On Friday evening the structural biologists of Imperial College and the friends of the structural biologists of Imperial College gathered together for a screening of the film, Naturally Obsessed.
Filmed over three years, this hour-long documentary tracks the lives of graduate students Rob, Kil and Gabe, as they battle the recondite mysteries of protein crystallography in their quest to become scientists.
Our screening was quite timely, following hard on the heels of a day that had seen the best and worst of crystallography, confirming it as a tortuous vocation that offers huge rewards but only at the price of severely stressing its adherents. On Thursday the Nobel prize for chemistry was presented to Ramakrishnan, Steitz and Yonath for determining the crystal structure of the ribosome, and another potentially prize-winning structure appeared on the cover of Nature. But that day also brought news of that no fewer than twelve crystal structures published by H.M. Krishna Murthy of the University of Alabama Birmingham were to be withdrawn from the protein data bank and the associated papers retracted because the university had a ‘preponderance of evidence’ that the structures had been fabricated. This was a truly shocking revelation, one that the community is struggling to absorb. It will no doubt play out in full over the coming weeks.
In the film we watched Rob, Kil and Gabe, their eyes very much fixed on the prize of growing crystals that will scatter X-rays to high resolution and open the door to a future career in science. But much of the action was inaction as the three graduate students dealt in their various ways with the ever-present strains of failure.
Presiding over the lab was PI Larry Shapiro, the grinning guru, who stroked and joked with his charges but nevertheless spoke with great feeling about his passion for science, and his determination to become the scientist of his dreams.
The film deals frankly with the failure, that perennial accompaniment of experimentation, giving the three young scientists space to share their experiences of life in the cramped, equipment-packed lab. There were plenty of moments of resonance for our audience of structural biologists, as we watched the nigh eternal cycle of new plasmid construction, protein preps and failed crystallisation trials. The film was really quite poignant at times; I am thinking of Kil’s fixed stare at the road ahead as he drove back from yet another disappointing synchrotron trip, the consoling words of his mentor clearly not having any impact; and of Larry’s own dreadful revelation of the tragic circumstances surrounding the publication of his first Nature paper.
But there were plenty of laughs too: crystallographers may have to be a steely bunch but they are also strange creatures with bitter humour who sometimes need the juju of pickle juice or the gentle melodies of “Yoshimi Battles Pink Robots” by the Flaming Lips to tickle their proteins into crystallisation.
The particular projects undertaken by Rob, Kil and Gabe are hardly explained as the film concentrates on their day-to-day experiences. I suspect it therefore appeals mostly to crystallographers who will most readily connect with the various tasks that were depicted, both in the lab and at the synchrotron. It certainly chimed with our audience of structural biologists at Imperial – and I enjoyed the film much more at the screening than I had in a sneak private preview. I suspect it may reverberate less powerfully with non-crystallographers and less still with non-scientists, who will certainly see and feel the students’ frustrations and joys (either through success or self-revelation) but may to not fully understand their origin.
But I thought the movie was fascinating. It was most definitely an experiment worth trying. I hope that the film (which, by the way, has already been nicely reviewed here on NN, at LabLit and on the P212121 blog) gets the wider audience it deserves, and may perhaps inspire scientists in other fields to open their laboratory doors to the all-seeing eye of the camera.