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Kevin Ahern and Indira Rajagopal hugging each other

Two lives intertwined by biochemistry and a passion for teaching burn bright beyond retirement

By Mary Hare
Kevin Ahern and Indira Rajagopal at the 2019 Winter Awards

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.

group photo of Kevin Ahern with female students in Memorial Union entryway
Kevin Ahern with Divine, OSU’s all-women A Cappella group who performed a selection of his limericks, “Metabolic Melodies,” in 2016.

From Oklahoma and India to Corvallis

As hard as it may be to imagine, Ahern has not always been the loud, gregarious character many of us know today. Growing up in the small farming town of Fowler, Illinois, he always preferred reading to farming or sports. As an undergraduate at Oklahoma State University, Ahern “was actually very shy,” he recalled in an interview for the Oregon State Oral History Project. Like many students, he was slow to discover what career path he was most interested in.

It was not until after he graduated with a degree in zoology and began working in a biochemistry laboratory that he really discovered his passion for science.

“It was the most eye-opening thing to me … I sort of discovered the way that science worked,” he recalled.

Rajagopal’s upbringing was different from Ahern’s in many ways. Born in India, she came from a family heavily invested in the sciences. Her father was a leader in the Indian medical community, and her mother was a zoology professor. Due to serious illness, her mother later worked from home, translating science books into Indian languages so that children from low-income families could still learn science. This was a family passion that left a marked impression on Rajagopal.

“It’s kind of interesting how your whole life changes because of something that happens,” she recalled last December. It all started because of an illness Rajagopal contracted in high school, which forced her to stay home reading instead of attending class. One of the books her mother presented her was a book about biochemistry — which was not taught at school. “I loved chemistry, and I was just fascinated with the idea that you could understand the living world through chemistry,” she explained.

Rajagopal decided to major in biology and chemistry at Delhi University, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. She then moved to the United States to work at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).

Meanwhile, Ahern had finished his master’s degree at Oklahoma State and his Ph.D. at OSU. Ahern and Rajagopal met as post-docs at UCSD, but soon realized they would be happier in an environment more focused on the science than the competition. Ahern decided to return to OSU to finish up his post-doc, and convinced Rajagopal to join him there.

Ahern and Rajagopal remained good friends for many years while working together at OSU before they finally began thinking about marriage. “If anyone can be said to be soulmates, Indira and I are soulmates — and we still are today,” Ahern explains.

Kevin and Indira hugging each other in office space
Kevin and Indira on their wedding day, December 4, 1992, in the Biochemistry and Biophysics Department’s Library.

As with many events in their life, their wedding turned out to be an unorthodox one, taking place in none other than the Biochemistry and Biophysics Library in the Agricultural and Life Sciences Building on campus where they both worked.

“On December 4, 1992, we walked into the department and told people we were going to get married,” explains Ahern. “I think they all thought that both of us were nuts.”

At this point in their careers, neither Ahern nor Rajagopal had ever considered teaching. In fact, if their principal investigators hadn’t decided to take a sabbatical one year and put them in charge of teaching, they may never have stumbled upon it.

“I feel really lucky because there were so many little chances that led me to where I am today – whether it was this random little book that my mother picked up and brought to me when I was sick at home…, or the fact that I got to have a chance to teach just because I happened to be Chris’s [Mathews] postdoc,” Rajagopal explains.

Soon, they discovered that the research they found most compelling was not performed at a workbench, but in the minds of their students. They both decided to give up lab work entirely to focus on educating a new generation of scientists. Ahern and Rajagopal had a strong belief that students who were passionate about the material learned better, and they wanted to ignite that passion.

“You can’t teach curiosity, but you can encourage curiosity,” says Rajagopal.

“Since that day when I was 14 — that sense of wonder has stayed with me all these years. I want my students to see, to get a glimpse of how amazing all of this stuff is, so that they learn because they are fascinated by it.”

The next chapter

Although Ahern and Rajagopal are not full-time faculty anymore, their work to make science free and available for the global community has only just begun. They plan to hit the road in April with a 49-state road trip and then travel more than 6,000 miles away to Malta, an island in the central Mediterranean between Sicily and the North African coast, later this year thanks to their 2019 Fulbright Fellowship Award.

Despite their international travels, the couple does not plan to stray far from Corvallis.

“You take it for granted when you’re at a university, but the atmosphere of a university will always be something that is difficult to replicate anywhere else,” said Rajagopal.

“We’ve been really happy working at OSU. If we’ve needed something, people have helped us out. If we wanted to do something that might have sounded a little crazy, they’ve given us a chance to do it,” added Ahern.

It is only fitting to close with a limerick from the musical biochemist:

We’re finding it hard to believe
That our last day was last New Year’s Eve
30 years since we’re hired
And now we’re retired
Enjoying maturity leave