TEDxUCLA 2015: Beyond the Box

Challenge your perceptions


About Neil

Professor Garg received his B.S. degree in 2000 from New York University, and his PhD in 2005 from the California Institute of Technology. After training as an NIH postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Irvine, he joined the faculty at UCLA in 2007. In 2012, he was appointed as Vice Chair for Education. In 2013, Professor Garg was promoted to full Professor.


All right, good afternoon everybody. I’d like to start off today by doing an experiment.

So let me introduce you to two of UCLA’s finest graduate students. This is Julianne Barber and Jesus Marina. They volunteered their time here to help us out. And they’re both earning their doctorate, working my research lab.

And so what they’ve done so far is they’ve set up two experiments that are basically identical. And in order to complete that experiment, we just need somebody to take a shot of hard liquor. Jesus has volunteered to do this, so. And he’s actually requested tequila, which is why I’m carrying this. Trust me, I don’t actually carry it with me everywhere I go. But it looks like we have some shot glasses, so we’ll give them a generous pour.

Okay, there we go. Okay Jesus, you ready? There’s only 600 people watching you. Okay. Bottoms up.

Right, so now what Julianne and Jesus are doing, they’re each inflating a balloon and then they’re going to attach those balloons to these two experiments such that the air from these balloons can bubble into them.

And we’re gonna have to come back and check on those in a couple of minutes, but for now all you have to know is that both of the reactions are orange in color, right? So thank you so much, Julianne and Jesus.

So I’d like to shift gears into something I hope you all agree is a lot more exciting than drinking, and that is… organic chemistry. Right? Come on, it’s not that funny, but in fact that’s exactly what I wanted to talk to you about.

When you hear the words “organic chemistry,” what are your perceptions? Right? I would argue that most people immediately will think about a class that may involve a lot of memorization, maybe a lot of challenging material verging on impossibility. Some people will think about a weed-out class that’s even intended to prevent students from getting into medical school, right?

And this is, you know, it’s amazing how many times I’ve introduced myself as an organic chemist, even to medical doctors, to get back a response about how organic chemistry was that person’s least favorite class in college, that they still have nightmares about, right?

And this is a sad thing to me, because I think about organic chemistry and my perception is entirely different. For one, I think about how relevant organic chemistry is in our everyday lives.

So we can take a look at medicines, for example. Most medicines on the market are made by and can only be made by the powers of organic chemistry. We can think about all these physiological processes happening right now, all of these literally, or many of these, I should say, literally at the mercy of organic chemistry.

There are actually an incredible number of different examples of this. A couple of others — my favorites, I guess — would be bulletproof vests, we can think about certain types of synthetic materials that make up clothing, we can think about the dyes that color our clothing. And then one of my favorites are these really cool curved displays that I think we’ll see more and more of in the future.

But I wonder sometimes, that might not even be the best part about it. When I took organic chemistry in college, I don’t know if I really appreciated how prevalent it was in our everyday lives. For me, organic chemistry was a class that, you know, I’ll be honest, it challenged me in ways that no class ever had.

So it was actually not about memorization at all. Organic chemistry to me was about, it was about puzzles, it was about problem-solving, it was about creativity, right? So when I hear the words “organic chemistry,” my immediate perception is to think about intellectual stimulation, and yeah, I think it’s kind of fun, okay?

But that being said, I think a lot of hard sciences especially have this problem of having a bad reputation, and I’ll admit this very readily. I consider myself a pretty serious science nerd, a science enthusiast, but there are all sorts of subjects that you could say to me that would literally make me cringe, right?

So here’s an example: nuclear plasma physics. Right? Right? It makes me really uncomfortable to think about what that is. Right? But for me, the interesting question there is where did I get that perception? And I’ve thought about that question a lot. And the answer is I have no idea.

But what I do know is that the perception I have, it’s not actually not based on anything concrete, it’s not based on anything factual, but I still have that perception anyway, right? And so I have to always wonder, what am I missing out on? What haven’t I learned because I have that perception standing in my way?

So I often ask the question, what if we could somehow overcome the common student perception of these types of hard science classes that are so prevalent? And so I was reading something I thought was pretty amazing online. It’s a statistic. And that is that as a planet, we spent over 3 billion hours per week playing video games. 3 billion hours per week just playing video games. A lot of the people that do this are brilliant, right? Brilliant young people.

If we steer those people into science, maybe one day they’ll be looking at solving big problems in medicine. Maybe they’re looking at Alzheimer’s. Maybe they’re thinking about cancer.

So if we can change the student perception of these so-called hard sciences, I think that’s something that will have an incredible impact on the world.

So I’m really fortunate to be here at UCLA as a chemistry professor. I think this is one of the greatest educational institutions in the world. (applause) Thank you. The clickers don’t always work, but everything else is great.

One thing I do every year is I teach a class called Chem 14D, organic reactions in pharmaceuticals. This is basically the second half of organic chemistry for any student who is interested in a health-related profession. They’re actually not chemistry majors, but a lot of the students will go on to be medical doctors or other pretty exciting professions.

The class is quite large, it’s about 400 students. And one thing I always wonder when I teach this class is what are the students’ perceptions of organic chemistry? And in fact, you might be able to guess. We actually have a little bit of data that comes from evaluations. And what that tells us is only 10 to 15 percent of students who start taking organic chemistry are excited about it, right? They express a high interest. That’s it, only 10 to 15 percent.

And so to me, that’s a sad thing. Not just because I love organic chemistry, but also because I think when students come in with that type of I’d say negative perception overall, it puts up a barrier between them and the ability to learn.

And so how can we actually go about changing that student perception? I’ll show you a couple of the things that we do, but they’re also some important underlying philosophies behind these.

One of them is that we actually never make the material easy. I think it’s really important to make that material really challenging if we’re thinking about preparing students for the future.

If we’re going to challenge them, though, we’d better be sure to support them. A lot of organic chemistry, sure, it can be abstract. So why don’t we balance that with some relevant examples?

And then finally, I think it’s critical that we always give students opportunities. And when I say opportunities I’m thinking about opportunities for them to be creative, for them to have fun, right? How critical is that when we think about the process of learning?

Some of the things I’ll show you are things that have been done for many years, some have been done by other people quite frequently. And I guess the take-home message here is that the things I’ll show you, I don’t think they need to be limited at all, or they’re not limited at all to an organic chemistry classroom. I think there’s some lessons here that can be more generally applied.

So one of the things that I really love to do is classroom demonstrations. And so to give you an example, there are a ton of reactions in organic chemistry that students are going to learn. And one of them is the oxidation of alcohols, typically using chromium reagents to give carbonyl compounds, right?

So why should students care about this? It turns out that’s an incredibly important transformation. I bet every person in this room has benefited by taking a medicine that can be prepared using that type of oxidation process.

It turns out there are a lot of other, I think, examples of why this is important. Here’s one of my favorites, hopefully too many of you haven’t seen one of these up close. This is a modern-day Breathalyzer. Just as an aside, this one is so sophisticated it will actually tell my cell phone my blood alcohol content level, it’ll call me a car if I need it, or it’ll tell us when Jesus is ready to drive. All right? So why don’t we tell students about this and explain to them how the actual technology works, because it relies on the same alcohol oxidation or similar process?

In fact, the origination of this I would trace back to 1927, they used a chemical-based oxidation for the old Breathalyzer test that’s very similar to what we actually teach our students. So why don’t we actually, in the lecture hall, teach this how a Breathalyzer test works? So that’s in fact what you saw earlier.

And so if you look back on these reactions, what’s basically happened is the reaction that Julianne had blown up a balloon and the arrow was going through, that one hasn’t changed at all. It’s still orange in color. But the other one that basically had Jesus’ breath bubbling into the reaction, that’s undergone a color change indicative of this type of alcohol oxidation process.

So can you imagine by the time we go to the theatrics of this type of demo that students are more interested in alcohol oxidation using chromium reagents? Right? Of course they are, right? According to the National Institutes of Health, over 80 percent of college students drink. So let’s take advantage of that reality, right? But we’ll take advantage of it and we’ll use it to change the student perception so that they’re more engaged and they’re more apt to learn.

Another thing that we’re really excited about is a project we call BACON at UCLA. Of course, everybody loves bacon so that seemed like a good name. It also stands for something, though, and that’s Biology and Chemistry Online Notes. These are basically a series of tutorials that lets students see how organic chemistry is connected to everyday life, medicine, and even pop culture, and we designed these to basically help dispel the perception that organic chemistry isn’t relevant.

So to give you an example of this, a set of topics students will learn about are chirality and stereo chemistry. Wherever you’re taking organic chemistry, these are things you would learn. So why don’t we think about making sure students come to appreciate why this is valuable and important?

And so one way we can do that is link it to pop culture. Why not link it to a hit TV show like Breaking Bad? So in these tutorials, students will actually see the chemical structure of meth, methamphetamine. That’s not a secret, by the way. You can easily find that online. But what’s important is that we also show them — like I don’t wanna get in any trouble here, right?

But what’s important is that we also show the structure of an isomer. The molecules are almost identical. But as you know, one of them is an incredibly dangerous, highly addictive drug. The other one, though, is the key ingredient that’s found in these over-the-counter nasal decongestants that you can buy at any pharmacy.

So all of a sudden we show this to students and they start to pay a lot more attention to stereo chemistry. And so what we’re doing is we’re balancing the difficult concepts with relevant examples. By doing that, again, we engage students so that they’re more apt to learn.

The other thing I want to tell you about is an extra credit assignment that we’ve been doing for the last six years or so, and that’s to give students the opportunity to make organic chemistry music videos. So in a nutshell, the students work in teams. They come up with lyrics set to their favorite song, and they have to make a video of impeccable production quality. And of course, being in LA seems to help with that part.

And once they’ve done this, I guess over 1200 students have participated in this, there’s over 500 videos on YouTube, these have been viewed many times around the world. One of these videos has even been viewed, I think, over 85,000 times, which again, not bad, pretty awesome I’d say for an organic chemistry video, right? We’re working on changing that, right? But for now, I think it’s pretty spectacular.

The other thing I’ll say is I actually have little to do with this, aside from giving the assignment, right? After that, it’s all the creativity that comes straight from the students. So I’m always I guess, maybe I’d say inspired by what the students able to do. So I hope you enjoy this short montage of what some other videos look like.

Kate is in the building.

Now on to Sn1 sometimes you might get E1, Either one the first step is making a carbocation. Start with a polar protic solvent but you aren’t done. The LG must be great, can’t be a proton. Now comes your nucleophile, it shouldn’t be too great. No offense to Iodide; not tryna playa hate. But if instead you have a nucleophile that isn’t wack. It’ll be like you’re in a club, cuz you got backside attacked.

UCLA what’s up, baby? Uh, uh. Hey lie. Hey lie. See o-chem gets pretty hard at times. But we can break it down for you. First up, SN2.

Backside that attack. Inverse it, what it can, what it could, what it won’t, what it wouldn’t. Lookin’ for a better way to hasten up the mechanism gettin’ on that DMF and acetone wagon. New mech, alkene choppin’, little bit of ozone, little bit of solvent. Dichloromethane DMS rockin’ gotta be yup yup ozonolysis. Yes, alk —

To consider. Aprotic solvents, no hinder SN1 solvent reaction. Look out for some Three-C action. Three steps, DND. Keep it up, it’s 14D. E1, pop some acid, E2, drop that base. Add Tosylic Acid to protonate, OH. Bulky Base, E2 Action. That alkene reaction. Yeah, put your hands up UCLA!

Like I said, it’s stunning to see what our what our students can do when you give them the opportunity. So that assignment does, I think, a lot of really fun things. It lets students work together in a class that’s typically known to be fiercely competitive, and also to be creative and have fun in ways again that aren’t so common in classes that are associated with the hard sciences. So needless to say, this does quite a bit when it comes to changing the student perception.

Okay, so at this point you might be thinking, “Wow, this guy Garg has got the ultimate scam. He’s teaching them about meth, he’s teaching them about drinking, he’s got them making music videos. Okay. But what are they really learning? Are they learning anything? And shouldn’t he be prepping for things like the MCAT?”

And that’s probably the best part about this. By engaging students in the way we have, that gives us an amazing opportunity, which is to challenge them. Okay? And what we’re able to do is we’re able to give students problems that I would call extraordinarily difficult, and they’re actually able to solve them.

And so one of the things that we teach is a process called retrosynthetic analysis. It’s one of my most favorite things in the world, as my students in the room will know. And it’s a process by which we take a complex molecule and we think about how we would make it from smaller molecules using rules of organic chemistry.

And what you’re looking at is a question from our final exam from 2013. I didn’t learn how to solve problems like this until I was a graduate student at Caltech, and here are second-year students — undergraduates, right? — that are non-chemistry majors. Two-thirds of the class of 400 was able to get this problem correct, which I think is indicative that, yes, this all does work quite well, right?

The students really become engaged. Some of them say that they feel like Sherlock Holmes when solving retrosynthetic analysis problems. And so what we’ve done is we changed the perception to a point where students no longer fear this incredibly difficult problem. Instead, they become able to solve them.

Okay, none of this is really possible, I should say, without giving students a lot of support. And I’m particularly, I guess, a believer in the type of support that comes from personal interactions, the type that I certainly benefited from when I was an undergraduate student at NYU. And guys like Marc Walters and Yorke Rhodes really had a huge impact on my time and my trajectory.

And I was thinking about my time in, in college, and I guess I was probably like most students. I figured, why don’t I just try to beat the curve? If I beat the curve, I get the A, right? And so I remember getting back an exam, maybe celebrating in the hallway with some friends, and Professor Rhodes, who was teaching me at the time, stopped me and he said, “Hey Neil, you know, that’s a good score. You beat the average. But I think you can do a lot better.” You know?

And I remember being kind of stunned at the time because I was feeling pretty good about my, you know, beating the average. But what he really led me to realize, I was missing the whole point of my college education by just trying to beat the curve. Could I do more, right? What would happen if I did?

And so he really transformed my outlook just by challenging my perception. And I’m convinced that that’s had an important role on putting me on the path that I’ve been on since.

And so one of the things we do when it comes to supporting students is we actually put in big efforts to learn the students’ names. So yes, even in class of 400 students, I’ll try to learn as many names as I can, let them know they’re not just a number on the curve, okay?

The other thing that we do is how we deal — we pay a lot of attention to, I should say — is how we deal with students when they struggle. It’s inevitable that students are going to struggle in a course like this because it is really challenging. But when they do, it’s so important not to say, “Well, tough luck. Maybe you’re not cut out for this.” Right? What a terrible thing to do.

Instead, we remind them that that struggle is an important process, it’s a step in the process by which we all learn and we remind them that we’ve all faced that, too. And so we’re dispelling the perception that we’re there to weed them out. Instead, we give them the support and the confidence they need in order to be successful and see their true learning potential.

And so you might wonder then, does all this actually work? I told you earlier that at the start of the class, only 10 to 15 percent of students will say they’re really excited about organic chemistry. At the end of the course, that number goes up to over 60 percent, and almost everybody else in the class will at least say that their interest is medium or average. So that’s pretty exciting, okay?

The other thing — That wasn’t supposed to be funny, guys, come on. The other thing we have is a lot of, I think, really great student comments. And one of my favorites is as follows, it’s: “Organic chemistry? Not even hard. It’s logical.” Right?

So where do we go in the future? I think there’s a lot of room for challenging perceptions of hard sciences, and a great opportunity for this is to do it beyond the classroom setting. Okay, so if we can challenge the perceptions beyond the classroom, how would we do it?

One of the things we’re really excited about now is we’re making our BACON tutorials accessible to educators and students wherever they are in the world for free, okay? So no profit for any of us. And to help with that, we had a social awareness campaign called a Thunderclap. We hoped to get 250 supporters, we got over 1000, and that led us to put out — allowed us, I should say, to put out a really positive message that reached over 1.3 million people about the importance of science education. That then led into a UCLA Spark crowdfunding campaign, and even within a few days we were able to exceed our goal and raised over $10,000.

Now this is actually a relatively small amount of money, right? But with that small investment, I think it’s something that we can use to make a huge impact on the state of changing or challenging the perceptions of what’s typically been known as a really difficult course.

So when we started today, I asked you: what are your perceptions of organic chemistry? Some people laughed right away. I think it’s pretty common, though, that people think it’s hard. People think it’s pretty scary. But what I hope you’ve seen is that we can defeat that perception, right? And we can transform a subject that’s once viewed as being feared to a state where students are really excited to learn and they can go off and solve the most difficult of problems that we give them.

And I think there’s an important message that certainly goes beyond organic chemistry. These perceptions we have, they are incredibly powerful things, okay? We all have perceptions, but we often arrive at them with little or no factual information. Once we have those perceptions, they can stand in the way of us and our ability, our abilities to learn.

So let’s challenge perceptions and let’s be sure to always allow our own perceptions to be challenged just as well. And again, we shouldn’t just be doing this for organic chemistry. We can challenge our perceptions about anything. Maybe we challenge them about topics in science education, maybe we’re thinking about art, maybe we’re thinking about politics, maybe we’re thinking about sexuality, okay?

Because by challenging our perceptions, this is really a wonderful opportunity for all of us to learn. And I would argue that it’s really the learning and the education that’s the gatekeeper between us and all of the discoveries that we’re going to see in the future.

And when I think about those future discoveries, I guess I’m most excited to think about what our students, whose perceptions we’ve unlocked, what they’re going to discover in maybe 10, 20, or 50 years. Because I bet their discoveries are so brilliant, so extraordinary, that we can’t even imagine yet what those discoveries will be. Thank you.