Exam vs. Nobel chat?

Students from Chem 251 class
Eric Shiuey and Evan Selzer

Should I take my organic chemistry exam or accept an invitation for coffee with a Nobel Prize winning scientist?  Eric Shiuey C’16 and Evan Selzer C’16 hesitated. Fortunately, their professor Jeffery Saven set them straight. Exam rescheduled!

The two students  set off for a chat at the Inn at Penn with Dr. Stanley Prusiner, winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

A few weeks earlier, Eric and Evan had created a video for the course CHEM 251, Principles of Biological Chemistry. They had pored over journal articles on prions, a new class of pathogens discovered by Dr. Prusiner. As part of the assignment, students share links to their videos with the scientists whose work is referenced. Eric and Evan wrote to six scientists and four responded with feedback. One email brought a surprise! An invitation to meet with Dr. Prusiner when he visited Penn this April as part of the Year of Health activities.

Vickie Karasic and I met recently with Eric, Evan and Jeff to get the scoop..


Evan explained how he first encountered prions in an earlier class with Dr. Ponzy Lu. Evan and Eric decided prions would make a good topic for their video. Prions have been implicated in many serious diseases including what we commonly refer to as “mad cow disease.”

Evan and Eric played their video for Dr. Prusiner a few times. Dr. Prusiner gave them pointers on areas where improvements could be made. Even though the class is over (and grades are submitted), Evan and Eric plan to revise their video. Stay tuned for the updated video here on PennWIC soon!

When Evan and Eric referenced a journal article they had read, Dr. Prusiner noted that he had not seen it yet and asked them to forward the article to him. Professor Saven commented, “This assignment helps make science seem smaller, more approachable. It reduces the distance between the scientists and the science students.”

Of course, being the geeks we are, we asked about tech tools. The two students used PowerPoint, Keynote, PhotoShop, Pymol and iMovie to make their video and recorded their audio commentary separately. PyMOL is a great tool to visualize proteins – it can also render high quality videos highlighting specific features of a protein’s structure! They described the two days of marathon video-editing needed to make the video, and Professor Saven commended them on the high production quality they were able to achieve.

Eric and Evan’s experience underscores the fact that making videos can be a powerful way to share knowledge of chemistry with top scientists from around the world. And we know that the word is spreading about the potential for video projects. Professor Saven’s pioneering work has received the 2015 Dean’s Award for Innovation in Teaching.

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