From Harvard to Hollywood: Our Interview with Scientista/Film Producer, Valerie Weiss, about her award-winning Rom Com, "Losing Control"
Losing control is coming soon the theaters near you. Check out the movie trailer below!
March 15, 2012
By Katie Banks
Scientista is all about using the media to change the portrayal of and increase the visibility of women in science. Therefore we were jumping for joy when we heard about Losing Control, a new romantic comedy about a female scientist who is seeking to prove (experimentally, of course) that her boyfriend is “the one.” The film was written and directed by Valerie Weiss, who based the premise loosely off of her experiences while receiving her PhD in biophysics at Harvard Medical School.
I caught up with Valerie Weiss, who is now a scientista™-turned-LA-based filmmaker, to get the inside scoop on the motivation behind Losing Control. Though Valerie has not conducted an experiment since she wrapped up her doctorate, her training has landed her speaking gigs at Caltech and gotten her actors access to top-notch biology labs. Read on for her personal story, thoughts on film and science as creative endeavors, advice on following two passions, what she believes makes a good scientist, and what’s coming up next for her. A scientista™ who values creativity above all, Weiss has found artistic fulfillment in and out of the lab.
Q: How did you get started in film? How did you balance science and film throughout undergrad and grad school, and what finally prompted the full shift?
A: I got interested in acting when I was a little kid, when I was about 5. I started taking acting lessons at 9, and acted through high school and into college. I got a chance to direct my first play in college--that engaged the analytical side of my brain in theater. I got into biology in 10th grade because of a great biology teacher, Mr. Charambura. What I liked about acting—exploring different worlds, looking at relationships—with biology, you could look at relationships between everything in life, chemicals, molecules. I really remember it as being an epiphany.
As for balancing the two, I majored in Molecular and Cellular Biology at Princeton, minored in theater and dance. I think that was a pretty good mix. It provides a certain amount of security to have a science background, for getting a job. I also got a chance to explore a career in the arts and figure out if it was what I wanted to do. I still did theater at Harvard, but turned to film because of the impermanence of theater—you invest all this energy, then it’s up a few times and it’s over. I had a Dudley fellowship that helped me get into film: we had people come in and teach some classes to grad students, and opened some of it to undergrads too. I directed a film while writing my PhD thesis. And that fellowship let me get into film as long as I was still doing some theater.
"I directed a film while writing my PhD thesis." - Valerie Weiss
Still from "Losing Control"
Q: How did you conceive of your future career as an undergrad? I know some who are very focused on science, lab work, and just have these other artistic hobbies on the side, and some who consciously want to work in both science and arts…did you see yourself continuing both?
A: I started working in a lab at 15 or 16 years old, did a program at UPenn once a week to learn lab techniques. Worked in a veterinary lab for summers in high school—I was really comfortable in the lab by the time I got to Princeton. I loved working in a lab—it’s kind of like a theater—both places have this great space, a lot of independence, nobody looking over your shoulder, you get to play—rehearsal is a lot like doing an experiment over and over again. Theater obviously is a lot more social than being in a lab. They were great places for exploration, and I felt so lucky to be able to learn that way—classes were very secondary. I literally would go to class, go to lab, and then at night I would go to rehearsal. I was very busy—if anyone had issue with it, it was my thesis adviser—but she also took issue with me going to class and not being in lab, so I think it was really her problem.
A lot of scientists don’t understand how much having a creative pursuit actually makes you a better scientist—because science is so creative. Nobody’s handing you a roadmap, and you have to be constantly trying new things, not repeating the same mistakes. Having a really healthy personal life, social life and creative outlet really helps you be a better scientist.
Q: Even though you're not in the lab, has your science PhD been of professional use to you? More broadly, how does your science education influence your current work and thinking?
A: “Losing Control” has been a big part of what I’ve been doing since I left science—it’s very authentic in terms of how it approaches science and scientists. Realistic, authentic portrayals of scientists, which people are so grateful for when they see it: no stereotypes. My science background has been great to be able to bring this movie to tech companies, the National Academy of Sciences, Caltech, Princeton biology department—places I might not have been able to go with this without a science background. I also have lots of speaking engagements, a women in science panel, talking to girl scouts about science and film.
Philosophically—it’s helped me a lot with persistence. In science, if you give up before you reach your goal, you get nothing. You don’t get credit for trying to make a discovery. You need to learn to keep going. My adviser at Harvard taught me that how you finish is just as important as what you do along the way. I never thought about leaving my PhD even when I wanted to do film, I wanted to finish it and finish it well. Same thing making a movie—finishing a script, having a tough production schedule. Having done a PhD, going through so many experiments and papers, I learned persistence.
Continue to page two for the rest of the interview! Page1 | Page 2
About the Author
I am a math major also studying English education. I love teaching of all kinds. I am currently working at a children's science museum and editing popular science books.