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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Monday, April 30, 2007

Short White Coat: Medical School-house Rock

Short White Coat is a blog written by first-year Harvard medical student Ishani Ganguli. Ishani's posts appear here, as part of White Coat Notes. E-mail Ishani at shortwhitecoat@gmail.com.

Now that lectures are videotaped, Harvard medical professors seem to be hamming it up for the camera, using song and dance to entice students to watch and learn.

Earlier this month, Shiv Pillai tried genres as diverse as the ode, the mantra, and hip hop to summarize and attach some sort of teleology to complicated immunology pathways while lightening up otherwise tedious lecture-packed days. His melancholy take on T cells: "Looking for antigen below and above, Many will die of unrequited love."

"Thread that peptide into TAP," he added with an enthusiastic shimmy, encouraging us to join in. "Everybody do the lymphocyte rap!"

Unshockingly, the approach isn’t limited to graduate education. Some of my friends from college are turning hip hop into an educational tool for middle schoolers, mixing catchy beats on topics including the circulatory system and fractions. In a family opera production at the Cambridge Science Festival last week, evolution was festively summed up in a 23-part oratorio.

Singing and rapping educators are on to something. Analogy and anthropomorphosis are potent means of understanding concepts (for example, I like to think of the way your immune system learns what to attack as a slightly morbid version of speed-dating for white blood cells). If there’s a tune or a beat attached, one that you can hum under your breath or tap on your desk while taking an exam, even better (never mind the annoyance of neighboring students).

We learned last Thursday that the music need only be inferred to be an effective learning tool: In a microbiology lecture on sexually transmitted infections already enhanced by stick figure drawings, Michael Starnbach used the immortal lyrics of Frank Zappa to illustrate the clinical manifestations and social implications of gonorrheal infection.

"Why does it hurt when I pee?," Zappa heart-wrenchingly inquires. In Starnbach’s impressively straight-faced dramatic reading, complemented with medical references, he answered this question (for one thing, Zappa was wrong to blame the toilet seat) and so much more.

Posted by Ishani Ganguli at 04:10 PM
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