Documentary Chronicles the Lab Experience of Young Scientists

Filmmakers Richard and Carole Rifkind (center) at the MSKCC screening flanked by two of the scientists in their documentary, Robert Townley (left) and Kilpatrick Carroll.

Filmmakers Richard and Carole Rifkind (center) at the MSKCC screening flanked by two of the scientists in their documentary, Robert Townley (left) and Kilpatrick Carroll.

On January 29, Memorial Sloan Kettering hosted a screening of Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist, produced and directed by Sloan Kettering Institute Chairman Emeritus Richard A. Rifkind and his wife, Carole. The film chronicles the experiences of three PhD candidates in the laboratory of molecular biologist Lawrence Shapiro at Columbia University Medical Center.

In his introductory remarks to a packed audience in the Rockefeller Research Laboratories Auditorium, Memorial Sloan Kettering President Harold Varmus praised Dr. Rifkind as a great mentor — something he knows from personal experience, as Dr. Rifkind was his faculty guide during medical school at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in the mid-1960s. “I learned about his passion for teaching and guiding students through tough times,” Dr. Varmus said. “I welcome you all to this viewing, and I hope that your own natural obsessions are only increased by seeing it.”

In the film, shot mostly in Dr. Shapiro’s lab, the students are trying to beat worldwide competition in identifying the molecular workings of the protein AMPK, which controls whether fat is burned to produce energy or is stored as fat. The three scientists struggle with various personal challenges: Robert Townley has a history of rebellious behavior; Kilpatrick Carroll questions whether he should leave academia for industry; and Gabrielle Cubberley wrestles with self-doubt about succeeding in such a competitive environment. At the end of the film, Townley achieves success in his project and publishes the results, with Dr. Shapiro as the only other co-author, in the journal Science.

Robert Townley

Robert Townley (far right) talks with other young scientists at a reception after the screening.

“We wanted to show the world of research as it really is — a community of intensely curious, friendly, and hardworking individuals engaged in the fascinating process of scientific discovery,” Dr. Rifkind said.

The screening was followed by a reception and question-and-answer session with the two producers/directors at Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Student and Faculty Club. For information about booking a screening of the film, go to

Dr. Rifkind served as Chairman of Sloan Kettering Institute from 1983 through 2000. Upon his retirement from laboratory research in 2003, he took up documentary filmmaking with his wife, who is also an author and educator.

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