Carnegie Mellon University

The Piper

CMU Community News

Piper Logo
December 14, 2012

Murder Mystery

Solving Mock Crimes Allow Novel Interactions

By Heidi Opdyke

It's not always the butler who did it.

One year it was Amy Burkert.

That year, Burkert, vice provost for education, pitched the idea of a Biology Murder Mystery Dinner to then-department head Bill Brown to foster student-faculty interaction and aid development of the departmental community.

And it's worked.

For a number of years the Biological Sciences Student Advisory Council (BioSAC) has hosted death as a departmental initiative with its interactive Murder Mystery Dinners early in the spring semester. A public show will take place on Monday, Feb. 18, and a private Biology Department dinner performance will be on Wednesday, Feb. 20.

The evening has become an annual tradition with students and faculty members in the cast.

"It's a creative outlet for our students who enjoy theater performance or theatrical arts," said Maggie Braun, assistant department head for undergraduate affairs in Biology.

Often students volunteer to write the scripts themselves, and Braun said they draw on their experiences from biology.

"There will be a lot of inside jokes about classes and things like that," she said.

The two-act plays generally have spoofed everything from students competing for a prestigious medical school scholarship to last year's poster session with a Batman appearance. This year, the murder will take place at the MCS Ball, an annual spring dance.

Carrie Doonan, director of undergraduate laboratories, has been asked by the students to be a zany character every year except for the first one.

"Teaching is a lot like acting, it really helps build your teaching skills," she said. "I think it's very natural to go from teaching to acting. And it's fun. I love it."

The opportunity lets her see students in a new light.

"I see another side of their personality out of the classroom, and I love to see their creative side. I am impressed with their dedication to doing this and their commitment," she said.

Andrew McCoy, who has been involved with the show since his freshman year, said the same was true for students regarding faculty.

"It's always a lot of fun to cast faculty into roles that they would otherwise not play in everyday life," he said. Last year Justin Crowley, director of the Health Professions Program, played Batman, Doonan was a football jock and Braun played a social media maven who spoke in text lingo. "Faculty always have fun participating and it's a great way to get to know your faculty outside of the classroom."

Audience members benefit from the experience as well. At the Biology Department's performance, faculty and students work together to try and solve the murder.

"When you give a set of people a task to do, like pay attention, solve the clues, that really breaks down barriers," Doonan said. "It facilitates the conversation, you really get to know other people, and it builds this camaraderie."

The result ends up having students more at ease with contacting faculty about discussing research or other ways to become more involved.

This is just one of the outreach projects that BioSAC sponsors to promote biology on campus and in the greater Pittsburgh region. Braun said students build a booth at Spring Carnival, have raised more than $46,000 for Relay for Life and carry out science outreach with high school students through the Biological Sciences Outreach Program. Learn more at

What: Annual BioSAC Murder Mystery
When: 6 p.m., Monday, Feb. 18
Where: Rangos Ballroom, University Center
Cost: $2 at the door