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‘Curiosity’ series aims to make science more accessible

Stepping into Erin Adams’ lab at the University of Chicago is a little too exciting.

Adams’s work focus is molecular immunology. As the Joseph Regenstein Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and vice chair for research, he investigates the molecular signals the immune system uses to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy tissue.

And his laboratory is large. It also includes a tissue culture laboratory area where he and his team of postdoctoral researchers try to recapitulate cells. There is also the crystal chamber, which contains hundreds of labeled wells filled with proteins that are monitored to see whether three-dimensional crystals form.

Microscopes are located nearby to examine crystals that resemble hexagonal disks. Liquid nitrogen is used for long-term storage of cells. Researchers on Adams’ team routinely receive “parts” for experiments. Research assistant Caitlin Castro said one piece was a cell vial used for cellular experiments.

There is also a larger laboratory space where postdoctoral scholars work on their own projects under Adams’ supervision. Lab coats, beakers, flasks, tubes and other breakable items lie on surfaces near what Adams calls Playboy’s centerfold crystal poster, which shows different shapes and colors of crystals.

“This is a place of joy and frustration because so much of the science fails,” said Adams, of Jackson Park. “It is never the case that a single person does a single project; There are usually several groups doing similarly related projects. Very competitive. This can be very sad because you may have a group that releases before you, and then what you’ve been working on for the last five years may become less important. This is the truth of science.”

Adams’ world was featured in the 47-minute film “Serendipity,” produced and directed by a team of scientists and artists. STAGE LaboratoryAn acronym for Scientists, Technologists, and Discovery Artists at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. “Serendipity” premiered on USC campus earlier this month.

“This” is the second movie in the series.Curiosity: The Cultivation of a ScientistThe docuseries is an ongoing project that hopes to educate the public about what a career in science looks like, said Sunanda Prabhu-Gaunkar, STAGE Lab science director and docuseries director.

Prabhu-Gaunkar said there is a curiosity and awareness towards the sciences, but daily understanding of science is limited. The TV series “The Big Bang Theory” was an introduction to this. But he hopes that by dedicating a focused lens to scientists like Adams and Nate Earnest-Noble, the subject of the first film and a quantum physics researcher, more people will see science as accessible.

“I think the biggest advantage of STAGE is that artists and scientists work together as equals, they sit together and work through the filmmaking process and learn from each other, and this shows in the final product because it makes it even easier. authentic,” she said. “Scientists’ wives have come to me and said, ‘Now I understand what my husband did… I had no idea why he was working so late into the night.’”

The brainchild of Fiona Goodchild, director of education at the California NanoSystems Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, STAGE began in the early 2000s when Nancy Kawalek, founding director of the STAGE Lab, was at the institute.

Given Kawalek’s background in theater and the arts, what began as a script competition to produce an original science play evolved into the current STAGE installation in Hyde Park in 2013. Laboratory space and an area of ​​2,000 square meters in the building where campus security is located. STAGE, a free-standing black box theater that can be configured any way for productions, integrates art and science as a way to tell stories of serendipitous discoveries and scientific breakthroughs through theatre, film and even theater. game and social media influencers.

Kawalek likens the STAGE movies to the TV show “Inside the Actors Studio,” but instead of talking about the careers and crafts of Hollywood celebrities, the backstories of the scientists are talked about.

“Science is so underappreciated and so important,” he said. “We’ve just come out of this massive pandemic, and if that didn’t show us the importance of science, nothing did. Just saying to people, ‘Go get vaccinated; This is good for you,’ no one will listen to that. People want to have an emotional experience. They either want to be impressed, or they want to laugh, or they want to have fun. That’s what sticks with them. “It gets them interested in things, and that’s at the core of what we do.”

In “Serendipity,” we see Adams moving toward science. It started, he said, when he responded to a newspaper job posting for a research technician at Stanford University after graduating from college.

Adams shares the ups and downs he’s experienced in this field, many of which have been serendipitous; This is where the name of the movie comes from; including a scientific breakthrough that led to his tenured position and the birth of his son, August.

“Nate (Earnest-Noble) had a really tough childhood,” Kawalek said. “He lost his parents when he was 16. Even getting her PhD wasn’t the easiest thing for her, but I think it’s important that she was able to do it. Someone like Erin (Adams) had different kinds of challenges growing up and didn’t take high school seriously; then you see the success he has had. These types of stories contribute to a kind of relatability. … It allows people to see that science is for everyone. You don’t have to be a genius.

“We want people to understand how important science is by seeing these stories and engaging with them on a human level. It’s such a part of our lives, and I don’t just mean medical advances. What powers our refrigerators, what powers our smartphones, what about the clothes we wear? What makes a Band-Aid sterile, “What makes a band-aid sterile? These are all things that come from different areas of science. And if the public could appreciate that, maybe they wouldn’t be so afraid of science.”

Electrical engineer Prabhu-Gaunkar learned filmmaking to step into his role at STAGE because he saw the disconnect with science in the real world while working on a nanotechnology project at a product design company in downtown Chicago.

“I realized that their understanding of science was completely different from what I experienced as a scientist,” he said.

Prabhu-Gaunkar said he and the students involved in the project had many conversations about their ideas of what science is: “You have to be good at math. You need to be able to do equations.”

“It’s not like that,” he said.

“In making the film, students discover what the scientific process is; how do you do that?” said. “You have to constantly iterate on your ideas and be prepared for things to fail because by nature you are doing something new, it has never been done before so it is not clear whether it will work or not. “That’s the nature of science, and you have to be ready for it.”

Research assistant Caitlin Castro, left, and University of Chicago immunology professor Erin Adams stand in a room where crystals are stored for study at the Gordon Center for Integrative Science on Jan. 5, 2024.

Prabhu-Gaunkar said the purpose of the book “Curiosity: Raising a Scientist”.to expand it to include scientists of different ages, genders and backgrounds. Prabhu-Gaunkar said he envisions more films and wider distribution as “Curiosity” expands.

The next film will focus on octogenarian physicist Walter Massey. “Serendipity” has already won awards from many film festivals. “We are trying to show science to people from different places,” Prabhu-Gaunkar said. “There was a reason why they somehow came to science and saw what they were getting out of this opportunity.”

“We recognize the importance of being able to open up the silo and allow people to see inside and understand what we do here,” Adams said of STAGE’s mission.

He allowed the team to follow him for two years to capture snapshots of his story. Adams’ son was 3 years old when filming began; he’s in second grade now.

“Science really stands up very high for people, and it’s something that a lot of people think they’ll never achieve, but there’s a way for everyone to get there,” he said. “We need more people to be passionate about science, we need more kids to be passionate about science… This is a place where people can really explore their passions and have these revolutionary breakthroughs by exploring those passions.”

Click to watch “Serendipity” this link and use this password: stage. The link expires on January 31.

drockett@chicagotribune.com

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