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Communicating Science Through Hip Hop

The Student Blog has talked a lot about ways to communicate research, from eliminating zombie nouns to “sacrificing truth for understanding.” But how about summarizing your findings in a rap?

We tracked down the Perlstein Lab, and asked Ethan Perlstein a few questions about his lab’s recent research remix.

Q: So, why a hip hop remix of your research?
Ethan Perlstein: The Evo Pharma Remix started out life as a more conventional video animation that I commissioned from a Canadian production company called Stone Canoe in the summer of 2012. (The genesis of the 2013 Ted-Ed video is unrelated even though it also deals with the topic of membranes). I decided to repurpose the original video animation after I crowdfunded Baba Brinkman’s 2013 Indiegogo campaign. The perk for my donation was a custom rap. Baba has released several science-themed rap albums, eg The Rap Guide to Evolution, and I’m a huge fan. I thought he would be uniquely suited to understand the basic science underlying evolutionary pharmacology and to parlay this understanding in rap form.

I knew that folks were blending science and hip hop in creative ways. That includes Baba’s oeuvre, but also Tom McFadden, an innovative science teacher whose students produced a hip hop tribute to Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who produced the historic images of double-helical DNA that Crick and Watson analyzed; and Chris Emdin, a Columbia professor who teaches science through hip hop. Science outreach is usually done by writers and bloggers who act as translators, but there’s no reason this outreach has to be in prose.

I basically just emailed Baba a link to the original video animation, which I had narrated, and he did all the rest! Including enlisting his musical partner Jamie Simmonds, who created a catchy, head-bopping beat.

Now imagine them remixing. [Citation: Chen J, Korostyshevsky D, Lee S, Perlstein EO (2012) Accumulation of an Antidepressant in Vesiculogenic Membranes of Yeast Cells Triggers Autophagy. PLoS ONE 7(4): e34024. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034024]
[Credit: Chen J, Korostyshevsky D, Lee S, Perlstein EO (2012)  doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034024]
Briefly describe the research highlighted in the video.
EP: The Evo Pharma Remix is based on my former Princeton lab’s 2012 PLOS ONE paper. In broad strokes, we used yeast as a simple experimental model for studying how a complex drug works at the cellular level, an approach I dubbed evolutionary pharmacology. Specifically, we uncovered a novel mechanism of action of the antidepressant Zoloft involving its accumulation in membranes and ensuing cellular adaptations. We proposed that this drug accumulation plays a role in the human response to antidepressants, a hypothesis that still needs to be tested.

 Are you hoping to do more in the future?
EP: My biotech startup Perlstein Lab is focused on orphan disease drug discovery, and I would love to commission an entire album of orphan disease hip hop explainers. Not only to raise awareness of orphan diseases, but also to explain their underlying biology, their clinical history, and their patient advocacy efforts. And I couldn’t think of anyone better to do it than Baba Brinkman.

If you could remix one scientific paper from any time in history, what would it be and why?
EP: That’s a tough question because I think every seminal paper in the history of science should be immortalized and popularized in rap form. Someone needs to call Kanye’s or Eminem’s agents and see if they’re interested in bringing science to the masses. There are lots of papers to go around!

If Lady GaGa is more your tune, see our Q&A with the Lab Grammy-nominated DLab follies. Also, check out this PLOS ONE paper about the relationship between listening to hip hop and learning words. 

  1. […] I collaborated with the Perlstein Lab to explain the science of evolutionary pharmacology in an¬†animated rap video, plus I gave a talk at TEDxNavesink about the history of rhyme from Chaucer to rap, which should be […]

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