My semester in MIT’s course on Documenting Science Through Video and New Media has drawn to a close. I’ve had a wonderful time and learned a lot about how films and science are constructed by different people in different times for different reasons. Most of all I’ve learned about how challenging it can be to put together an interesting narrative and present a point of view while at the same time ensuring that the science being explained is honest and clear to everyone. I’ve recently gotten the chance to watch two great recent science documentaries outside of class, Naturally Obsessed and Synbiosafe. The films are about very different topics within the life sciences–protein structures and synthetic biology–and have very different styles–one follows grad student life in one lab for years, one is based on interviews with major players in the field in the US and Europe–but both highlight and reflect interesting approaches to presenting science for a general audience in an engaging and educational way.
Naturally Obsessed, by Richard and Carole Rifkind, follows grad students in the Shapiro lab at Columbia University. The lab uses X-ray crystallography to determine the structure of proteins important in human metabolism, which may someday give clues for designing drugs that can battle obesity and diabetes. Quirky grad students and fear of getting scooped (having another lab publish a structure that you’re working on before you) make the movie dynamic and fun. Crystallography is technically very difficult, and it can take years of meticulous work to get a protein to crystallize properly. The frustrations of such exacting work were clear in watching the movie–one of the students dropped out of grad school during the course of filming, one’s personal life suffered as he kept working away at his proteins in lab, but the hero of the film managed to persevere through the hardships and finally get his PhD. As a grad student, the movie was almost too real and at times hard to watch (we get enough lab failures on our own!), and the happy ending for one of the students almost didn’t seem worth the pain.
The film, however, did do an excellent job of showing and describing what life int he lab is like and what it takes to be successful (lots of experience screwing up lots of luck and lots and lots of patience). I think the film also explained the science clearly and in a way that seamlessly fit into the narrative. Larry Shapiro, the lab’s PI, in the course of interviews done for the film does a great job of explaining the reasoning and some of the physics behind the experiments that the students are working on. Even though I often find protein structures to be excruciatingly boring, his lively descriptions and lively grad students made the science come alive almost as another character in the movie. Overall, I appreciated the focus on the process of science rather than the outcome and importance of the results and potential drug targets years in the future. Understanding how science is done is crucial to understanding what science is and can do. Through an understanding of the workings and interactions of a lab, the implications of a given research result can become clearer to everyone, even those without any scientific training.
Markus Schmidt and Camillo Meinhart’s Synbiosafe, on the other hand, focuses almost entirely on the future implications of a science. Synthetic biology is ten years old now, but as an engineering practice is still in a foundational phase, with the “killer apps” (both good and bad) still far in the future. As one of the interviewees aptly says: “creating life in a test tube is always something that is about to happen” until we learn something new about how life works. While this leaves the movie without the same narrative drive as Naturally Obsessed, the film is interesting in its own way and successful in introducing synthetic biology to a general audience. The film is structured as a series of interviews with professors working on and studying synthetic biology as scientists and engineers or as scholars of science policy, bioethics, and biosafety. The film intersperses introductions to the background science of synthetic biology through interesting and well-made animations and narration, and with the interviews digs deeper into the potential of such a powerful technology and describes some of the safety issues that come up when discussing easy and widespread genetic engineering.
The filmmakers have a clear agenda, acknowledging the risks inherent in the ability to engineer (potentially hazardous) organisms, but emphasizing the ability to engineer safety mechanisms and closing on the idea that the greatest danger is not pursuing something that has such great potential to solve the problems facing our growing populations and shrinking ecosystems. The interviews juxtapose optimistic engineers with curmudgeonly biosafety experts (although from some of the interviews it’s hard to tell what side people are on, even though I know many of the interviewees personally) who go through many of the common narratives of synthetic biology. For people unfamiliar with the subject, this movie is a great way to get up to speed, and for experts and practitioners of synthetic biology it’s a reminder that we have to keep safety and security in mind as we dream up the synthetic biology enabled future.
As the first film about synthetic biology, Synbiosafe is a great introduction and hopefully the start to something bigger. Indeed, the filmmakers are now sponsoring a film festival for new films about synthetic biology called Bio:Fiction, with awards for best short fiction, best documentary, and best animation. Entries are due July 15, 2010 for the festival held in Vienna in May of 2011. I’m looking forward to seeing what others make (and hopefully entering my own) and I hope that some of the future documentaries will bring in perspectives from other people involved in synthetic biology–notably women, students, ecologists, policymakers, and designers.