Nature Genetics | Free Association

Storytelling science

“Peter, we changed its DNA!” —Mira Sorvino as entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler in Mimic

Most practicing scientists cringe when they watch Hollywood versions of science; the above line from Mimic is a memorable example that I find particularly cringe-worthy. Risks of sweeping generalizations aside, I think most bench scientists would agree that science is just not accurately represented in popular culture. How many unrealistic scenes of the molecular forensic lab in CSI does a practicing scientist need to watch to draw this conclusion anyway?

At “Celluloid Science: Humanizing Life in the Lab," an event held at the New York Academy of Science last night, regular science contributor to the New York Times Carl Zimmer led a thoughtful panel discussion on the challenges and efforts of those who tell stories of science through film.

Valerie Weiss, a filmmaker and former biophysicist, kicked off the panel with commentary and clips from her upcoming feature film, Losing Control. The independent comedy produced by her company, PhD Productions, is set for release on Valentine’s Day 2012 and is centered on a female scientist seeking experimental proof that her boyfriend is “the one.” The film is loosely based on Weiss’s experience in graduate school at Harvard University. Having been a female bench scientist for most of my adult life, the trailer seems largely accurate and endlessly amusing. For better or for worse, I can’t say I have (or know anyone who has) personal experience with the ubiquitous laboratory safety shower, but I look forward to watching the scene in its entirety, as I can’t imagine any scene involving unfortunate snafus with laboratory safety showers as not funny.

David Heeger, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at NYU, gave a short talk on his research on neurocinematics, which is essentially the science of human reaction to film. Heeger’s experimental approach uses functional MRI (fMRI) to monitor human brain activity while watching film. Heeger presented intriguing results that show that for well-produced films, the resulting brain activity patterns of research subjects are very similar. In contrast, when subjects are shown segments of reality (in this case, clips from a camera set up in Washington Square Park, which some might argue are actually the very opposite of reality), there is a very weak correlation between individuals’ brain activities. The research seems to suggest that film quality might not be subjective, although brain activity does not correlate with film preferences between individuals.

The panel then shifted to a well-known evolutionary biologist from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Sean Carroll, who is also the Vice President for Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Carroll spoke on his belief in the power of the story, and HHMI’s mission to reach a broad audience with well-crafted and accurate scientific stories through film. To this end, HHMI has set aside $60 million over 5 years for its in-house film production unit. Carroll screened a short 10 minute film entitled, “The Making of the Fittest: Natural Selection and Adaptation” that is intended for the classroom. The film tells the story of the evolution of light and dark rock pocket mice in the lava flows of the Southwest desert. With wide open landscapes as the backdrop, the film accurately illustrates a specific example of Darwin’s process of natural selection. Carroll summarized the message of the film elegantly, “Mutation is random, but natural selection is not.”

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