Sunday, August 25

Professor’s BACON fuses chemistry, biology education with pop culture

(Jose Ubeda/Daily Bruin staff)

(Jose Ubeda/Daily Bruin staff)

Organic chemistry lessons usually have little association with sports. But when Krishan Patel enrolled in professor Neil Garg’s chemistry class last year, he completed a series of online tutorials where organic molecules and pop culture fused in each lesson.

One tutorial taught Patel about the molecular structure of AZT – a drug used to treat HIV – then played a video in which the basketball player Magic Johnson announced his HIV diagnosis to the world.

“I’m into sports, so it’s cool to see a connection,” said Patel, a third-year neuroscience, international development studies and Spanish, community and culture student.

Biology And Chemistry: Online Notes And Tutorials, UCLA, is an online science education program Garg hopes to spread to classrooms worldwide. Since Garg, vice chair for the department of chemistry and biochemistry, co-created BACON for his Chemistry 14D class last spring, his tutorials have been used in other chemistry classes at UCLA, reaching about 1,200 undergraduate students this quarter.

“Too many people have a relatively poor opinion of hard sciences,” Garg said. “BACON connects what we’re learning in the classroom to human health and pop culture.”

Garg and his team of faculty, graduate students and undergraduate assistants are now eliciting public support and donations to pursue a larger goal: extending BACON to a worldwide audience. Students can currently contribute their online support to BACON’s Thunderclap page, which is a publicity platform that will post about the cause to every supporter’s social media account Monday.

That same day, the BACON team will launch their month-long fundraising campaign on UCLA Spark, where people can pledge money toward the team’s goal of $7,500. Fundraising will help the team develop a robust web platform needed to make the tutorials easy for professors and students anywhere to use.

“To me, it’s really about showcasing science education,” he said.

Garg’s Chemistry 14D students complete BACON tutorials on a weekly basis, he said. Each lesson contains a pre-quiz, a refresher on the lesson topic and interactive activities that apply chemistry topics to real life. For example, one module relates the biochemical concept of chirality to the Mars Rover expedition, while another lesson about the molecule aspartame contains YouTube clips about health issues surrounding the consumption of aspartame-based artificial sweeteners.

Some students have given the tutorials positive feedback through anonymous testimonials.

“As a (theater) kid, I was hooked from week one with the RENT references,” said one student in in a testimonial Garg provided. “Overall, I think this helped put a ‘face’ to organic chemistry for me that I hadn’t gotten in my other classes.”

Tejas Shah is BACON’s co-creator and namer – the Bacon Master, as Garg calls him. Shah, a graduate student in chemistry, said that when the team launched BACON last year, they wanted to see how students perceived the program.

“My ultimate goal would be that multiple schools and classrooms around the world would use this as a tool to get students excited about chemistry and science in general,” Shah said.

Before joining UCLA faculty in 2007, Garg developed a passion for organic chemistry and teaching during his undergraduate years at New York University. At UCLA, he conducts his own studies in the Garg Lab, which uses chemical reactions to synthesize new materials with medical potential. The scientific company Sigma-Aldrich now sells the heterocycles, or drug “building blocks,” that the Garg Lab has synthesized over the years.

Garg said he also makes an effort to connect with the UCLA undergraduate community. Besides living as a faculty-in-residence at Gardenia Way Hall, he also established an undergraduate teaching lab for young chemistry researchers.

“He’s the sort of professor that gets you excited about what you want to learn, and almost makes you want to be a professor, too, so you can inspire kids that way,” said Crystal Lin, a third-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student who took his class last spring.

BACON’s Thunderclap campaign ends Monday.

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