Dan Caspi is working to change the way students think of organic chemistry.
In addition to his pharmaceutical research for Hepatitis C, the 2014 Double Chai in Chi: Chicago's Jewish 36 under 36 list honoree is working alongside UCLA Professor Neil Garg to develop BACON.
Don't worry -- this BACON is totally kosher. Standing for "Biology and Chemistry Online Notes," BACON provides fun and engaging tutorials to enliven organic chemistry. Although it doesn't replace lecture material, BACON supplements students' learning through interesting real-world examples that illustrate organic chemistry concepts.
Caspi and Garg met in their organic chemistry lab at Caltech -- where they both earned their Ph.D. in organic chemistry -- and have been friends ever since. When Garg told Caspi that he had an idea to revolutionize organic chemistry and all he needed was technical help, Caspi -- who has a deep knowledge of computers and software -- dove right in.
Garg developed the BACON prototype and tested it in 2014, but the online platform was lacking, so Caspi stepped in to lead and manage development on the technical side. This included managing web infrastructure, strategic planning and feature development.
The goal of BACON is to make organic chemistry less about vague concepts and more about real world applications so that students can understand organic chemistry's impact and utility and find meaning in their coursework, even if they don't become organic chemists.
"Most college students don't receive much exposure to what organic chemistry can be in real life," Caspi said. "And they walk away from their organic chemistry courses traumatized."
Despite organic chemistry's reputation as one of the hardest classes an undergraduate student can take, students have ranked Garg's class the best course at UCLA; it even beat out James Franco's screenwriting class.
BACON applies organic chemistry to topics such as sports, movies, and medicines to try and change this stigma. For example, the notes might tie basic organic chemistry concepts to forensics using hit TV shows such as CSI or Law and Order.
As far as medicinal examples go, Caspi has a lot of experience, having seen firsthand the impact of his Hepatitis C research.
"I've had the privilege of working on a cure for a disease, manufacturing it and seeing it all the way to the point that it is actually saving lives," Caspi said.
BACON is currently being used at 17 universities in the U.S. including both Northwestern University and University of Illinois at Chicago. The platform also has users in Italy and Japan and will likely reach 10,000 students before the end of the year.
Although Caspi never planned on creating tools to help students and young chemists, "it's been incredibly rewarding to see how much impact this work is having for students all over the world," he said.
The content of BACON is currently focused on organic chemistry, but Caspi says the platform is ready to handle the possibility of other subject areas.
Learn more about BACON here.