If anything is certain, it is that Kevin Ahern, professor of biochemistry and biophysics, and his wife Indira Rajagopal, a senior instructor in the same field, won’t lose their love of teaching anytime soon. Although they officially ended their 30-year tenure at Oregon State in December, their inspired teaching and selfless determination to make education more accessible for everyone is far from over.
Neither is the monumental impact they have made on the OSU community and around the world. Ahern and Rajagopal will remain involved in numerous projects throughout the university. Ahern will continue teaching online courses for OSU’s Ecampus, and Rajagopal will teach select Honors College courses.
Additionally, Ahern will continue to lead of one of his landmark achievements: the STEM Leaders Program. This program targets underrepresented minority students in STEM fields and has exceeded its goal of increasing retention rates among this population by more than 10 percent. The leadership program offers students a strong experience shaped by peer mentoring, workshops, skill-support, a research internship and an annual retreat. Established in 2014, the STEM Leaders Program, which was funded by a $1.5M grant from the National Science Foundation, was to run for five years. But OSU will continue to invest in the program beyond August 2019, thanks to its incredible success.
Colleague and fellow biochemistry and biophysics professor Elisar Barbar commends the program for introducing students early to research and the lab experience and to helping them feel a sense of belonging in an otherwise daunting field of study.
“Many of the students that I trained in my lab were funded by programs initiated by [Ahern] — whom I may not have recruited otherwise but took a chance on because of his support.”
As Ahern and Rajagopal reflect back on their time at OSU, what stands out most is their work to help students achieve their dreams — no matter the cost. They are grateful to OSU for welcoming their innovative teaching styles and quirky ideas.
“It’s a harder path sometimes,” Ahern admits, “but the satisfaction is awesome in the end. When you do something unconventional and you see it work, you feel a great pride in that. Don’t let outside influences change you, it’s your inner core that matters.”
Clearly, their unique approach to life has contributed to their monumental success and numerous awards.
“Somehow even with their very different personalities – one who enjoys the limelight and one who avoids it — they are both masters at bringing their subject matter to life while teaching,” commented Andrew Karplus, Head of the Biochemistry and Biophysics Department, at their retirement ceremony. View the entire ceremony online.
Award-winning teaching and advising
Together, the retired couple have received about as many best teacher awards as the number of years they have taught at OSU, not to mention winning nearly every teaching award at OSU. Most recently, Ahern was the 2017 recipient of both the Elizabeth P. Ritchie Distinguished Professor Award and the Best Mentor/Advisor Award by the OSU chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Rajagopal was the 2016 recipient of the Fred Horne Award for Sustained Excellence in Teaching Science in the College of Science, and just this year she received the 2019 Olaf Boedtker Award for Excellence in Academic Advising — just to name a few.
Their focus has always been making biochemistry more accessible for everyone —regardless of socioeconomic background. Even from the beginning of Ahern’s teaching career, before internet use was common, Ahern found ways to record his lectures for students outside of class. As technology advanced, he started a YouTube channel for the same purpose, which now has approximately 30,000 subscribers and over four million views.
This passion is what inspired Ahern and Rajagopal to write three open educational resource biochemistry textbooks. Their first free textbook, Biochemistry Free and Easy, has about 200,000 downloads since it was released in 2012.
Ahern and Rajagopal’s efforts have made a difference. Some of their most touching career moments have come from students in the most impoverished corners of the world, who couldn’t afford textbooks but were able to succeed using the materials they posted online.
Hearing the music in science
At OSU, however, Ahern may be best known for his use of song in the classroom. Ahern and Rajagopal feel strongly that students learn better in environments where they feel comfortable. Ahern takes this notion a step further, and even performs songs to students of his own composition. He feels the songs make it easier for students to learn the material, but also give them a sense of his human vulnerability — that he is on their level.
But Ahern’s music is not limited to the classroom; he has published hundreds of Metabolic Melodies and verses — often co-written by Rajagopal. Their melodies received international attention on Nature Podcast and BBC Radio.