Though science enthusiasts may see the obvious parallel between the pursuit of scientific discovery and the pursuit of an artistic vision, Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist drives home the point for anyone still uncertain. Revealing the everyday trials and triumphs of a biological laboratory, the documentary presents science through a passionate narrative akin to that of subjects like art, music, and film.
Directed and produced by Richard Rifkind, Chairman Emeritus at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, NY, and his wife Carole Rifkin, Naturally Obsessed follows Ph.D. candidates and postdoctoral fellows in Larry Shapiro’s Columbia University laboratory in New York City.
Using romanticized, Hollywood-esque portrayals, the film strives to humanize science—its craft, viewers soon understand, being the main plight of the lab’s members. It elucidates the complex and disparate struggles of graduate students Rob Townley, Kil Carroll, and Gabe Cubberley. The three are all headed by Shapiro, the patient and inspiring advisor. The film’s plot hinges on the quest to determine the structure and mechanism of protein AMPK, a kinase that coordinates metabolic function and is related to diabetes and obesity.
In the film, Shapiro’s unadulterated passion for his field is evident. He compares graduate students to young violinists learning how to perfectly command their instrument in order to express nature’s most elegant song. There is an equal elegance to Shapiro himself. With his words of encouragement, pats on the back, and endearing smirks, he develops an intimacy with his lab team in which viewers can also take part.
Carole Rifkind says that science can be made more accessible by reinterpreting terminology and jargon that could alienate the public. For example, Shapiro and his team use x-ray crystallography to study proteins at atomic resolution, first engineering a form of the protein that could crystallize, and then using electromagnetic wave diffraction patterns to determine structure: for the sake of accessibility, the Rifkinds decided to deemphasize Fourier transforms and high-level synchrotron physics. However, at a recent screening at the Imagine Science Film Festival, members of the audience thought the method’s technical difficulty had been downplayed. Rifkind’s response? The popularization of science should “not seek to convey the science as much as [the process of] doing it.”
Naturally Obsessed makes it clear that there is no way to make science easy: as a whole, it is nothing less than an ongoing lesson in dedication and persistence. But in an era when science has implications in everything from political policy to ethical and religious debates, filmmakers such as the Rifkinds are instrumental in reinterpreting science for popular culture. They have created a entity of equal pertinence to, say, the Flaming Lips (Shapiro claims that listening to the song “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” helps crystals grow) and proved that scientific discovery is emblematic of the human experience.