Rapping with the prof
Michael Eskin blends a career focused on lipids with his love of music to help connect with students
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/03/2018 (1774 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
He doesn’t wear gold chains, have a “rapper name” or flash gang signs when he performs, although he does have a following and there are requests for his videos as soon as they drop.
Michael Eskin, a professor in the department of human nutritional sciences at the University of Manitoba, is known for rapping about lipids, his area of expertise.
He’s received a lot of coverage for the “lipid raps.” They are used at other universities and some have even been translated to Russian.
He’s also done one on Passover, which has been described as “a family favourite.” And with Passover beginning this weekend, that video will no doubt get another round of hits.
But Eskin’s accomplishments are more impressive than the views he gets on YouTube. Highly respected in academic and food industry circles, and with a long list of accolades and accomplishments (his CV is 50-plus pages), he was awarded an Order of Canada in 2016 for scientific work contributing to the success of Canada’s canola oil industry.
This spring, he will also receive the prestigious American Oil Chemists’ Society Stephen S. Chang Award for accomplishments in research related to lipids.
He was also professor of the year, chosen by the student body, for the faculty of agricultural and food sciences at the University of Manitoba.
The young people love the raps, obviously.
In addition to his science degrees, he studied music at the Birmingham School of Music. He has performed as a cantor in Canada and the U.K.
“After I graduated, I moved to London, where I sang in the male Jewish voice choir — which is almost like the Red Army — they suggested I go and study with a fellow called Benvenuto Finelli,” Eskin says. “My original intention was to go into opera and die in the arms of the large soprano.
“It didn’t quite work out that way.”
Instead, this will be his 50th year teaching and researching at University of Manitoba. He started in 1968, when he came to Canada.
“Let’s just say I’m an ‘ager’ but not a teen,” he says, laughing. “I was born in England as the bombs were dropping down on Birmingham, in 1941.”
He and his wife, Nella, have been married 47 years, and together they raised four children.
“I came to Canada because I saw an interesting position at the University of Manitoba, and before I knew it, I was on a plane to Winnipeg,” he says.
With decades as a scientist, academic, teacher, researcher and musician under his belt, the Winnipeg Free Press asked Eskin to share some thoughts on work, music and life.
Eskin points out that science is everywhere and that “whatever we do, we are immersed in the results of tremendous scientific activity.”
“Science is really asking questions and finding to see what is the truth. Sometimes, we fail. Sometimes, we don’t ask the right questions. But, eventually, the good ones will sort themselves out so we end up asking the right questions,” he says.
It is sometimes hard to know what is good research.
“When I was an undergraduate, there was a professor working on the ‘language of the fish,’ and as undergraduate students, we used to laugh, you know: what does he do? He has these fish swimming around in the tank — he talks to them. Does he sing to them? What is he doing?” he says.
This was the ’60s, Eskin says, when the space program was hot. “Suddenly, the Americans were looking all over the world for research on the impact of space travel on the inner ear, and they found this professor.”
That odd researcher had been working on the inner ear of the dogfish.
“You don’t know how important or what the significance of the work is. It may sound ridiculous, but it may be really important,” he says.
Advice to young people
Eskin has taught hundreds of students and he says there is one key to success: preparation.
“If you are doing it the day before or the night before, you are sure of failure,” he says.
“You have to be organized — you have to do something properly, it takes time and it takes careful organizing to get to the level that you want.”
He says to know yourself.
“One needs to find where their strength is, and with that strength, one hopes that one has the interest. Because if you don’t like what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what you do, you’re going to be unhappy,” he says.
“So if you can focus on what you love to do, and actually make a living of it, that is the ideal.”
He says when seeking work you must know what makes you unique — and read the ad.
“I’m amazed at how often people apply without even bothering to read the ad,” he says.
“It’s really important to see what is it about the position and what is it in your background that makes you eminently qualified for that position, and then communicate that to the employer.”
He says to know your weaknesses and to spend the time shoring them up.
“Maybe you need to cover those deficits to make sure that when you go into that interview that employer sees your potential, because it doesn’t matter what job you go into, you’re going to need to be trained,” he says.
“As I tell the students, you now really have to market yourself.”
Eskin started entertaining on and around the campus about 30 years ago, doing both Jewish and non-Jewish functions.
“I thought I should really see a way to incorporate it into my profession,” he says.
“There was an annual meeting of the cereal chemists group and the food chemists group and I said to a colleague, ‘You know what? I’m going to do a performance and call it, Before Food Science, People Did Eat.’”
In that, he lamented the ever-changing dietary requirements put forth by nutritionists. Next came a riff in the style of Shakespeare: The Omelet Soliloquy: To Eat or Not to Eat.
Eskin’s latest rap, on fat-soluble vitamins, as requested by the university, is in production and will be posted in April.
“When I was given the Order of Canada, they mentioned my raps, and (the Governor General’s) wife insisted that I perform one at the evening event,” he says.
“She said I could only do one number… I really should have done a couple,” he says.
In 1985, Eskin, along with other Winnipeg cantors, participated in a concert that had been recorded live, on tape, from the audience. With his wife’s encouragement, he worked to have the tape converted to CD and Songs of Our People: a Celebration of Winnipeg Cantors in Concert was made available to be preserved and shared among the community.
The Passover Rap (Pesach Rap) came about after he had written some songs for children for a CD called Mostly Genesis with a Little Exodus — he needed one more number. He brought it to Shalom House Residence, where he volunteered with youngsters with challenges.
“I would have a picture of Pharoah and a picture of Moses, and I would get one kid to come out and hold that, and I tested it out there and it went very well,” he says.
The children’s CD (which also has a teacher’s guide) and the videos were recorded with musical assists from his sons Ezra and Josh.
Life lessons, satisfactions and family
Since being “unofficially retired,” Eskin has published five books and continues to research and teach.
“I’m 77 and I still get excited when I see my papers published. I just had my 15th book published: Advances in Food and Nutrition Research: New Research and Developments of Water-Soluble Vitamins,” he says.
That was last week.
“I received my Order of Canada at the age of 75, and I’ve got a fairly prestigious award coming up in Minneapolis, from the AOCS this spring.
“I sometimes wonder if I’d retired at 65, if anything of these things would have happened.”
Eskin counts himself fortunate in his work.
“The university has provided me with tremendous opportunities. I’m never short of ideas, (but) sometimes short of funds,” he says.
“Whenever I see a colleague, the likelihood is that I’ll get them to do a book with me, so I have a few that are in the back of my mind… one of them is actually overdue, but that will take at least another year or so.”
He’s had a long list of good workmates.
“I’ve had very wonderful colleagues, my supervisor, a woman called Sybil James — just an incredible woman.
“Then I have Marion Vaisey-Genser, with whom I’ve worked many years; and another wonderful colleague, Dr. Miyoung Suh.
“We’ve worked together for many years and she always teases me — I remember when I interviewed her for the position, I couldn’t quite remember her name and she looked at me and said, ‘Me, young. You, old.’
“And, in spite of that, she got the position,” he says, laughing.
He says priorities matter and that some things are essential.
“My mother was wonderful, my wife is wonderful,” he says.
“Family is No. 1: be happy in your family and be happy in your work for as long as you have good health — because without good health, nothing is possible — and you have to be truthful, honest. “
He says that even with life’s difficult moments, there is a mixture of happiness, contentment and satisfaction.
“I would like to leave an imprint,” Eskin says.
“We’re all passing through in this universe and I would like to leave an imprint — that I did have a journey on this planet — and that it wasn’t totally forgettable.”
Updated on Tuesday, March 27, 2018 10:30 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of name, reference to Order of Canada event.