MEDFORD — One moment, Jonathan Garlick is doing something you might expect of a scholarly looking researcher, leading Tufts University freshmen through a discussion of the complicated scientific, ethical, and political questions surrounding stem cell research.
The next moment, Garlick does perhaps the last thing you would expect of a mild-mannered, 60-year-old scientist and college professor: He cranks up a karaoke machine, dons a baseball cap (tilted to the side), and becomes the Stem Cell Rapper. He adapts what they were talking about to popular rap music, and — in his words — “breaks it down.”
“Moral issues to address/Hypotheses we need to test/Why capturin’ pluripotency/Is causing so much controversy,” Garlick raps to the beat of “Paper Planes” by M.I.A.
At first glance, it seems like a shtick more appropriate for the bar mitzvahs and weddings where Garlick performs humorous raps for friends and family. But his students, who end up singing along with the refrains and tapping fingers and feet to the beat, say Garlick’s rapping helps hammer home the subject matter.
“To be able to connect on a level like this not only in a musical sense but in a genre that really connects to us as students is fantastic,” said Ryan Leung, a freshman from New Bedford, after rocking to Garlick’s rap at the end of a recent class.
Such a response is music to Garlick’s ears. The point of wrapping up the class with rap, he says, is to make the interface of science and society relevant to young students, and to encourage them to talk about science as they learn about it.
“It immediately creates a common language that didn’t exist before,” Garlick said. “The deeper meaning is to engage learners, get the message out, and encourage others to do the same.”
Garlick assigns the lyrics of his science raps as homework. At the end of the semester, the students must complete a project he calls “Write it, rap it, sing it, play it, say it, dance it,” for which they have to make their own statement about science in the medium they find most expressive. Raps aside, this is still a serious course; they take a series of quizzes in science literacy, and also write an opinion piece to develop and explain a position on science.
Educators have sung to students. But by tapping into the popularity of such superstars as Kanye West, Alicia Keys, and Jay-Z, Garlick has become somewhat of a science rap celebrity. Though he has written dozens of articles and book chapters on such subjects as bioengineering of human skin equivalents to study the pathogenesis of a variety of oral and skin diseases, Garlick says he is more often recognized for his rapping.
“When I go to science meetings these days I’m asked for autographs because I’m the Stem Cell Rapper, not for anything I’ve discovered in years of doing science,” he said.
Garlick performed Stem Cell Rap in class. As the riff kicked in, Leung laughed and told the other students: “I know this one! I listen to it every morning!”
Before we go any further, it must be said that Garlick’s musical work is uneven at best. Boston Globe pop music critic Sarah Rodman does not think he should be trading his microscope for a microphone anytime soon.
“He may be a great scientist but his flow could use some work, though it’s no doubt difficult rhyming ‘pluripotency’ with ‘controversy,’ ” she said. “It’s clear he’s got a playful spirit, however, so he gets a B for effort.”
Garlick took the critique in stride.
“It wasn’t meant to be artistry,” he said.
But there is no question that he takes pride in his work. Raised in the Catskills in a family where everyone belted out show tunes, Garlick hit upon rap as a medium decades ago, when he was studying to be a dentist. He was listening to “The Message,” the iconic1982 rap by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and decided it related to the trials of being a dental student.
Thus was born “The Dental Message” (“Dentistry’s got me close to the edge/I’m tryin’ not to lose my head.”)
As his career progressed from dentist to scientist, Garlick said, he realized he had a talent for putting together scientific phraseology to the rhythm of rap.
“All the words rhyme with each other anyway,” he said. “I can pretty much do it on the spot.”
His science raps are not just for students: “Colonoscopy,” based on “Black Coffee,” by Heavy D. & the Boyz, is intended as a public service message to middle-age men. (“Sign me up/colonoscopy/it’s time to see/what’s inside of me.”)
Garlick adapts rap lyrics for other purposes. He has rendered Kanye’s “No Church in the Wild” to the story of Purim, and turned Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” into “Melissa Got Joe,” for a wedding.
A different rendition of “Baby Got Back” also served as the finale for the recent class at Tufts. Entitled “I See Cells,” it is Garlick’s tribute to pathology. (“I see cells!/So what can these cells be/they all look benign to me/but the tumor’s growin’ quicker/and the patient’s getting sicker.”) The students joined him on the “I see cells” refrain. Garlick began to wiggle and shake to the music; his co-teacher in the course, Lara Park, joined him in dance. Science class suddenly looked a bit like the final scene of “Slumdog Millionaire.”
“He’s on beat, he has rhythm,” observed Nii-Ofei Dodoo, a freshman from Cherry Hill, N.J.
Added Erica Schwartz, a first-year student from Albany, N.Y.: “He has swag.”
More music to Garlick’s ears.
“Based on the audience response,” he said, “I would say I was born to do this.”