Docuseries takes viewers into the lives and labs of scientists

UChicago STAGE lab to release pilot episode of ‘Curiosity’ with discussion June 25

A new documentary series will soon take viewers into the lives and labs of scientists—beginning with a pilot episode that follows former University of Chicago graduate student Nathan Earnest-Noble as he researches quantum computing.

Produced by the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering’s STAGE lab, Curiosity: The Making of a Scientist features intimate, documentary-style short films created by an interdisciplinary team of science and arts students and professional filmmakers at UChicago.

The pilot episode, “Superposition,” will be available online June 25 at noon and 8 p.m. Each showing will be followed by interactive panel discussions featuring the cast and contributors.

The docuseries intends to explore the nature of curiosity and its role in the world of science. Based on an idea suggested by California NanoSystems Institute Education director Fiona Goodchild, the series was conceptualized by Prof. Nancy Kawalek and directed and filmed by a group that included a UChicago undergraduate student.

An artist and theater-trained actor, Kawalek leads STAGE, which stands for Scientists, Technologists and Artists Generating Exploration, 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. Kawalek’s lab has grappled with topics such as DNA folding, quantum entanglement, and the science of consciousness.

While popular media often portrays scientists either as 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,” Kawalek said. “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.”

The first episode, “Superposition,” follows Earnest-Noble, a physics 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 the lab of Assoc. Prof. David Schuster 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 PPE in the Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility in the Eckhardt Research Center. 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, providing a realistic portrayal of graduate studies and enabling viewers to follow him to his goal of identifying the ideal qubit for superposition—a phenomenon in quantum mechanics in which a particle can exist in several states at once. 

“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,” said Schuster. “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."

Sunanda Prabhu-Gaunkar, STAGE’s director of science and director of Curiosity, originally joined the program as a postdoc and taught herself filmmaking in order to create the series. “The scientific process inspires our filmmaking,” she said. “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, joined the project as a first-year student at UChicago with prior filmmaking experience. She worked on the series across her college career, graduating in June with a degree in cinema and media studies. “Showing a story develop over time can be powerful,” she said. “We hope to get it out there to a lot of people who are and who are not yet interested in science.” 

Interested attendees can register through Eventbrite.

—Adapted from an article by Maureen McMahon posted on the Physical Sciences Division website.