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“Naturally Obsessed” Tackles Why Scientists Do Science

I’ve had documentary fever recently. A few weeks ago, I took in a film fest, and this week, I wrote a recommendation of “Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist” for C&EN’s Reel Science feature.

Although “Naturally Obsessed” was released last year in some places, it was recently made available on the website of New York’s public TV station, Thirteen. So you can now watch it anytime and anywhere (well, anywhere with an Internet connection)—for free.

The one-hour film follows the trials and tribulations of graduate students in a molecular biology lab at Columbia University Medical School. And it gives viewers a good idea of what a regular day is like for a research scientist—something that is mostly a mystery to the general public.

But this documentary isn’t just for audiences filled with nonscientists. There’s something in there for the experts as well. Maybe it’s grad school nostalgia, maybe it’s pride at having survived the trauma of the Ph.D. process, and maybe it’s inspiration to keep plugging away in the lab. In any case, it’s worth watching.

Of course, some of the technical details are watered down for general consumption, and you’ll be left wanting to know more about what happened to certain students. But as Robert Townley, one of the grad-student stars of the film, told me, it’s nevertheless “compelling and fun and dramatic.” He added, “It’s just the beginning” for this type of science-based film.

After writing the recommendation, I caught up with Townley and Lawrence Shapiro, the professor whose lab provides the backdrop for the film and who calmly advises the students in “Naturally Obsessed.” We talked about what it was like to do research under the lens of a video camera and how the documentary has affected their lives.

When I tracked Shapiro down, he seemed just as busy as he appears in the film. “I’m still doing the same things,” he said. “I’m writing papers and grants and just running experiments.” But he pointed out that the film has opened certain doors for him, too. “I get asked to give certain kinds of talks that I never got asked to give before,” he said. For example, he’s recently been asked to speak at undergraduate institutions and at student seminars. “It’s put me in a position to focus a little bit more on the broad needs of science education and to do something about that,” he added.

Townley, now a postdoc at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in the Bronx, said that although the film hasn’t exactly made him famous, “every now and then, someone will” come up to him and say “Oh, I saw you on TV.” It’s fun and weird at the same time, but it’s also “a gentle reminder to keep going and to keep upbeat,” he said. “I like that.”

Townley in the lab. Credit: 2009 ParnassusWorks

It’s this easygoing, grateful attitude that probably made Townley stand out to the filmmakers, Richard and Carole Rifkind, driving them to focus “Naturally Obsessed” on his research. Well, that and the fact that he was already keen to make a film about his work. “I totally committed to the project,” Townley said. Some of the other students in the lab didn’t like the filming process at all, he explained, “but I would stage my experiments to coincide with when Dick and Carole would arrive.” He added, “I wanted to capture that moment during the process when I actually had success, so it was always in the back of my mind that this drop of fluid that’s going out of the machine might have the material that’s ultimately gonna lead to me getting my doctorate.”

However, Townley wasn’t entirely impervious to the pressures of being under the microscope while trying to do doctoral research. “The filmmakers, I like to say, they made all of us cry, and they made most of us curse” at some point, he said, “even though they were wonderful to work with.”

Shapiro got used to the Rifkinds being around, he said. But at times “when we were filming, one of them would yell at us, ‘Less jargon!’ or ‘Less technical!’ ” he said. All of that detailed discussion had to be taken out for the clarity of the movie, of course. So “you don’t see everything,” he explained.

But technical details weren’t the only thing that had to be left out of the film. “I feel bad that the stories” about other grad students that the filmmakers “didn’t tell were a lot more interesting and richer than mine,” Townley told me. The Rifkinds filmed at Columbia for more than three years and followed a number of different people, but “a few graduate students were left on the cutting-room floor,” Shapiro said.

A contemplative Cubberley in the lab. Credit: 2009 ParnassusWorks

Particularly, the stories of grad students Kilpatrick Carroll and Gabrielle Cubberley, although they are featured prominently, had to be trimmed down. With Cubberley, Townley said, “there were so many more things going on in her life that don’t come out in the film.” And with Carroll, one of the shortcomings of the portrayal of his decision to go into business as a pharma consultant after grad school is that viewers don’t really get to see “what the possibilities are and what he actually chose.”

Townley and Shapiro, however, were edited in a pretty positive light. “I think Larry is now trying to live up to the person you see on the screen,” Townley said. “And so am I.”

1 Comment

  • Jul 12th 201018:07
    by qvxb

    It is a great film. Kind of bittersweet. The entire film can be viewed on line at http://www.thirteen.org/naturally-obsessed/

    It seems that many of the students (and their mentor)often failed to wear appropriate PPE.

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