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Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist

Guest content from Naturally Obsessed

Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist

A documentary about careers in science

Naturally Obsessed

Naturally Obsessed

“So what is it that you actually do, Dr. Rifkind?” (groan, groan) It didn’t matter if the question was from my accountant, my dinner party companion or my cousin Minnie, I was never able to give an answer that satisfied either the questioner or me. That’s why, when I retired from the laboratory bench five years ago, I decided to tackle the challenge of making biomedical research more transparent.

See production photos

Scientist as filmmaker

My wife, Carole, had initiated us into documentary filmmaking a few years prior, so I felt safe in thinking that filmmaking is not so very different than doing scientific research. Both are investigations that start with curiosity about a question that can only be answered by the collection of data, and both must find the story in those data that resolve that original question. For the scientist, that story is buried somewhere in the myriad experimental data points collected in a lab notebook. For the documentary maker, it lies somewhere in the hundreds of hours of observation collected on film or video. For both, the story is validated only when it is put out for criticism — that is, published or screened. Little did I know that would take four challenging years to make a one-hour film — Naturally Obsessed: the making of a scientist.

See the post-screening discussion with students

Asking the question

Intent on displaying the reality of doing science, we figured that we would film in a single laboratory for as long as it would take to find the story. We knew we were in the right lab when we arrived at the structural biology lab of Dr. Lawrence Shapiro at Columbia University Medical Center. Larry and his graduate students were appealing characters, and their passion for doing science intense. We returned to shoot in the lab again and again, tracking the students’ progress in mastering the craft of x-ray crystallography on the way to a solution of the molecular structure of their targeted protein, and, ultimately, to an understanding of precisely how the molecule works. In the case of one of the students, Rob Townley, our work was amplified by the video diary he had been keeping during the four years he had been studying AMPK, a protein with exciting implications for obesity and type 2 diabetes.

See the Naturally Obsessed prelude video

Collecting data and interpreting results

We documented the time, patience and support that the mentor offered his students, while keeping his own research at a highly competitive pitch. Our camera observed the students absorb the values inherent to the culture of science — persistence, critical thinking, collaboration, and commitment to produce new knowledge. We also caught the students dealing with personal problems — uncertainty, frustration, impatience, and gripes with their mentor. They were under a lot of pressure, because X-ray crystallography requires sophisticated skill in protein chemistry and genetic engineering before a protein molecule can be produced in crystal form and yield usable data at the x-ray beam. They faced the constant threats of either not getting any usable result at all – or of finding that the competition had beat them to it. We also observed some self-destructive tendencies that stood in the way of attaining the PhD — rebelliousness, hastiness, timidity. [link to: science careers] Carole and I began to worry seriously if we’d ever find an ending to the film. But we just kept shooting, and ultimately glimpsed each student find the career path that seemed right for them — one in academia, another in industry and the third as a biotech consultant.

See the Apprentice video and Career Pathways video

Getting it out there

So we had our film, but only viewers could tell us if it helps them to better understand scientific research. Feedback from many post-screening discussions tells us that it certainly does. Every audience has responded to the human drama intrinsic to research and has welcomed fresh insights into the goings-on in a lab; non-scientists are intrigued by the parallels between doing science and other creative endeavors; students feel more comfortable in knowing what’s ahead of them (although some, admittedly, are turned off by the really hard work portrayed in the film). And, rather to our surprise, scientists, elated by the authenticity of the film, say “Finally, someone is telling my story!”

Richard Rifkind, M.D. is co-producer/co-director of Naturally Obsessed: the making of a scientist, is Chairman Emeritus of the Sloan-Kettering Institute and founding Chairman of the New York Structural Biology Center.

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  1. What a great film. I teach math. I most definitively will purchace the DVD and show it to my middle school students. What a great idea. I mean, letting my students solve math problems in the fashion of discovery just like in the documentary and rendering them with a symbolic P.H.D. I have already donated a few single ones. What a great filling-that of a middle school advisor!!!…..

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