Carnegie Mellon University
March 15, 2016

Students Find Chemistry in Annual Murder Mystery

Everyone on stage is a suspect in the annual Murder Mystery Dinner hosted by Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Chemistry.

Masks and chemistryCreated by the department's Student Advisory Committee (ChemSAC) more than 10 years ago, science majors come together to present all-original scripts with acting, singing, dancing and audience participation.

"It's a chance for students to be goofy and outrageous in front of their professors. No prior acting experience is needed, and anyone who wants a part, gets a part. I used to say: 'The less acting or singing experience, the better,'" said Lukas Ronner (S 2014), who wrote several scripts for the Murder Mystery and is a medical student at Mount Sinai in New York.

One year, there was a character reminiscent of Walter White from "Breaking Bad," and another year featured a spin-off of Dr. Pangloss from "Candide." Songs from "The Book of Mormon" have been reconfigured with lyrics about the Chemistry Department.

By 2009, the tradition had caught fire; chemistry majors wrote original scripts while weaving in plenty of interdepartmental asides. A few years later, singing and dancing was added. Callie Jerman (S 2015), who is now a Ph.D. candidate in bioengineering at the University of California-Berkeley, used her classical dance training to create original choreography.

Though the plays are about creating fun and community, students have found that the experience helps them in other ways.

"Having some experience with acting has been useful to me as I learn how to behave in a clinical setting — acting teaches you to have an awareness of your body and face and the messages you convey with the way you hold yourself," Ronner said. "In medical school, it's okay to be a bit goofy, and it's okay to try something even when you know you're going to be bad at it. And that's kind of what the ethos of Murder Mystery was."

Karen Stump, director of Undergraduate Studies and Director of Laboratories for CMU's Department of Chemistry, has acted as an unofficial ringleader for the project.

Stump sees the extracurricular activity helpful for a variety of reasons, including enhancing students' public speaking skills and distinguishing them from other job applicants.

"I think one of the biggest benefits is in being able to take a risk, to step outside of what others, or they themselves, see as their persona and try something that might be very different for them," Stump said. "Sometimes students become too comfortable in doing the things they that they are good at so they don't appear or feel inexpert at something new." 

Sophie Zucker (S 2016), also a creative writing major, is the head writer of this year's script. Her experience with the annual Murder Mystery helped inform her direction of a recent production of "The Vagina Monologues." The play, which was presented by the student organization Mobilization of Resolute Feminists was performed in February with a cast of over 20 women. It served as a fundraiser for New Voices Pittsburgh, a human rights organization for women of color.

"Managing a cast is one of the bigger things you learn in the chemistry Murder Mystery. Rehearsals strike a good balance between actual scene rehearsals and team-building activities. Going into 'The Vagina Monologues,' I knew that it was very important to do ice breakers and get the cast to know each other," Zucker said.

Zucker sees the Murder Mystery helping chemistry majors explore a new side to expressing themselves.

"Chemistry majors rarely have to tap into a skill that asks them to be an exaggerated personality," she said. "So much of science is being restrained and sensible."

Zucker said she mentions the Murder Mystery to potential chemistry majors, and that in one case it was a tipping point for a student to come to CMU.

"It's just become a classic CMU thing. When I look back on my experience, it's exemplary of CMU aesthetics," Zucker said.