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The road to success in Hollywood does not normally lead through Harvard Medical School. But there are exceptions, and Valerie Weiss hopes to be one of them. After earning a PhD from Harvard, shes left the lab for a different career. NPRs Joe Palca has her story.
JOE PALCA: When she was in graduate school, Valerie Weiss studied an enzyme called arginine methyltransferase. Never mind what that does. Just understand that its important in cells. Weiss was trying to figure out the enzymes three-dimensional shape.
Dr. VALERIE WEISS: The idea is that how something is shaped has a huge effect on its function, because really molecules are just kind of like LEGOs, sitting together, interacting, and then, you know, chemistry happens and the molecules change.
PALCA: Were sitting at an outdoor cafe a few blocks south of Hollywood. Weiss enjoyed her graduate work because it helped her understand how the cells inside our bodies function.
Dr. WEISS: I think the whole reason I even went into science is because I love to know how things work. And the answer to a why question just would lead to another why question, at least thats what my mom tells me I was like.
PALCA: Okay. So youre understanding the nature of the universe. And you're a why kind of person and you're always asking questions, and then you give it up.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PALCA: Whats up with that?
Dr. WEISS: I know. What is up with that? I ask myself that all the time. My parents certainly ask themselves that all the time.
PALCA: She gave up science because she had a career itch she needed to scratch. Weiss says science tends to be very specialized these days and her interests are more eclectic.
Dr. WEISS: At the same time that I was interested in science, I was really interested in theater. And I think for the same reason - just why do people relate to each other the way they do, why is the world the way it is, I think I like asking that question on every level.
PALCA: Thats not to say shes abandoned science. In fact, the film shes making now is set, in part, in the lab.
Dr. WEISS: The films called "Losing Control," and it's about a female scientist who wants proof that her boyfriend is the one.
PALCA: Okay, its a bit of a stretch. Science is a blunt tool when it comes to matters of the heart. But this is a comedy, and Weiss says the film is definitely sciency.
Dr. WEISS: Science is absolutely interwoven to - in every aspect of the film. Its going to be a funny, funny movie that happens to be about scientists.
PALCA: Weiss has several financial backers for her film, but this is still a low-budget affair.
Unidentified Man #1: All right. Here we go. Ready, ready.
PALCA: Still, visit the set and it looks like a Hollywood movie, albeit on a smaller scale.
Unidentified Man #1: Okay, so well go for a full rehearsal here.
PALCA: Weiss and her crew have taken over a lab at Xencor, a biotech company in Monrovia, California.
Dr. WEISS: Super far off for what?
Unidentified Woman: Kellys going to bring it right over to you, right now? Right, Kelly?
PALCA: Strong lights are everywhere. Electric cables snake across the floor.
Unidentified Man #2: Quiet, please.
PALCA: Weiss and her cameraman, Jamie Ermann(ph), confer about the best angle for the next scene.
Unidentified Man #3: Okay, guys.
PALCA: Weiss is producer, writer and director of Losing Control. Theyre shooting a key scene and thereve been a lot of takes. Now theyre ready to try again.
Unidentified Man #2: Rolling sound. Quiet, please. Speed.
Dr. WEISS: Action - oh, sorry.
PALCA: Weiss jumps the gun a bit. Then it is time.
Dr. WEISS: Action.
PALCA: Weiss asks me not to record while theyre shooting. As I said, this is a key scene. She doesnt want to give anything away. Science doesnt show up in a lot of films - not real science, anyway. Valerie Weiss wants to change that.
Dr. WEISS: Why not science? It is fun. It is sexy. And you know, its a really rich, untapped area that Im excited to explore.
PALCA: And maybe show that scientists are smart people with problems and ideas and dreams just like everyone else. Joe Palca, NPR News.