Emory Report
December 10, 2007
Volume 60, Number 14

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December 10, 2007
Quiz whiz

By leila borders

On a typical Wednesday night, assistant professor of chemistry Justin Gallivan can be found playing trivia in his Virginia Highland neighborhood, perhaps even hosting the game at Moe’s and Joe’s. Writing questions for trivia is not much different than writing exams, Gallivan says: they both challenge him to create questions that are sometimes difficult, but still engage the expectations of the audience.

Gallivan says he first became interested in trivia while working toward his doctorate in chemistry at Caltech. Caltech lacked the major sports activity of his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Illinois, so the fervent sports fan pursued a new competition.

There’s no question that Gallivan is passionate about science. Gallivan manages an active research group in the new area of synthetic biology, where his lab engineers biological systems to solve problems in chemistry and materials science. His efforts in research and teaching have earned several prestigious national awards, including a Beckman Young Investigator Award and a Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award.

Teaching is not a trivial matter for Gallivan, who settled at Emory in 2002. His favorite course is undergraduate biochemistry — a class which at Emory averages more than 200 students. How does he keep the interest of that many students? All it takes is a sense of humor. The body is the most visible object on a stage in a large auditorium, Gallivan says, and he uses it to act out the concepts discussed in class. He runs into walls, tells jokes, and uses other forms of physical comedy to keep his students engaged.

Gallivan’s chemistry extends into other areas of his life, including the kitchen — where it is possible to “do experiments, eat your mistakes, and yield does not matter.” When he is not watching a University of Illinois basketball game, Gallivan admits he tunes into Food Network. His creativity in cooking can often lead to full days preparing complex dishes, his favorite kind.

He takes a similarly innovative approach to teaching through the use of technology in the classroom. When Gallivan noticed many of his undergraduate biochemistry students bringing tape recorders to class and even trying to barter with one another to listen to those tapes, he decided to make his lectures available free of charge via podcast. The podcasting not only connects Gallivan to his classes, he says, but also allows Emory the opportunity to show the world the excellence that happens in University classrooms. Gallivan’s podcasting allows interested people around the world the opportunity to listen to his lectures. He says many have sent e-mails thanking him for the added instruction.

Only audio was available in his original podcasts. Later, still pictures of his blackboard notes joined the audio. Today, viewers can see what Gallivan writes in real time video while listening to the lecture. Though he can’t be seen physically running into a wall while demonstrating a complex concept, a dull thud can be heard by those who listen closely.

It is easy to imagine this increased access to lectures would decrease attendance, but this is not the case for Gallivan. The students still want the dialogue and interaction, he insists. Besides, who could resist the comedy?