Chemist stars in “Piled Higher and Deeper” The Movie

Evans Boney plays the role of Mike Slackenerny, at bottom right. Photo credit: The PhD Movie

The new Ph.D. movie, based on the well-known comic strip “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham has been taking college campuses by storm since its release last Fall. If you haven’t seen it yet, like me, I know you’re dying to get your chance. I just found out my campus is screening it in February—I’m super psyched about this! Well, did you know that one of the graduate students starring in the film is a chemist?* That’s right. Meet Evans Boney. He’s a chemistry grad student at CalTech, where his research efforts focus on astrophysics, surface vibrational transfer, novel photovoltaic designs, evolutionary theory, and statistical econophysics. But in his spare time, such as on weekends and in the wee hours of the night, Evans enjoys writing, acting and producing. Film + science = dream job After graduating from MIT (B.S. Chemistry and Physics, Math Minor, 2006), Evans’s long-term plan was to… well, he didn’t have one. That’s why he came to grad school. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life and it seemed like a conveniently long number of years to delay the decision,” he says. In the past two years, Evans got into acting and film production with the help of his wife, Susanna Boney, who works in the film and television industry. “My wife started working her way up the ladder in Hollywood… so I started looking on the other side of the fence at her workplace and the grass seemed a lot greener,” he says. When he was finally honest with himself about his dream career, he realized he really wanted to be someone like  Bill Nye the Science Guy: a writer, actor and producer of science-related content. His biggest break has been with The PhD Movie, where he plays the part of Mike Slackenerny, a wizened nth year graduate student mentor to the Nameless protagonist. Evans has also consulted on a couple TV show pilots and played both actor and producer roles in Penn and Teller Tell a Lie for the Discovery Channel. “Now I’m marginally famous, signing autographs and working on a bunch of projects, so that’s cool,” Evans says. If that doesn’t make the rest of us lowly un-famous grad students feel a tinge of jealousy, I don’t know what would. How Evans got his break We can all recall a time when our experiments failed and we sat down and googled “What else can I do with my life besides research?” in our frustration. Well, at least I can. Evans’s decision to audition for The PhD Movie came out of a similar situation. “I was driven to the idea of acting when the experiment I spent four years building a huge system of equations to explain (I’m a theorist) got retracted,” Evans says. “Yes, that’s why it’s in the movie.” I’m sure that will make more sense after I watch the movie. Evans felt the role of Mike Slackenerny was “just too perfect a fit to both my personality and mannerisms to pass up ‘acting,’” so he couldn’t pass it up. “I was a little overwhelmed when I got the part, having not memorized even one line in a decade,” Evans says. “But I stayed up late nights and early mornings memorizing the scenes and we shot on the weekends, so it fit right in with my schedule.” And Evans says it wasn’t terribly difficult for him to “act” like a graduate student for the movie. “I have genuinely felt every joy, pain, and cynical laugh in the PhD Movie, and really in all of the other PhD Comics, too,” Evans says. “Let’s hope they all get made into extremely profitable sequels.”

Evans Boney: chemist, writer, actor, producer, and more. Photo credit: Susanna Boney.

Juggling it all Besides the acting and producing, Evans also is working on wrapping up his Ph.D. research and he also runs a tutoring company on the side.  In that capacity, he has recently been invited to contribute to the Claremont Graduate School’s STEAM (STEM + Arts) Journal, and has been invited to speak at their conference on the subject this fall. “I’ve always felt best when I’m most productive,” says Evans, who didn’t take a single day off over the holidays in preparation for a summer 2012 graduation. “Truth be told, I could use a break.” Sure sounds like it… Looking ahead Evans is looking forward to possibly doing a post-doc in solar energy theory in the LA area, and would love it if his tutoring company became wildly successful in improving STEM education nationwide. His goal in film is to be involved in more than five creative productions (TV, film, or print) annually. He’s currently working on a script, along with his wife, which they hope will make it into the Big Bang Theory. He’s also working on a movie about Caltech Basketball with the team’s coach (“Year of the Beaver”) and a series of science fiction short stories, just to name a few. “All of them give a realistic view of science, are designed to increase public understanding of science, and/or present sympathetic scientist characters,” Evans says. Evans describes his adviser’s sentiment toward his nontraditional career plans “ambivalent at best.” “He has spent the vast majority of his 89 years doing very useful scientific work, and at my age, he was deriving the theory that would wind up winning him the Nobel Prize,” says Evans. “I’d do that too if I could.” Evans says he has mixed feelings about moving on from research. “No, I will not miss the sterile, uninviting cubicle where I sit with my back to an open door and turn coffee into mistakes,” he says. “But yes, I will always miss doing original research for a living and will particularly miss the access to reading the scientific journals.  It would be nice to land a post-doc or research staff position so I can keep up with the cutting edge.”

Movie still - Mike Slackenerny (Evans Boney) introduces the Nameless Grad Student (Raj Katti) to "The Machine". Photo credit: The PhD Movie

Words of wisdom To those who also wish to take their science background into the film industry, Evans advises: “Stay away!  There are so few opportunities out there, and I want them all for myself.” “But, seriously, don’t expect to get lucky unless your wife is also working long hours in Hollywood like mine did, allowing you unfettered access to their cloistered world,” he explains. “I fully acknowledge that I have had an enormous amount of dumb luck relative to my ‘talent,’ and that it is in general a bad idea to quit science and engineering to pursue creative writing.” To those who are still trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, Evans says: Follow your inner demons. This is a mantra that Evans adopted from a professor who spoke at the Lindau conference in 2010. Evans recalls being “struck by the professor’s candor when he warned not to go against those struggling demons within, since you’re the only person who has to listen to the voices in your head.” “Our curious larks and unique fits of fury give society the only new ideas that there ever are,” Evans says. “Let yourself be torn apart by new ideas and rebuild society better than you found it.” Thanks, Evans. Hope to see more of you on the big screen! *Update, January 18, 2012, 1:45 pm: It turns out Evans is actually one of TWO chemistry grad students who starred in The PHD Movie.  Crystal Dilworth, who plays Tajel, is also a PhD student in chemistry at Caltech. To learn more about all the grad students from Caltech that starred in the movie, check out this post at from September 2011. And finally, read more about the cast/crew of The PHD Movie here.    

Author: Christine Herman

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