Naturally Obsessed: exposing the art in science

THIRTEEN and ParnassusWorks' new documentary following science PhD students as they search for answers aims to connect non-science audiences with the work of scientists. Realscreen spoke with director (and scientist) Richard Rifkind and co-director and producer Carole Rifkind about their goals in making Naturally Obsessed.
April 8, 2010

Naturally Obsessed, a new documentary for THIRTEEN by ParnassusWorks and Richard and Carole Rifkind (pictured) follows Columbia University professor Dr. Lawrence Shapiro and his team of students at the school’s Medical Center’s Molecular Biology lab. The Rifkinds (Richard himself a scientist and Chairman Emeritus at the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York) found compelling, off-beat characters – who use songs by alternative music heroes Flaming Lips to inspire their experiments – to connect audiences to their subjects, and perhaps gain a better understanding for the scientific process through these budding scientists. Realscreen spoke with the Rifkinds about the film and their hopes for the future of science docs.

Why did you pick students to tell the story rather than scientists who have been in the field for a long time?
Richard Rifkind: We picked students because students are discovering science for the first time in their lives. Most of the audience that we felt we were aiming for would probably be discovering real science for the first time and we wanted a parallel between the audience’s experience and the characters’ experience.
The other side of the coin is, everybody in science knows perfectly well that the activity that leads to discovery in most laboratories is done by students. Not necessarily thought up by the students, but certainly carried out by the students.

In the film Dr. Shapiro says that the plight of the scientist is much like that of the artist, in that people generally don’t understand what they’re doing. Are you finding that people are connecting with this on more than just a science level?
Carole Rifkind: The first time when we had a showing at Columbia, one person in the audience wrote to us the next day, and she was [a PhD student] in another field. We asked how she heard about it and she said, ‘It’s a universal experience of students.’ So it was this stretching to learn to grow, to contribute that we felt made the real story.
We’d love if science films sought the universality of experience and not only the discovery as some lofty goal. It’s ‘going for it’ that really is what science is about.
R.R.: Every great discipline has its craft and the craft has to be mastered before you can be creative, otherwise you don’t have the tools. The hard part for the student is to learn the craft and to grow up and then learn the culture.

In the film the students were saying they were worried about their research getting scooped. Was there any resistance to you documenting them?
R.R.: They were so open-armed. That was the other great thing about that lab, they accepted us as though we were colleagues and not as if we were interfering with them. And we were a nuisance, I’m sure.

What do you hope to see in the future for science programming and science documentaries?

R.R.: One of the goals of this film for us was not only to capture the students, but to capture the authenticity of the process. We want to put the viewer in the shoes of those doing science for an hour. And of course the essential ingredient was authenticity, it had to be like it really was. That’s one thing I know because I’ve been in it for over 50 years and we wanted that to shine through. That’s the problem with fictional kinds of science – the filmmaker is not a scientist and they make up what can happen. The one thing I resent about science fiction is it needs miracles and requires supernatural activities, none of which go on in a lab.
C.R.: As we’ve screened it we see that there are scientists who are turned on by presenting the reality of their search to the public. We think that this is opening a way for the scientist to be confident that they can do it.

Naturally Obsessed debuts tonight (Thursday, April 8) on THIRTEEN. Post broadcast the full film will stream at

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Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.