If you’ve done a Ph.D. in science (or particularly if you’re thinking about it) or if you’re just fascinated with the scientific process, I hope you have an opportunity to see the documentary Naturally Obsessed that chronicles the journey of three graduate students toward the scientific prize in protein crystallography. Only one of them, Robert, wins what most would consider to be the coveted apple– a paper in Science and the pursuit of an academic career. Kil takes his Ph.D. and leaves academia behind for what appears to be a successful career as a consultant for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. The third, Gabe, the woman in the group, decides a Ph.D. isn’t what she really wanted and heads back to work as a pharmaceutical researcher. Their adviser, Larry Shapiro at Columbia University, gets tenure.
What I think is so good about the film by former researcher Richard Rifkind and his wife Carole is that it really captures what it’s like to be a developing scientist. And I choose that term deliberately– the process of a Ph.D. is more fundamental than training. It really is developmental.
The film brought me back to my days in the lab (In the end, of course, I’m a female Kil, who took my Ph.D. and jumped off the academic wagon). The three characters reminded me of myself and of the people I worked with. Their struggles reminded me– perhaps a little too clearly, my husband would say– of the highs and lows of the scientific research game.
However, the filmmakers left out one interesting plot point that the real-life Kil revealed during the discussion after the screening that I attended at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center on March 4. Robert, the “hero” in the story, had spent years trying to get his protein, AMPK, to crystallize. He’d tried everything, and ultimately, he had asked his committee for permission to graduate, to defend his Ph.D. without the elusive prize. They granted his request– he could have graduated after trying just one more set of experiments. These experiments worked, however, and voila! crystals, diffraction, and Science paper! However, watching Robert, I couldn’t help remembering the Ph.D. defense of a student in my graduate cohort. She spent 6 years gathering beautiful data that ultimately demonstrated that the enzyme that she was studying didn’t do what she thought it did.
The documentary is a lovely narrative, and it’s rewarding to watch Robert “win.” But it’s equally satisfying to see the grin on Gabe’s face as she describes how much happier she is outside the Ph.D. grind (most of the people I’ve known who left feel that way, whether immediately or eventually). Kil seems to find his niche as well (I don’t regret my choice).
I’m still torn by the idea of natural obsession as an essential trait in a scientist. Who you are shapes how you approach your research questions, and persistence is key. The aphorism that I still throw around in reference to the process: “A Ph.D. is a marathon, not a sprint.” I also– usually self-reflectively– point out that “a Ph.D. eats brain cells.” Ultimately, to finish a Ph.D., I think you have to be obsessed with that goal, but, unfortunately, some forces– often simply bad luck– can drive any naturalness out of that obsessive process. That fate was one that Robert only narrowly escaped.