosophers and doctors before pressing play on a recording of the Alphabet Song.
All the students smile in recognition.
“See, that’s literally how 95 percent of kids in this country learn their ABCs,” Ahern says. “I took a little different direction.”
He presses play again, and a new version of the song begins. Instead of the letters of the alphabet, they hear a ditty that lists amino acids.
“Lysine, arginine and his
Basic ones you should not miss
Ala, leu, val, ile and met
Fill the aliphatic set.”
These are honors students at a major university, and they’re singing along to a re-imagined children’s song.
It’s not a typical scenario for an advanced biochemistry course, but Ahern is not your typical biochemistry professor.
The nutty professor
Ahern, a self-described nerd, doesn’t limit his quirkiness to science. He’s a real-life nutty professor known for his creative streak and is just as comfortable with the dry language of science as he is with the melody and cadence of a ‘60s pop song.
A widely published biochemist who has written textbooks and been a regular contributor to publications including Science Magazine, BioTechniques and Biotechnology Software & Internet Journal, Ahern is respected in his field.
He also has a passion for a well-written rhyme. In his free time, he writes Weird Al Yankovic-style rewordings of popular songs, using them as a classroom tool.
For decades he’s reworked The Beatles’ “Penny Lane,” “Ticket to Ride” and other songs to help students memorize lessons about deoxynucleotides and oxidizing molecules. “I’ve written one for every subject I teach,” he says.
Last year, Ahern took on a new challenge. He vowed to write a limerick for every day of 2012.
And as is his tendency, Ahern went above and beyond. He never missed a day, and well into 2013, he still has at least a month’s-worth of leftover limericks to share with the world.
This month, he published a book, “A Limerick a Day for a Year,” containing the fruits of his yearlong writing exercise.
How does a busy biochemist find the time and inspiration to write a year’s worth of limericks?
Lightening the mood
The root of the story goes back to 1978, when Ahern was a lab assistant at the University of Oklahoma.
He and a friend, fellow assistant Bruce Halley, began passing the time during long office hours by posting jokes, puns and funny observations on a wall calendar in the lab.
They called their project “The Calendar Editions.”
“It broke up the monotony of the lab,” says Halley, now a retired pharmaceutical company scientist living in New Jersey. “Mostly, they were bad puns in limerick form.”
The project ended when Ahern and Halley moved on to the next phase of their lives. But Ahern kept up the creative, humorous streak. When he began his career teaching a biochemistry class with hundreds of students, Ahern noticed the subject matter intimidated many of them.
He began rewriting the lyrics of popular songs to deal with his class materials, hoping the songs would help students retain lessons. If nothing else, he thought the songs would lighten the mood for his nervous students.
Nearly two decades later, he has written hundreds. There’s “En-er-gy,” written to the tune of the Beatles’ “Let it Be” and “We All Need Just a Little ATP,” to “Yellow Submarine.” “B-DNA is a parody of “YMCA” that swaps the chorus with:
“It’s fun to play with some B-DNA
It’s got a boatload of G-C-T-A
It’s got everything
A polymerase needs
When you melt all the A’s and T’s”
Cheesy, but effective
Cheesy? Yes. But his students say it works.
“Using creative things to help enforce ideas of logic is very helpful,” says Ayla Rogers, 22, who signed up for Ahern’s class at her sister’s suggestion. “It just seemed like a lot of fun.”
Ahern never gave much more thought to limericks until 2011, when he reconnected with his old college buddy Halley over email. Halley occasionally sent Ahern political jokes, and Ahern responded with limericks. Eventually, the pair turned to reviving the old Calendar Editions.
“I made it my New Year’s resolution to write a limerick every day,” Ahern says.
Halley mostly stood by as moral support, chuckling at Ahern’s daily dispatches. “He’s silly, and he’s not afraid to show that,” Halley says.
Ahern’s limericks aren’t confined to scientific topics. He writes about an ink drop in a pen, the perils of a fire at the circus, a gardener’s love for rain and cross country runners planning to run on a steep course.
“The cross country runners applied
For a race on a nearby hillside
The best one to cope
With the very steep slope
Will likely win in a landslide.”
Ahern says the lyrical puns come easy to him. He’ll sit down for a couple of hours and end up with 15 or 20 limericks.
Indira Rajagopal, Ahern’s wife of 20 years and a fellow OSU biochemistry professor, says his mind is constantly churning.
“We’ll walk to work and home together, and as we’re walking he’ll suddenly say, ‘Hey, I just had this idea!’” she says. “He has this enormous mental energy.”
That energy is evident on Ahern’s website, where most of his songs, limericks and verses are cataloged. There are hundreds.
Visitors to the site can also download the textbook Ahern and Rajagopal co-authored, free of charge. Ahern uses the book in his classes so students can avoid the high cost of another textbook.
Science is serious fun
As lighthearted as Ahern keeps his classroom, he takes his job very seriously. Most semesters, he teaches OSU’s largest 400-level class, BB 450 /General Biochemistry, with about 300 students. Any student who wants to become a dentist or doctor must pass.
“If I don’t do a good job of teaching, I’m not serving that next generation of people they’re going to treat,” he says. “I demand a lot and expect the kids to deliver.”
What’s next for the singing, rhyming, joking professor?
Ahern says he hasn’t issued another creative challenge to himself this year, but he and Rajagopal are collaborating to develop a new biochemistry curriculum. He plans to include his songs in the lessons.
“There is a stereotype that scientists are antisocial, that we just commune with our test tubes,” Rajagopal says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Other OSU science faculty include musicians, potters, master gardeners and a unicycling juggler, but Ahern is among the few who display their “outside the lab” personalities loudly and proudly.
“I’m just an odd guy, and I think science is fun,” he says. “People always say I should write a rap. I’ve tried, but I’m a melody person.”
On the Web
Kevin Ahern’s song collection: