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Mar. 19, 2009

Film Review: Naturally Obsessed: the Making of a Scientist

by Karen A. Frenkel

To view Naturally Obsessed is to be extremely engrossed. This new documentary by Sloan-Kettering Institute Chairman Emeritus Dr. Richard Rifkind and his wife activist Carole Rifkind invites audiences into the molecular biology lab of Dr. Larry Shapiro of Columbia University's medical school. Here's the link to the film's site.

We meet three graduate students and experience their day-to-day travails and triumphs as they try to isolate proteins and try to determine their structures. The most senior grad student is Robert Townley, who has already hit a scientific roadblock at a previous lab, so a lot it at stake for him. He keeps a video diary that is woven into the film. His holy grail is the structure of AMPK, a protein that may be important in the treatment of diabetes and obesity. His junior cohorts are Kilpatrick Caroll and Gabrielle Cummberley.

Their work involves the techniques of crystallography; purifying proteins, getting them to crystallize, zapping them in a sychrotron to get structural data, and finally determining their structures on a computer. It is a testament to the filmmakers’ good judgment that they chose a lab that relies on these techniques because many are highly visual, and trips to the local synchrotron help overcome the claustrophobia of benchwork. It also helps that Townley is an avid rock climber and we accompany him on his vacation as he challenges a summit.

During most of the film, though, we shuttle between the students’ lab and personal lives and Shapiro’s life as a principal investigator as he carefully mentors all three. His style reveals much about the type of scientist he is and what he values—curiosity, ambition, perseverance. When Townley’s protein fails to yield data, Shapiro tells us, “ You learn from failure and you learn almost nothing from success.”

In fact, much of the film is concerned not so much with the specifics of research, but with what sacrifices people are willing to make for the sake of discovery. This is as it should be; the public needs to better understand what goes on in the minds of those working in Ivory Towers. Structurally, the narrative piques our curiosity, keeping us guessing which student will be most resilient if their protein fails to crystallize. We want to know who will doggedly start again from scratch. Who is driven enough, who is emotionally and physically strong enough, and focused enough, to let their PhD outweigh his or her personal life?

The filmmakers also achieve tension in their treatment of Shapiro, who is up for tenure. Contrapuntal with watching his students’ research unfold, we are privy to the tenure process. We catch glimpses of the meeting of his peers as they decide whether to award him tenure. Shapiro also tells us about his first paper to be published in Nature, “which can make of break your career,” and the painful irony that his father, with whom he had reconciled after a year of not speaking, died that very morning.

At the film’s conclusion, viewers learn which student will continue in research, pharma, or remain a technician and whether Shapiro gets tenure. I’m not going to give that away and spoil things for you. But I do want to raise a few questions about the film’s purpose and reach. Because of Townley’s video diary and more emphasis on his journey than on the others’, Naturally Obsessed is a great candidate for broadcast on Public Television, especially POV. But the college science pipeline is suffering a dirth of students and clearly junior high- and high school students could benefit from seeing this documentary. I’m just not sure they’ll find their way to it. That would be a pity because Naturally Obsessed manages to celebrate the glory of discovery and also realistically show how hard and competitive science is. (And so is anything worth doing to the best of your ability, actually.) So I hope there are plans to split this one-hour film into two parts so that it can be shown in junior highs and high schools across the land. Because classes are 45 minutes long, after watching half, teachers and kids could discuss it for the remaining 15 minutes. Perhaps Naturally Obsessed will be shown in assemblies, too. I hope so, now that our new president is making it cool to be curious and studious. Naturally and technologically.

- Karen A. Frenkel
For information about me please visit my website, www.karenafrenkel.com

About Karen A. Frenkel

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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