Science songster interview #6: Kevin Ahern

Today’s interview victim is Dr. Kevin Ahern, a Senior Instructor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Oregon State University. Kevin maintains a Metabolic Melodies site of songs that he has written, mostly about biochemistry.

Kevin Ahern leading students in song (photo from oregonstate.edu)

SAS&M: YOU’VE WRITTEN WELL OVER 50 SONGS. WHICH ONES HAVE BEEN YOUR “GREATEST HITS,” AND WHAT MIGHT ACCOUNT FOR THEIR POPULARITY?

KA: If I measure the greatest hits by the number of downloads they get from my web site, my own personal favorite songs don’t all match with which ones are popular. The top downloaded song is “Enzymes” (Downtown) and while I generally agree it is a very good song, I think the related song “Catalyze” (Close to You) is actually better. Both of these songs describe enzyme properties nicely and were great recordings by some good friends of mine, Barbara and Neal Gladstone. Another popular download is B-DNA and I suppose that is because it is based on the funny “YMCA” song by The Village People. My lyrics to it aren’t as focused as they should be, but I wrote it in a hurry. The “Biochemistry Pie” (American Pie) song is downloaded quite a bit and has been described by some as the classic Metabolic Melody. Though I’m very fond of it, it is not my favorite. Another popular download is “Gluconeogenesis” (Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious) and it is also one of my favorites. It completely covers the pathway of gluconeogenesis. Numerous people have told me they use it to remember how gluconeogenesis actually occurs. A couple of very popular downloads though are near the bottom of my list. These include “We All Need Just a Little ATP” (Yellow Submarine) and “Energy” (Let It Be). Those two songs were two of my very early attempts at writing lyrics and I just don’t think they measure up to what I’ve done since them. Nonetheless, they’re both typically in the top 5 downloads.

In terms of what accounts for the popularity of the Metabolic Melodies, it is hard to say. I’d guess it is a combination of information communicated, catchiness of the tune and quality of the recording, but popularity also swings quite a bit. Sometimes one or two songs will get a giant number of downloads for a week or two and then settle back. I’m guessing groups of students probably discover a particular one relevant to a topic in their classes and they all download it at once.

SAS&M: HOW DO YOU INTEGRATE THESE SONGS INTO YOUR COURSES? ARE THEY SPINKLED THROUGHOUT THE TERM ACCORDING TO TOPIC, AND/OR ARE THEY ALL PRESENTED AT THE END AS A MUSICAL REVUE? DO MOST OF THE SONGS GET PERFORMED IN CLASS, OR DO YOU MOSTLY REFER YOUR STUDENTS TO THE ONLINE MP3 FILES?

KA: That has changed a bit over the 15 years I’ve been writing them. Originally the Melodies were just presented as a musical revue at the end of each term. A colleague of mine started performing them during the term he taught biochemistry and I thought it was a good idea, so I started singing a relevant song each time I completed a related topic. I probably sing about 2 songs per week now, but I also do one or two new songs at the end of each term. At the end of the winter term, for example, I recruit a group of faculty and students who all come to the last day of my class in Santa hats and sing the new songs. It’s a lot of fun.

SAS&M: SPEAKING OF THE MP3 FILES, YOU SEEM TO HAVE AN ARRANGEMENT WITH VARIOUS PROFESSIONAL MUSICIANS IN WHICH THEY RECORD YOUR SONGS AND THEN LET YOU DISTRIBUTE THE RECORDINGS FREE OF CHARGE. HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE? ARE THESE MUSICIANS LONGTIME FRIENDS OF YOURS?

KA: Yeah, I have some wonderfully talented friends who are generous with their talents. All of them are professional musicians. I can’t sing worth a crap, nor can I play an instrument, so I’m pretty dependent upon them to turn these songs into beautiful recordings. I give away every recording for free on my Web site and for visitors I have professionally done CDs that I give away as well. It’s possible because my friends are great and because I’m not in this to make money on the songs. I’d prefer to lose money on them (which I do) and have them stimulate interest in biochemistry than make money on them and do nothing educationally. The only things I sell relevant to the songs are a book of lyrics (“The Latest and Greatest Wildly Popular Metabolic Melodies”) and an annual calendar of the Metabolic Melodies.

SAS&M: YOU OFTEN USE “OLDIES” (LIKE BEATLES HITS FROM THE 1960s) AS TEMPLATES FOR YOUR LYRICS. DO YOU FIND THAT TODAY’S COLLEGE STUDENTS ARE GENERALLY FAMILIAR WITH THESE SONGS? DO ANY STUDENTS COMPLAIN THAT THE MUSIC ISN’T MODERN ENOUGH?

KA: Ha – that’s a great question. I get a lot of flack from some students for how “old” my music is. Some of them know the Beatles tunes and some don’t. I had a wonderful student a few years ago who complained that she’d never heard of most of the tunes I used, though she liked the songs quite a bit. I asked her for a tune that we both knew and she mentioned “American Pie”. That was how “Biochemistry Pie” got written. The song is a true story about the class I was teaching that term and she was a TA for it.

SAS&M: YOU HAVE COLLABORATED WITH YOUR WIFE AND TEACHING ASSISTANTS ON A FEW SONGS. HAVE YOUR STUDENTS ALSO BEEN INSPIRED TO WRITE THEIR OWN SCIENCE SONGS?

KA: Yeah, my wife Indira is a pretty darn good lyricist herself, though she doesn’t get into it like I do. I’m always humming/whistling melodies and trying to match alternative words to them in my head. She doesn’t do this, but if I get stuck in the middle of a song, she almost always has an idea that helps to solve the problem. The best example of this was “Central Dogma Zen” (Those Were the Days).

I’d had the idea for a “hook” in the song the week before the end of the term, when I usually write my lyrics. It went “Polymerase my friend works at the 3 prime end” and this matched the words in the song “Those were the days my friend we thought they’d never end”. This is usually how I work – I get the idea for the hook and then the rest of the song flows from that. Anyway, I was driving everyone nuts for about a week singing this one “hook” line. When the night before the end of the term came to write the song, I sat at my computer and had a block. I couldn’t come up with anything except the hook. Usually if I just stay up into the night, I can solve the problem, but I voiced frustration to Indira that I was stuck. I don’t usually do this. About 30 minutes later, she walked over to me and showed me what she’d written on her computer. It was a beautiful, concise and lyrical description of DNA synthesis to this tune. It used the hook I had thought of and her lyrics became the first half of the song. She told me that she’d heard that hook so many times during the week that she couldn’t get it out of her head either, so the song flowed pretty naturally.

Seeing her words broke the logjam for me almost instantly. I decided to write about transcription and translation and knocked out the rest of the song later that evening. We were walking in to work the next morning and I said something like “So I decided to write about the central dogma then.” She thought I said Central Dogma Zen. We both liked the title and it stuck.

As far as my students, one of my proudest moments came when two of my students (Taralyn Tan and Tony Rianprakaisang) started mimicking what I was doing with the Melodies. They both did a darned good job, in my opinion. Taralyn was the TA above who wanted a song to the tune of American Pie. Both she and Tony wrote three or four sets of lyrics each and I believe one of each of their songs got published in BAMBED. In fact, I feel that Tony’s PCR song is as solid as anything I’ve written.

SAS&M: YOU’VE PUBLISHED A LOT OF YOUR SONG LYRICS IN THE JOURNAL BIOCHEMISTRY AND MOLECULAR BIOLOGY EDUCATION. ARE THESE LYRICS PEER-REVIEWED IN THE USUAL MANNER? DO YOU GET REVIEWS SAYING THAT YOU NEED TO REWRITE SOMETHING FOR CLARITY OR ADD ANOTHER VERSE?

KA: Yeah, they do get peer reviewed. The first year or two, the songs were not reviewed, though. Judy Voet, one of the editors of BAMBED had heard of the songs and asked permission to publish them as a series. I agreed, of course. I kept writing more lyrics as they came out in the journal, so they began reviewing them because I was writing them faster than they could publish them and they wanted to have some sort of a screen for the best ones. Now all of the songs I get published there are reviewed first and I’ve had a number of them turned down, which has been very disappointing in some cases. In fact, two of my favorite songs, “My Old Enzymes” (Auld Lang Syne) and “Thank Goodness My Blood is Clotting” (Don’t Sleep in the Subway Darling) met that fate, apparently because they were overloaded with songs.

I do get suggestions sometimes from the reviewers. The best one came for “To Make a Cholesterol” (When Johnny Comes Marching Home). The reviewer felt I had overlooked the importance of the reduction of mevalonate in my original lyric and actually wrote an additional lyric as a suggestion for a re-submission. The reviewer’s lyric wasn’t ready for primetime, but it showed me clearly what the song needed. As a result, I wrote a new lyric to add to what I had originally submitted and it became the second verse of the published song.

The most difficult one I ever had was the review of the song “Catalyze”. The reviewer liked it, but felt the line in the song referring to non-competitive inhibitors lifting the plot of Lineweaver-Burk wasn’t 100% accurate. We went back and forth several times with suggestions and asterisked explanations to address the reviewer’s concern. We kept getting closer and closer to agreement, but finally got down to one word that we disagreed about. I can’t even remember what it was, but I remember at the end of our back and forth exchange that the reviewer relented and said the song was too good to fight over a single word and as a result it got published.

[Related link: Profile of Ahern in the HHMI Bulletin; photo above from oregonstate.edu]

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