The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Kevin Ahern Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Mike Dicianna.

June 29, 2015


Kevin Gene Ahern was born in 1954 in Quincy, Illinois, and grew up in the small farming community of Fowler, Illinois. He remained in Fowler for most of his youth before moving to Stillwater, Oklahoma, where he graduated from high school in 1972. He began undergraduate studies at Oklahoma State University that fall.

Ahern lacked direction as a college student, changing majors several times before graduating in 1976 with a bachelor's degree in zoology. After graduation, Ahern began working as a research technician in an Oklahoma State laboratory, an experience that sparked in him the desire to become a scientist. He remained in the lab, researching vitamin A, from 1976 to 1978. He then enrolled in graduate school at Oklahoma State and, after three years as a research and teaching assistant, received his master's degree in biochemistry in 1981. His thesis, "Separation and Characterization of Retinoids in Chick Bile," relied in part upon the vitamin A work that he had conducted during his years as a technician.

Having completed his master's degree, Ahern decided to pursue a Ph.D. Interested in living on the west coast, he chose to continue his studies at Oregon State University. Once at OSU, Ahern began working as a research associate in Dr. George Pearson's lab. In 1986 he received his doctorate in biochemistry and biophysics, writing a dissertation titled "Adenovirus Replication in Trans: A New Replication Pathway." After post-doctoral fellowships at the University of California, San Diego and the American Cancer Society, Ahern returned to OSU, where he conducted additional post-doctoral research in the Pearson lab.

In 1989 Ahern accepted a position as Business Manager and Research Coordinator for the OSU Biochemistry and Biophysics department, a job that he held until 1998. During this time, he also worked as a writer and editor for Biotechnology Software & Internet Journal and as a contributing editor for two magazines, Genetic Engineering News (1997-2009) and Science (1998-2003).

In 1995 Ahern began his teaching career as a Senior Instructor at OSU. His early experiences in the classroom prompted him to explore using the internet to connect with students, and he began posting extra notes and audio files of his lectures online for students to use. It was in a later class of 200 students that he introduced the first of his biochemistry songs, which he hoped might help the group to better understand the biochemical processes about which he was lecturing. The songs proved both popular and effective, and today he has authored a collection of over one hundred "Metabolic Melodies." Starting in 2001, he also began videotaping his lectures and making them freely available online.

In 1999 Ahern added advising to his portfolio and found it to be one of his passions. He has since won a variety of awards for this work, including the Olaf Boedtker Award for Excellence in Advising in (2000 and 2011), the Dar Reese Award for Excellence in Advising (2005), the Mentor Award for Outstanding Advising (2007), and the National Academic Advising Association's Outstanding Faculty Award for Faculty Advising (2013).

In 2012 Ahern moved beyond lectures and songs to the textbook world, when he and his wife, OSU Senior Instructor Indira Rajagopal, co-published Biochemistry Free and Easy. That same year, he became the university's Director for Undergraduate Research, a new initiative focused on promoting and expanding undergraduate students' opportunities to conduct original research of their own. In 2013 Ahern and Rajagopal co-authored a second volume, Kevin and Indira's Guide to Getting Into Medical School, which they made available online for free.

Ahern taught as a Senior Instructor until 2014, when he was promoted to Professor. He has received numerous awards for his efforts as an educator, including the Loyd Carter Award for Outstanding and Inspirational Teaching (1999) and the Frederick H. Horne Award for Excellence in Teaching (2006). He and his wife were also honored with the university's Beaver Champion Award in 2008, granted annually for outstanding effort and achievement of the highest quality.