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Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist

Lauren K. Wolf, C&EN Washington

poster They work 80-hour weeks for a pittance. And for every experiment that succeeds, 10 more will fail. So why do scientists do science? That's the question Richard Rifkind set out to explore after retiring as chairman from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, in New York City. Rifkind wanted to make a film about what drives scientists. "Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist" is the realization of his vision, filmed with the help of his wife, Carole, in a molecular biology lab at Columbia University Medical School.

But the one-hour documentary delves into much more than just what motivates scientists. The film is also a balanced look at the ups and downs of graduate school, capturing the elation of discovery, the despair of failed experiments, and the struggle that doctoral students face in carving out a professional path. It is a must-watch for prospective grad students, Ph.D. candidates in the throes of research, and family members who aren't quite sure of the reason their loved ones have embarked on such an arduous journey.

To explore why scientists are "naturally obsessed," the Rifkinds camped out off and on for three years in the lab of Lawrence Shapiro, a professor whose research focuses on protein adhesion and structure. Students came and went during that time, but the compelling narratives of three young scientists-in-the-making stood out among the hundreds of hours of footage collected at Columbia. Their stories, interwoven with Shapiro's calm advice and mentoring, form the backbone of the film.

We meet Kilpatrick (Kil) Carroll, a science jock of sorts, with money concerns and a fiancée patiently (or not so patiently) waiting for him to finish his degree. We are also engaged by Gabrielle (Gabe) Cubberley, a one-time technician now struggling with the inherent independence of graduate work in her second year of school. The film leaves us wanting to know more about these students and their fates.

Robert Townley, a fourth-year student with ever-changing frizzy hair, an affable manner, and energy to spare, is unquestionably the star of the film. We happily follow him as he flits around the lab, working to find the right conditions to crystallize the protein AMPK (otherwise known as 5´-adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase). This enzyme, Shapiro explains, is responsible for fat burning and storage in the body. Determining its three-dimensional X-ray structure and the mechanism by which it triggers fat metabolism is the golden ticket that will get Townley out of graduate school.

Like organic chemists and investigators competing in the field of natural-product synthesis, Townley and Shapiro are racing to crystallize AMPK and publish their results before other researchers beat them to it. And despite Townley's easygoing attitude and clear love of science, the failures and pressures still get to him. After an unsuccessful experiment in the lab, a dejected Townley says, "I'm throwing my best ideas at this problem, and it's just ... nothing, man."

But it's this roller-coaster ride that makes Townley's success in the end so sweet. And because the filmmakers have expertly strapped us into the coaster car right next to the young scientist, we share in his joy at his dissertation defense and his exuberance over the eventual publication of his AMPK research in top-tier journal Science (2007, 315, 1726).

Of earning a Ph.D. in science, Townley tells us, "You know it's not always about the smarts, it's not about the creativity. It's about stickin' to it." And we believe him.

"Naturally Obsessed" was released to a limited number of theaters in 2009. However, the film is now available in its entirety on the website of New York's public television station, Thirteen. Visit www.thirteen.org/naturally-obsessed to watch it.