‘Naturally Obsessed’ Film Screening

On May 4, 2011 by Grad Forum

Have you ever wondered what it is really like being a scientist?  Or, if you’re a PhD student, would you like to see a realistic depiction of laboratory life on the big screen?

If so, please come the upcoming screening of Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist. Sponsored by theGraduate Studies office, the movie will be shown on Thursday, May 5th, at 7pm in Rockefeller 001. The film will be followed by a graduate student-moderated panel discussion with one of the film’s subjects, Dr. Robert Townley.

Directed by Richard and Carole Rifkind and filmed over the course of three years, the documentary follows several students in the lab of Dr. Lawrence Shapiro at Columbia University Medical Center in their quest to attain a PhD.  For nonscientists, the film is an eye-opening look at laboratory life.

As the film’s main subject, Robert Townley’s scientific struggles allow the audience to connect with both the triumphs and heartbreaks of research science.  Now in a postdoctoral position at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, Townley feels that the film “depicts the psychological aspects of graduate school very well.”

Despite the portrayal of himself and his classmates in the film as singly focused individuals, Townley stresses that science, like every profession, comes in many different forms.

“The filmmakers know their subject well,” says Townley.  “However, they leave the audience with the notion that there is only one type of scientific research. That is that the scientist must be obsessed or ‘all in’.”

“This is a little unfortunate as there are hundreds of ways to do science.”

While a documentary about crystallography might not seem riveting, the Rifkinds have combined film and science in a way that shows the intense drama of a rarely depicted world.  Set to the soundtrack of the Flaming Lips (which one character insists “helps crystals grow faster”), science is depicted in a highly accessible and interesting way, chock-full of drama and heartache.  Since its completion in 2009, Naturally Obsessed has become a cult hit.  Colleges and universities across the country have held popular screenings, with Townley enjoying ‘fame’ as the standout subject in the film.

Perhaps the reason a filmmaker like Richard Rifkind is so interested in science is because he’s a scientist himself.  A medical doctor, Rifkind is Chairman Emeritus of the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research and a former professor of medicine and human genetics at Columbia.  Carole Rifkind is a former Adjunct Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture and the author of several books on architecture.

The Rifkind’s previous film, The Venetian Dilemma, tackled issues of urbanization and city planning in Venice.  Naturally Obsessed was largely funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s film program, which encourages filmmakers to tackle salient scientific issues within their films.

“The comment that I hear consistently from scientists who enjoy this movie is, ‘Finally, a movie about me,’” says Townley.  “I think it is because the filmmakers are so familiar with their subject and so skilled at story telling. The film conveys the emotion, the dedication and finally the triumph of our profession.”

by Erin E. O’Flaherty

Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist

Thursday, May 5th
7pm, Rockefeller 001
Free and Open to the Public
Reception to Follow


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