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PhD Comics Hits the Big Screen

Movie makes stars out of real-life scientists

The creator of the popular online comic strip "Piled Higher and Deeper" has turned it into a feature film. The PhD Movie, which opened this week at a handful of US universities, will be screened at campuses worldwide in the coming months. Nature caught up with former robotics researcher turned cartoonist Jorge Cham to find out about his film.

Why turn the comic strip into a movie?
The spark was a spoof of a Lady Gaga video put together by some scientists in Texas. It looked like so much fun. But a lot of things were pointing in that direction—for a long time people had been asking me when I would do it, and independent productions are now easier to make and distribute. I just thought it would be a great opportunity. [Click here for a selection of PhD Comics]

What is the film about?
It is a light comedy with a little bit of romance. The plot focuses mainly on two PhD students: a newbie struggling to prove himself to his professor, and another who is trying to finish her PhD and is struggling with what will happen next. As in the comic strip, you never quite find out what they are studying and you never learn the new student's name—which is meant to be a kind of metaphor for being the nameless graduate student.

How did your background help in writing it?
I got my PhD in robotics from Stanford University (in Palo Alto, California), and then I worked in a neuroscience lab at Caltech (California Institute of Technology in Pasadena). I think it helps being someone who has lived through it. I try to be as truthful as possible with the comics and the movie.

You wrote the script, but it was produced, directed and acted by actual Caltech PhD students, professors and scientists. Why not use professionals?

One of our favourite examples of Jorge Cham's work. Click for larger image.  Jorge Cham

Part of the theme of the movie is that scientists and academics are multidimensional. They aren't the awkward, geeky, nerdy caricatures that we see in popular-culture stereotypes. They have different passions and talents. I thought it would be cool artistically if the production of the movie also carried that theme. They could also relate to the material and knew how to keep it truthful. Often, people who make movies and television shows about scientists have no sense of what the reality of their lives is like.

How did you find the actors and crew?
Because I worked at Caltech for a couple of years, I knew they had a theatre department, so I approached them to see if they wanted to collaborate and they said yes. A call went out and people who were interested in all kinds of different aspects of production showed up. It was all filmed on the Caltech campus. Hardly anybody involved in this movie had ever made one before, including me.

How are you distributing the film?
The first roll-out is to hold screenings at universities. They started this week and we have lots scheduled internationally (see the list here). But it is not too late—campus groups can still contact us to arrange one. There is a screening fee for the movie that depends on institution size.

Will people find the film as funny as they find the comics?
It is a difficult leap, but I hope they will. A lot of the jokes come from the comics, but there is a little bit more heart and humanity in the movie because it has live actors.

Does the film have a message for PhD students?
Graduate school and academic institutions in general can be very isolating. People feel alone and then get depressed or drop out. The message of the movie and the comic strip is you are not alone.

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on September 16, 2011.

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