Hip-hop music echoes down the halls at Stanford University. But, if you listen closely, the lyrics are not about money and violence— they are about DNA and electrons. Tom McFadden, an instructor in the human biology program, creatively blends hip-hop with science to explain concepts from evolution to cellular respiration.
Geeky videos about science have been around for a long time. Who can forget the 1971 video of Stanford students depicting ribosomal translation through interpretive dance?
Given the low numbers of students interested in pursuing scientific careers, it is obvious that we need ways to kindle scientific interest in young minds. Media and politics constantly bombard us with the message that science is uncool. Rather than emphasizing the power of science, schools focus on memorizing the details and mechanics. Although understanding the basics is important, we need to put the excitement front and center.
McFadden has been spinning his hip-hop parodies on biology since high school. These videos are catchy, funny and always educational. For instance, “Regulatin’ Genes” parodies Jay-Z’s “Money Ain’t a Thang” and depicts the complicated world of gene regulation. The science behind the rap lyrics explains that all cells contain the same genetic information, but cell specialization occurs when transcription factors turn genes on and off.
Recently, McFadden created a video called “Oxidate It or Love It/Electron to the Next One,” which is a parody of 50 Cent’s “Hate It or Love It” and Jay-Z’s “On to the Next One.” The video explains how glucose is converted into energy or ATP through glycolysis and the Krebs cycle. Normally, bringing up oxidative phosphorylation is an instant buzzkill. McFadden explains, “My goal is to convince students that biology is worth studying because it is so inherently fascinating and relevant to their everyday lives and that a deep conceptual understanding will make the details far easier to remember.”
So who’s the target audience for these videos? High school, pre-med and biology/biochemistry students would appreciate them the most because they often are required to know these topics in great detail. “High school teachers face a great challenge in motivating students; with that group, the best methods involve shocking and surprising them, and biology raps definitely serve that purpose,” says McFadden. Additionally, hip-hop aficionados who are curious about cutting-edge basic science or the workings of exciting technologies would find these easily digestible.
Next, McFadden is creating a new rap song about how short-term stress can be good and how chronic stress can really mess you up, to the tune of “Hey Ma” by Cam’ron. McFadden plans to take his rhyme skills into the classrooms and teach kids to write their own scientific rap songs. “This project will culminate at [the New Zealand International Science Festival], where we will be having a ‘Science Idol’ competition, where students will compete to be the next great science rap star,” says McFadden.
Now that it’s easy to shoot and post videos on YouTube for the world at large to consume, one only can hope that other students and budding scientists will be inspired to translate their scientific passion in similar ways.
Nancy Van Prooyen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute.