Last night, at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan, I attended a screening of a wonderful documentary by Richard and Carole Rifkind entitled “Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist”. This film documented the path and travails of 3 graduate students who were lucky enough to be in the laboratory of Dr. Lawrence Shapiro at Columbia University’s College of Physicians & Surgeons in New York City. The beauty and clarity with which the film was shot made the graduate student experience feel as real as any film could. As someone who got her PhD in developmental and molecular biology from another well known biomedical research institution, I felt that the experiences of the students featured in the film were prettier than my own (mine was particularly harrowing), but in many ways, the film was dead on.
Rob Townley, one of these students, had found himself in his 4th year of graduate school, having, in his words, “burned all of his bridges” and in limbo without a lab to go to. Clearly he had left the lab he had been working in on less than ideal terms and was hilariously honest about what a troublemaker he was. I understood exactly how he felt, having been in the same position in my own graduate work, only I was in the fifth year of my graduate career at that point (and not nearly as candid or hilarious as Rob about how difficult I was). Rob was lucky that at that relatively late stage in his career he was accepted into another lab, and was doubly lucky to find Dr. Shapiro. In order to get my PhD, I had to stay in the lab I started in because no other mentor (that I wanted to go to) was willing to take me at such a late stage. The “fire in my belly” and a sense, expressed by one of the other graduate students in the film, that I would be “quitting” if I gave up, gave me the resolve to mount an argument convincing enough to my original mentor to keep me on.
Despite the difficulties experienced by Rob and his fellow students, I found myself grinning throughout most of the film, laughing at certain points that were all too familiar. Watching the students burn their fingers retrieving glycerol stocks of desired bacterial strains from the -80° C freezer or liquid nitrogen, growing up countless liters of the bugs in 2 liter flasks on shakers in the warm (37° C) room, vortexing test tubes, making liters of buffer, engineering DNA plasmids (which were transformed into bacteria) and loading and running hundreds of gels by electrophoresis reminded me of the everyday experiences that took up so many years of my life (in college, as a technician, and as a graduate student).
There were also moments in the film when I remembered the sadness and desperation of repeatedly failed experiments. A particularly poignant moment was when Rob spoke of such desperation that he did basically no work in the lab for 3 months – he was just too despondent after so many failures. I did the same thing at one point, although I used that time to write a proposal for a new project that ultimately got me my PhD (and my neck out of the proverbial noose). Many PhD students go through something like this, and as individuals will react in their own way. But the all too real feeling of wanting to quit repeatedly, experienced by most if not all graduate students, was very effectively conveyed.
Another aspect of graduate work in science that was very effectively conveyed in the film was the “luck” factor. No matter how hard, intelligently, diligently and doggedly a researcher works, it can take years before any of his/her work bears any fruit at all, and learning how to conduct independent research at the same time makes it all the more difficult. Dr. Shapiro described the balance mentors have to try to strike in terms of the amount of guidance they provide a student, and I think he must be one of the more successful mentors around. Shapiro happened to be at the screening last night and was invited by the panel moderator to speak to the audience following the conclusion of the film. There was one thing he said which brought me a feeling of intense joy and vindication, which was that prior to participating in and viewing the film, he did not have a real appreciation for how hard it really is for graduate students. I just wanted to shout “thank you, thank you, thank you!”