Science + Technology

Has organic chemistry become UCLA's most beloved class?

Yes, say Neil Garg's students, who are back this year with nearly 100 new chemistry-related music videos

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Neil Garg teaches organic chemistry
Coral von Zumwalt

Neil Garg (far left) teaching Chemistry 14D.

Over dinner at Neil Garg’s home, several of his second-year honors students recalled the advice they heard before even starting UCLA: "Make sure you take Neil Garg for organic chemistry." All of them said they now pass that same advice on to younger Bruins.

"Getting into this class was like ‘The Hunger Games,’" said life sciences major Dianne Lumaquin. "I know people who waited two years to get in. People have celebratory dances when they learn they’re enrolled — including me — and the ones who don’t get in are devastated. People sit in the aisles for all 10 weeks, which is crazy; in other classes, that usually stops by the second week."

Why the passion for Chemistry 14D, the class Garg teaches each spring quarter?

"We all feed off his passion for organic chemistry," said Elizabeth Matusov, a second-year student majoring in molecular, cell and developmental biology. "He feels like a friend who happens to be teaching a really difficult class. He’s easily the best professor I’ve ever had. I would take any class with him. We all would."

Garg has won just about every teaching award there is, including UCLA’s prestigious 2013–14 Eby Award for the Art of Teaching. The 35-year-old professor of chemistry and biochemistry was also chosen as BruinWalk.com’s Professor of the Year in 2013, just two years after earning UCLA’s Hanson–Dow Award for Excellence in Teaching. It’s little surprise to his students, who say he somehow manages to make a personal connection with every individual in his class of nearly 400 students.

"I’ve heard for two years that he’s UCLA’s best professor, and he’s lived up to everything people say, and more," said Vandan Kasar, a second-year premed and life sciences student. "He knew all of our names very early in the quarter and genuinely cares so much about all of us."

"If you don’t understand a concept, he will think of another way to explain it, and if you still don’t understand it, he will think of a third way, until you do," said Justin De La Guerra, a molecular, cell and developmental biology major who plans to be an emergency room surgeon for the military. "He incorporates his own life into lectures and shows how organic chemistry is meaningful to our lives."

Chemistry you can dance to

Garg’s Chemistry 14D class is probably best known for his optional extra-credit assignment, in which students create music videos detailing the various chemical reactions they’ve learned, almost always with themselves in the starring roles. This quarter, 289 students in the course created 98 videos — the most for a single class in the five years Garg has taught the course.

This year’s standout may well be "Say Alkane" — a remake of Destiny’s Child’s 2000 hit "Say My Name"— by third-year premed student Ashley Butler, who dubs herself Density’s Child in her version.

Butler, who majors in integrative biology and physiology, spent five hours writing the lyrics, "flipping back and forth through my chemistry notes and the lyrics to the actual song." She then devoted two days to recording, filming and editing the video, with the help of two friends who are professionals in the music business.

Among her clever lyrics: "Say alkane, say alkane / If a good LG’s around you, react that thing with SN2 / Primary, secondary, fair game … Carbocation, yeah you, it’s time to bounce / Nucleophile, do your thing, attack, it’s time to pounce."

In making the video, Butler said, she learned "a great amount of organic chemistry, and also learned a lot about myself.

"I can honestly say this has been my favorite class and an honor to take," she added. "Professor Garg’s love for organic chemistry and his students is so apparent, it motivates his class to want to learn more and succeed."

(Watch other music videos from this quarter and from previous Chemistry 14D classes that are favorites of Garg and his teaching assistants.)

This week, Garg unveiled the Chemistry 14D Music Video Hall of Fame, which features student work from all five years of his organic chemistry course. The inaugural selections include "Chemistry Jock" (which has become the gold standard of the genre, with 80,000 YouTube views), the animated video "Alkenes Are Used for These," "Payphone," "Hey There Neil Garg," "We’re Yours" and, the most recent, "Say Alkane."

Making chemistry relevant to students’ lives

In each of the five years Garg has taught the class, he has added new wrinkles to make it more interesting and understandable to his students — none of whom are chemistry majors.

This year, he and teaching assistant Tejas Shah created weekly online tutorials that merged organic chemistry concepts with biology and popular culture. The first tutorial noted that the popular pain reliever Tylenol, taken by more than 100 million people annually, can cause liver damage if overused, a result of oxidation and change in functional groups. It then asked students a series of questions about the oxidation reaction that occurs in the body after taking Tylenol.

A second tutorial concerned biochemical reactions involving the hormone adrenaline. A third focused on chemical agents used in cosmetics, food additives and pharmaceuticals such as Pfizer’s cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor. And another showed a video clip from the television series "Breaking Bad" and asked questions related to the popular over-the-counter decongestant Sudafed, which contains pseudoephedrine and is structurally similar to methamphetamine, a dangerous, addictive drug.

Several students said they enjoyed how the tutorials demonstrated how organic chemistry relates to their lives and helped them understand the course material and its significance.

Garg, a faculty member in the UCLA College, teaches two honors discussion sections of Chemistry 14D, and in these sections, he assigned his students to make video "rockumentaries" about careers that incorporate organic chemistry. An example is this video about forensic science by De La Guerra. Vandan Kasar decided she wanted to become a dentist after watching the video presentation on dentistry. (See other career presentation videos.)

Garg, his wife and their two young daughters live in a campus residence hall as part of UCLA’s faculty-in-residence program, which allows him to eat meals with students, advise them, go on trips with them and inspire them daily with his passion for chemistry.

This spring, on the final day of class, he asked students to use handheld devices to express anonymously their current view of organic chemistry; 78 percent said they are now more interested than they were at the start of the class, and another 16 percent said their view of it remained the same. He then showed pictures of the students from each of the 98 music videos on a large screen while the class listened to the Green Day song "Time of Your Life."

He advised his students to be confident in their abilities and concluded the class by saying, "I have the most awesome job. I get to interact with the best students in the world. You’ve been a remarkable class."

The students responded with a long, loud standing ovation and UCLA’s trademark eight-clap. Several said they were sad the class was over.

"I never even liked chemistry before," said psychobiology major Samantha David, "but professor Garg made me want to learn the material. He always makes you feel like you’re asking a good question and makes sure you understand it. He’s so real and approachable. I love the professor more than the subject, but he’s made me like the subject too. I think other people should come to his class and see why students would almost kill each other to get into this class."

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