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Stanford’s Long Tradition Of Laughing At Itself

What you’ve just watched is the latest in a long line of “skits” dreamed up by grad students in the chemistry department at Stanford University. Each year, just before the holidays, first-year Ph.D. candidates at Stanford are tasked with entertaining the chemistry department by poking fun at themselves as well as at faculty. Until recently, that meant writing scripts and acting out live skits as a prelude to a holiday meal. But with the advent of YouTube, the tradition—called Chemwipes—has been translated to video clips that the first years unveil during the end-of-year celebration.

Jessica R. Vargas, a first-year chemistry student at Stanford and cochair of this year’s video production team, says the video format makes the presentation of the skits go more smoothly, with fewer interruptions. Even better, she adds, “the videos have the potential to be more widely disseminated than live skits.”

The double rainbow parody you watched above is just one of a crop of videos released by Vargas’ team this year. All told, she and fellow Chemwipes chair Nick Plugis, put together 17 videos for the holiday party, held Dec. 9. “We spent a significant amount of time honing our ideas and working to incorporate as many willing participants as we could,” Vargas says. Fifteen first-year grad students took part, as well as about 40 chemistry undergrads and 9 faculty members.

The tradition “is definitely intended to be a bonding experience for first years—an indoctrination of sorts,” Plugis says. During video editing, the grad students certainly have time to bond. According to Vargas, the brainstorming and video-editing sessions are quite demanding. “I think it’s a rule of thumb that for every minute of video you produce, you spend at least an hour editing,” she says. “It was a lot of work.”

One of this year’s videos, in particular, has received a lot of attention and certainly got loud applause when it was unveiled at Stanford. “I’m a Chemist and I know it” is a parody of electro-pop duo LMFAO’s music video “Sexy and I know it.” Newscripts first came across the Chemwipes clip over at Chembark’s blog here. The video, with more than 230,000 hits, is popular because of its accessibility, says Plugis, who came up with the lyrics and idea for it (NOTE: Added 2/6/12, Plugis had a cowriter, Darren Finkelstein). “My hope is that these videos will attract more people to chemistry by dissipating the myth that science is all work and no play,” he adds.

Not all chemistry faculty members at Stanford are thrilled about the Chemwipes tradition at Stanford, says professor Richard Zare. “Some faculty and staff have been ‘bent out of shape’ and complained about the indignity of it all,” Zare says. But so far, he’s proud to say that the tradition—which has been around since before Zare arrived at Stanford 30 years ago—is still alive and well. Zare, especially, loves to participate in the skits and is usually featured heavily, as in the short clip (above) from 2010 of him demonstrating the Shake Weight, an unfortunate-looking exercise product.

“Generally, I’m willing to do silly things,” Zare says. “I once rode a motorcycle up and down the carpeted steps of our large lecture theater and I once got thoroughly soaked in a Gilligan’s Island skit.” Zare draws the line when safety is on the line, however, refusing at one time to be tied to the railroad tracks in Palo Alto.

The chemistry professor has also become part of a “feud,” that’s been captured on video for the past three years. It began when colleague Matt Kanan joined the Stanford faculty in 2009. In the first of the feud skits, Zare pranks Kanan by sending him a “Rick Roll” video (if you don’t know what that is, Newscripts is sad for you. You’ll just have to figure it out for yourself here). This year, Zare took the pranking to a new level, giving Kanan a pie to the face.

The great thing about this tradition is “nobody laughs at themselves quite like scientists,” Vargas says. “The things that excite us are so different than the things that excite nonscientists.” The Newscripts gang, who laughed quite hard at the “second-order perturbation theory” gag in the double rainbow clip, would agree.

1 Comment

  • Feb 3rd 201213:02
    by Janet D. Stemwedel

    Ah, Chemwipes! I’m hopeful that the advent of video capture means that we’ll see mostly the funniest of the skits. The live shows (at least in the early ’90s) had plenty of big laughs, but also some that … were side products? Would have benefited from recrystallization? (Organic chemists, help me out here.)

    To be fair, though, in the early ’90s ethanol was also provided before the show, which meant even the not-so-high points were entertaining.

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