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Biology in the performing arts

Max Seigel, left, performing his composition and Peter Wenger, right, reciting his original poem
June 24, 2014

In the final week of “Principles of Biology,” Max Seigel tucked his violin under his chin, lifted his bow and treated his classmates to an original composition – a melodic mating of violin and piano that produced a musical offspring alike yet different from its parents.

Seigel, a first-year student from Potomac, Md., was responding to Biology professor Cheng Huang’s challenge to show true understanding – ownership – of a biological principle by illustrating it using one of the performing arts. The class competition had narrowed to two finalists – Seigel on violin and first-year student Peter Wenger of Fallston, Md., reciting his original poem.

Huang doesn’t settle for having his students repeat information back to him. Instead he asks them to see the information in a new context and express it in an unfamiliar format. 

Earlier in the semester Huang asked them to explain a biological principle in art. The challenge intensified with his most recent venture into the performing arts. Both finalists chose, among eight possibilities, the principle that “continuity of life is based on heritable information in the form of DNA.”

Seigel’s composition topped Wenger’s poem by class vote, but Huang was thrilled with both because each did a clear illustration rather than reiteration.

“(Max) wrote a long piece of music that showed how genetic information, represented by musical notes rather than the chemical letters, experienced both inheritance and change because of the mixing of genetic information during the ‘sexual reproduction’ between a violin and a piano,” Huang says. “This is clearly illustrative, because it is symbolic and interpretive.”

Wenger's “cleverly thought-out poem” illustrated several genetics concepts, Huang says, including the recessive pedigree covered in class:

Your mom’s face is round
And your dad is so fat
You are so slim
It’s a generation gap.

He also illustrated the fundamental Mendelian Law of Segregation, pointing out that of the two copies of a gene that a parent possesses, only one is passed on to a given progeny.

Some may show
Others they will hide
My children however, 
Could show half of mine.

Both students showed rather than told – squarely meeting their professor’s challenge and bringing a wide grin to his face.