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STAGE lab docuseries takes viewers into the lives and labs of scientists

A new film series called Curiosity: The Making of a Scientist, produced by the STAGE lab of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), features intimate, documentary-style short films created by an interdisciplinary team of science and arts students and professional filmmakers at the University of Chicago.

The docuseries takes viewers into the lives and labs of scientists, exploring the nature of curiosity and its role in the world of science. The pilot episode, “Superposition,” follows former Department of Physics graduate student Nathan Earnest-Noble as he researches quantum computing in the lab of Assoc. Prof. David Schuster. The episode will stream online June 25 at noon and 8 p.m., followed by interactive panel discussions featuring the cast and contributors. Attendees can register through Eventbrite.

The series, based on an idea suggested by California NanoSystems Institute Education Director Fiona Goodchild, was conceptualized by Nancy Kawalek, professor and distinguished fellow in the Arts, Sciences, and Technology at Pritzker Molecular Engineering.

STAGE, which stands for Scientists, Technologists and Artists Generating Exploration, is a full-scale laboratory embedded within the PME. As the director of STAGE, Kawalek oversees a unique effort to create theatre and film inspired by science and technology. Postdoctoral scholars, graduate students, and undergraduates from the sciences, arts, and humanities collaborate on each of STAGE’s projects, giving them an inherently broad perspective. Her lab has grappled with topics such as DNA folding, quantum entanglement, and the science of consciousness.

While popular media invariably portrays scientists as either geniuses who always have breakthrough discoveries or nerds without social skills, each Curiosity episode gives viewers a window into the rigor of scientific inquiry and the resilience it requires.

“The goal for us is to tell a truly engaging story. We don’t want these to be science lectures, we want to entertain and engage people and grab them on an emotional level because that’s how we can make an impact,” said Kawalek.

STAGE’s Director of Science, Sunanda Prabhu-Gaunkar, joined the STAGE lab as a postdoc and taught herself filmmaking in order to create the series.

“The scientific process inspires our filmmaking,” said Prabhu-Gaunkar. “The workflow embraces failure, remains receptive to discoveries through iteration, and allows for risk-taking, all within a highly collaborative process.”

Ellen Askey, the pilot episode’s co-director, is a cinema and media studies major in The College. She joined as a first-year student, with prior experience of making narrative films, and worked on the series across her college career.

“Showing a story develop over time can be powerful,” Askey said. “We hope to get it out there to a lot of people who are and who are not yet interested in science.”

Full access to the forefront of quantum research

The first episode, “Superposition,” follows Earnest-Noble, a graduate student at the time of filming, as he attempts to create a device that he hopes will be foundational to quantum computing. Filmed in Schuster’s lab and around Hyde Park, and combining a mix of interviews with an intimate camera style, the filmmakers capture life at the forefront of quantum computing as experienced by a young researcher growing through the trials of the work he loves.

The camera crew was given full access to Earnest-Noble’s research. In several scenes, Earnest-Noble is suited up in white protective equipment in the Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility (PNF) in the William Eckhardt Research Center (ERC). His scientific process and the breakthrough he seeks are depicted with animations and close-up footage of the state-of-the-art facilities. The filmmakers capture Earnest-Noble in the midst of a failed attempt or among his “graveyard” of failed quantum devices. As he embraces his doubts and is propelled by tenacity, viewers witness an emotional depiction of real science.

Earnest-Noble’s lively interviews focus on the experience versus the result of his labors, enabling viewers to follow him to his goal of identifying the ideal qubit for superposition and see a realistic portrayal of graduate studies.

“When we were filming, I was trying to explain a qubit or something, and how much I was using jargon words was eye-opening to me. It helped me appreciate the challenge of making science understandable,” said Earnest-Noble, who is now a quantum computing researcher at IBM. “Science is a process far more than a series of facts. That became clear to me from working on this project.”

“Science communications typically takes a very long struggle of discovery and wraps it up into a pretty package. But something I found very special in this story is that you got to follow Nate for a couple of years. It accurately captured what Nate’s experience was like. And it focused on his experience, and not on the result, which is pretty amazing,” said Schuster.

—Story was adapted from a release on the Physical Sciences Division website