“Naturally Obsessed” Tackles Why Scientists Do Science
Jul09

“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...

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