ScriptPhD Roundtable: Naturally Obsessed—The Making of a Scientist


Graduate student Rob Townley mixes solution in a beaker in a scene from documentary "Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist." Film images ©ParnassusWorks Films, all rights reserved.

Society’s unequivocal fascination with science and scientists, reflected by a growing presence as staples of film, television, and popular culture, has only been magnified by the enigmatic (and seemingly impenetrable) aura in which they are enveloped. Their studies decidedly abstruse, their coded language unintelligible, their habits quirky and eccentric, the world of the scientist has been an audiovisual shroud of mystery—until now. In perhaps the most authentic, unfiltered, extemporaneous portrayal of scientists in their environment ever recorded, new documentary Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist welcomes the lay audience into the laboratory as silent observers. No reservations, no restrictions, no preconceptions. The result is an emotionally stunning masterpiece that connects us to scientists as people, reaches out across professional divides, and places PhD students, the backbone of the modern scientific laboratory, under the microscope for the first time. recently screened the movie with a group of UCLA PhD biology students. Under the “continue reading” cut is our review, along with an honest roundtable discussion that included reaction to the movie, its parallel to their lives, and the training of modern scientists.

REVIEW: Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist Grade: A

Rob Townley is a last-chance, down-and-out maverick. Thrice a college dropout, a Navy veteran, and anti-establishment contrarian, Rob is a rebel with a cause. He is a 4th year graduate student in the laboratory of world-renowned Dr. Lawrence Shapiro at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. Admitting that attaining a PhD in science is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, and the end of his road, Rob throws himself into the pursuit with an almost frantic desperation: willing to try anything, everything, and experiments in unconventional ways that have never been done. Flanking him are two fellow graduate students that contradict him in style and ambition. Fellow 4th year Kilpatrick (Kil) Carroll is every bit curious and dedicated to the idea of a PhD as Rob, but ambivalence about his future in science denies him true fearlessness. Young 2nd year grad student Gabe Cubberley, doomed by her need for rigid instruction and a safety-net, never seems to get comfortable with the constant uncertainty, failure, and self-direction so endemic to being a PhD student. Shapiro, their mentor and laboratory leader, is himself an iconoclastic tragi-hero. Admonished by his academic parents after abandoning traditional classroom studies to pursue lab work at Caltech University, he couldn’t wait to show his first high-profile publication as both vendetta and vindication. On the morning Shapiro published a paper in Nature, arguably the finest science journal in the world, his father died before seeing it. It seems poetically appropriate, then, that he plays father figure and guide to a group of risky misfits and centers his research around crystallography, a science so delicate and mercurial that one experiment in the movie is described to work only after adding pickle juice to the protocol.

Dr. Richard Rifkind and his wife Carole, who produced and directed the film.

The first hint that this is a different kind of science movie is its honesty of portrayal. While striving to translate the scientists’ experimental mission as much as possible, and with some quite decent graphics, Obsessed does so unobtrusively, and not at the cost of the original language. Fluid one-camera tracking at once captures unscripted conversations between the graduate students and their day-to-day movements about the lab. This accuracy is a testament to the film’s patron and director, Richard Rifkind, Chairman Emeritus of the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research. “Most films show working scientists as lonely isolates, nerds, dangerous nuts or pompous gurus,” said Rifkind. “Viewers of Naturally Obsessed experience the world of research as it really is—a lively community of intensely curious, competitive and hardworking individuals engaged in the fascinating process of exploring the unknown.” Indeed, the film not only exposes the humanity in the graduate students as it peels the layers of perhaps the last organized apprenticeship, it builds a true sense of anticipation. Much of the lingo and science will go over people’s heads (thankfully the producers chose not to dumb it down), but everyone will relate to the never-ending trial and error, the race against time and other scientists, the sheer drudgery and exhaustion of defeated grad students, and the euphoria of breakthroughs capping years of sacrifice and drudgery. With each climactic car ride to the National Synchrotron Light Source in Brookhaven, New York, even someone who doesn’t know the difference between a quark and a quirk will be on the edge of their seats wondering, “Did it work? Did they get their crystals?”

The crystal structure of AMPK, representing years of multidisciplinary effort and untold experimentation. Image courtesy Science Magazine.

The crystals, in this case, are large, ordered, three-dimensional structures of the protein AMPK (AMP-Activated Protein Kinase), a key facilitator in the control of fat storage and burning. With such obvious implications for everything from obesity to diabetes, knowing the structure of the protein would not only allow scientists to key in to its mechanism of action, but also a prototype for designing inhibitor drugs (blockers) that might offer therapeutic benefits. The problem? It had never been done before, and for good reason. To put it in perspective conceptually, Dr. Shapiro and his grad students strove to suspend, visualize and interpret the three-dimensional position of over 9,000 atoms.

Since its inception, I have used as a platform to argue that art and science are not, as is often suggested, opposing forces, but rather mirrored, isometric forms of creative expression and imagination. Scientists are nothing more than “left-brain” creatives, while creatives are “right-brain” experimentalists. The highlight of Naturally Obsessed for me was the validation of these beliefs. Shapiro notes that “art and science are mates of similar elusive pursuits” with their practitioners occupying the “outer fringes of society.” He wisely likens a young, untrained PhD student to a beginner violinist—struggling so hard to master basic musical techniques that he or she cannot yet solely focus on artistic identity. Kil Carroll’s revelation of his fiancee’s impatience and lack of understanding of his objectives, not to mention questioning when he would ever make real money, has to be a familiar conversation to many a struggling artist or writer. It is no coincidence that the laboratory established a superstition of accompanying major laboratory moments and breakthroughs with symbolic music (“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” by The Flaming Lips). Music was, incidentally, one of my foremost memories of graduate school, with each room of our lab wafting a different sound depending on the stylistic preferences of the graduate students and scientists working in it.

Rob Townley speaks with his advisor Lawrence Shapiro in a scene from "Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist."

In the years since graduating from my PhD program, I’ve tried numerous times to articulate to people what graduate school is like, but no description does as much justice to the experience as this movie. Recent discussion of PhD training has included whether it is generating too many students or if it is necessary at all. While saving the meat of that discussion for a future post, suffice it to say that the PhD degree continues to mean different things to different people. As will this film. For aspiring scientists of all ages, it’s both a dose of reality at how hard and monotonous the work can be and a jolt of inspiration at the collaborative brotherhood and joy of being the first to discover something completely unique. For former graduate students, it will unearth pangs of nostalgia and sometimes despair in its verisimilitude to their own experiences. For laypeople, Naturally Obsessed will hopefully engender a sense of empathy and affection for the eccentric, dedicated scientists, but also a heightened appreciation for science. But as the camera finally pans over Townley and Shapiro’s victorious Science paper, every viewer will comprehend the magnitude of the moment, the discovery, the obsession. screened Naturally Obsessed with a group of graduate students at UCLA, and sat down with them afterwards to gauge their reaction and thoughts on the ups and downs of being a graduate student. Joining us were Sam, a 5th year student studying the human genetics of autism, Lilly, a 5th year student studying glycerol kinase (implicated in many of the same pathways and diseases as that depicted in the film), Imilse, a 4th year student studying protein trafficking, Tova, a 4th year MD/PhD student studying gene networks in aging, and Lauren, a 3rd year grad student studying metabolic diseases. My first question is an open discussion for you guys. They talk a lot in this film about what a PhD “is” and there are a number of varying viewpoints; the graduate students, their advisor, their colleagues, loved ones. What I’m wondering is what the PhD process and the degree means to you all.

Lauren: I would agree most with the girl who quit the PhD program (Gabe) where she said it’s mostly about becoming an independent scientist. And I really liked the analogy that the professor used about it being our last surviving apprenticeship. I think that’s why I really enjoy it. I don’t think that’s why I started the PhD, but I think it’s why I’m staying. Because I really enjoy that apprenticeship that I’m getting—a really unique training from a specific scientist and learning how she does it her way, with the view that once you graduate, you would go on to a post-doctoral fellowship, which would be an opportunity to see how someone else does it in a different way. And then you are in a better position to formulate your own independent approach to science.

Sam: Well, certainly the PhD degree itself is a milestone. But there are others that are also important for science. When I was a part of the first paper that I published, for example, that was a milestone where I could say, “OK, well now I’m a scientist.” You can get a bachelor of science from an undergrad university, and work in a lab for a while, but you’re not a scientist yet. But a first-author publication is irrefutable evidence that you’re a scientist. The PhD to me is like the next level, but it can be the same level, depending on people’s careers and their success. So, if you have five first-author publications and no PhD, you can still call yourself a scientist. If you have no publications and you have a PhD, you can call yourself a scientist. So it’s sort of a milestone where we’ve all agreed that you’ve gotten to the point where you can do science, you can start from nothing and come up with a project, do that project, write a paper and have your ideas survive other people’s in the field.

Lilly: In agreement with both of my colleagues. I think the PhD is becoming an independent thinker. You’re going from an undergraduate situation or being a technician—they tell you what to do, and you do it. Monkey see, monkey do. Versus knowing the questions to start asking and the experiments to do for it, to start to think on your own and eventually getting to the point where you have your own lab and doing it yourself.

Imilse: The PhD is about becoming a scientist, the process of becoming independent and thinking about the science behind it, and trying to do it yourself.

Tova: I would agree with what everyone has said. I think the independence is key. I’m also an MD student at the same time right now, so the difference between the two degrees is like night and day, because [for the MD portion], you sit in a classroom or you’re following around attendings and they tell you what to do all the time. And you have to do these things or the patient is at risk. But in the PhD program, it’s completely open-ended, you don’t know what you’re going to do, and hopefully you get some advice from your advisor. It seems like the students in the documentary are very independent in their lab, and I think that is one of the keys to the meaning of the degree.

Sam: And to add a quick point, I think something that hasn’t really popped up yet is the whole idea of failure. Obviously, it’s on all our minds. There are a lot of different types of people who come into graduate school, but a lot of us maybe struggled getting some Bs, a C here and there, but never really faced something just totally not working. Probably not a lot of us ever walked into an exam and got a zero. If you’re at the point where you’ve been accepted to a PhD program, you’ve had nothing but success. And graduate school is nothing but failure. There’s really no other way to look at it. There is a lot of stress involved with a lot of negative results and what happens if I don’t find anything, and you could very well not find something. So you have to learn how to put together the right set of questions so that you can [overcome that failure] and have something no matter what. And that’s something that I think nothing else teaches you.

SPhD: …which leads beautifully into my next question. Unique qualities that scientists have that set them apart. We saw a lot of these in the movie; guys who “live on the fringe.” And, Sam, you talked about failure just now. But do you guys, being now quite a ways into your PhD, feel like there are other qualities that help you make it through this process? That we as a clan are a unique clan, and what are some of our characteristics that allow us to do this, to survive it day in and day out?

Tova: I’ll start out by answering that, because I was also a grad student in engineering. And there the people tend to be more eccentric, higher rates of Asperger’s disorder. But in the biology world, I’ve found that people aren’t really “on the fringe” except that they have this determination and persistence, and that’s, I think, the key trait that you really need to get a PhD. Other than intelligence, but moreover persistence and the ability to bang your head against a wall several times and not get frustrated.

Sam: I think for me, it feels like doing something else wouldn’t be useful. Maybe there are other parts of science are very useful to human societies, and I don’t want to sound like this is the only thing that matters, but to me, I feel like I’m doing something where I’m contributing to moving things forward. And I think that if I did a job that was just running around in circles, that I wouldn’t feel fulfilled by that. I don’t feel that I’m an obsessive person, but I feel like I want to be moving it forward, and if I’m not, then I’m just wasting time.

Imilse: Well, I think you have to be very secure in yourself, and you have to be a leader. You have to be secure in terms of whenever you have a failure, you don’t throw yourself through the window. You just deal with it. It takes a strong personality.

SPhD: We’ve all kind of come to a mutual conclusion that the PhD process is pretty good for science, as a whole, warts and all. But do you guys feel like it’s a fair process? Give me the good, the bad and the ugly, in terms of your own experiences.

Lauren: I think the experiences can be wide-ranging, mostly depending on your PI [Principal Investigator, or lab leader]. I think you could get lucky, you could get unlucky, you can have a fair or a less fair experience. That’s part of what makes it cool, is that everyone gets trained a little differently, and you can find a PI that fits your person the best, instead of everyone having a one-size-fits-all education program. But then, the downside to that is if you’re not able to find a good fit, or you get stuck in an unhealthy situation, you could be screwed over.

Sam: And there’s a lot of fields where, not necessarily PhDs, but the degrees that you need to get, cost a huge amount of money. If you want to go into business or law or medicine, you have to put down $100,000 of your own money [at least!]. When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do after college, I couldn’t believe graduate school paid me. And there’s no tuition! After talking to people in graduate school, I still kind of feel that way. Yes, we do a lot of work. Yes, we are the engine that drives these million-dollar labs. But at the end of the day, we’re getting a huge educational bonus, we get this wonderful degree that no one can take away from us, and you’re getting a paycheck. I think that’s amazing.

Imilse: Well, I think the good of it is that you get a lot of training, especially in taking courses, which they didn’t show in the movie. This was important for me, because I was coming in from another background, another major, so I needed it. I got a way to understand another area of science. In my particular case, I’d like to be a little more independent in my lab. My PI is really nice, and I enjoy working in the lab, but sometimes it’s hard to want to do things your way and try something completely new, and they completely shoot down the idea. The lab that the movie showed is amazing, ideal really, how labs should be. You’re totally independent and then you hit the wall, and you learn from it.

SPhD: I know I’m sort of writing the article and I’m an impartial observer here, but I also went through a PhD program, and I’ll be happy to share my experience. One thing I’d contribute to this conversation is that in a sense, it’s good, bad, and ugly that at the end of the day a PhD is a PhD. I had a very different experience than a lot of people. These guys in the movie are going through this incredibly nurturing, sheltered environment, and their PI is participating every day. I worked for a very famous chemist, and I did the majority of my research at the not-for-profit pharmaceutical research institute that he was director of, away from the main campus altogether. I was the only grad student in a sea of technicians and directors and independent scientists and I had to figure out a lot of stuff for myself. I felt like I was swimming upstream for the majority of my PhD experience. Whereas I had classmates who it almost felt like they were in Club Med, with regular meetings and a supportive environment. But what’s funny is that at the end of five years, I had a PhD, they had a PhD, you all will have a PhD. It’s like a one-pot dish with a hundred different ingredients, and at the end of the day you plate it out and everything is in the same place.

In this movie, we saw what are three major archetypes of grad students, if you will. You had Rob, who was to me emblematic of the ultimately successful scientist—driven, obsessed, a little quirky. Then you had Kil, sort of curious and fearless, but cautious as well, and you got the feeling science wasn’t his only priority. Then we had Gabe, the unfortunate dropout, jaded and disillusioned from the beginning. Did you guys relate to anyone, or their circumstances, as you were watching?

Sam: Not personally, but I can see people like that.

Lauren: But there’s definitely more than those three archetypes.

SPhD: Really? Who would you add?

Lilly: I think at any point and time, all of us can probably relate to each of them. When your experiments go bad, you’re going to be like Gabe, but then things go well, and you can be like Rob. But that’s the whole thing of being a PhD student, that drive to just keep on pushing hard and being like Rob and working at it, because eventually, you will get the answer. Other time, you’re a little more ambivalent and in the middle, like Kil.

SPhD: Maybe that was the point of the movie, was to extrapolate those three points of the graduate process, and find individuals that embody them at all times to channel those characters. This is sort of the first documentary that’s ever been made about the graduate process, about you guys and your world. Do you feel it was fairly represented? Did it reflect your experiences?

Sam: I think there were two major moments that really felt like the movie was capturing something that really related to me. One was when the experiment failed at the synchrotron after two years of work and it was nothing. We’ve all been that guy. We’ve all done things like that. But hopefully, we’ve all been at the other end, where something just worked and you’re shocked and thrilled. I don’t know how an audience that isn’t composed of scientists would react to those two moments, but to me that captured things very well. Anything like this is going to gravitate towards the drama, and that was Rob, a dramatic, eccentric guy. The one thing it maybe missed was the time where everything is calm for very long periods. And then, all of a sudden, you’re a fourth-year graduate student!

Tova: Yes, I agree with Sam. I would say it’s less dramatic. They chose Rob because he’s this personality. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had such wild reactions one way or the other to results. It’s more like, “Awww man, this sucks! I’m not doing research for two days!” One thing I wanted to say about the additional archetype is that most grad students I know have his drive, but are a little bit more laid-back. You can’t let it get to you, because you’re going to go home at some point and you have this whole other life, and you can put it out of your mind.

Lauren: I think what Sam said is right, that there’s a lot of stuff that they left out about what happens in between. There’s a lot of just routine working every day, getting your stuff done, but it’s punctuated by these moments.

Imilse: In my opinion, they should have had more about their personal lives. Do they have enough time to spend with their significant others or kids? Like how Kil was saying that his fiancée was giving him a lot of pressure to finish. Things like that are important, because scientists’ lives aren’t only the lab. Whether you can handle your life outside the lab, those are also external pressures.

SPhD: That is a huge stereotype of scientists, the emotionless robot without a personal life that lives in the lab. One of the biggest misrepresentations of science in entertainment as a whole is the lack of a personal life or asexualization of scientists. They’re certainly not machines in the lab 24/7, I certainly agree with you guys, there. Thanks so much for joining and for your thoughts, guys!

View the trailer:

Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist premieres on Public Television in New York City on Thursday, April 8th with other cities’ air dates varying. Following the premieres, the film will stream for free here.

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