Ron Vale may not be the next Woody Allen, but he seems at ease with the role of film director and, you might say, born to the part.
Vale, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator from the University of California-San Francisco, regularly spends his summers at the MBL as a Whitman Center researcher.
This year, Vale also transformed a conference room in Lillie Laboratory into a mini-Hollywood set. There, he has been videotaping scientists for a site called iBio Seminars, a free, open-access, educational resource Vale founded in 2007 that has blossomed into a treasure trove for anyone interested in the life sciences.
iBio Seminars founder/director Ron Vale frames a shot. Photo by Diana Kenney
iBio Seminars are videos of the world’s best biologists lecturing on topics of their expertise. Some are seminar length, while others are insightful nuggets just a few minutes long. They can be downloaded and used by professors, scientists, journalists, historians of science, or just perused by anyone seeking enlightenment on contemporary biology. A companion to the lectures is iBio Magazine, which has short videos that highlight “the human side of research.”
Vale’s father was a screenwriter, and his mother was an actress before her marriage. When I saw him bounding out of Lillie Laboratory wearing a Motörhead T-shirt the other day, I asked, “Have you always harbored a latent interest in filmmaking?”
“Absolutely not,” he replied firmly, and went on to joke that a modeling contract might be interesting.
Vale’s real rationale for founding iBio Seminars, he said, is that places like MBL, Harvard and UCSF “offer great opportunities to hear scientists talk about their work. It’s a privilege to have that available to us. With the Web, iBio provides a way for students and scientists around the world to hear these talks. The goal of iBio is to make science as available as possible.”
Vale confers with iBio's videographer/digital editor Isaac Conway-Stenzel. Photo by Diana Kenney
This summer at MBL, Vale videotaped a whole gallery of “stars” in biology, many of whom were on campus to teach, lecture or conduct research. They included Gary Borisy, Shinya Inoué, and Roger Hanlon of the MBL; Ed Taylor of University of Chicago; Alfredo Quiñonenes-Hinojosa of Johns Hopkins University; Jack Szostak, Matthew Meselson, Tim Mitchison, Andrew Murray, Xiaowei Zhuang, and Scott Edwards of Harvard University; Nancy Knowlton of Smithsonian Institution; Hugh Huxley of Brandeis University; Avram Hershko of the Technion in Haifa, Israel; and Melissa Moore of UMass Medical School. Vale also filmed a segment about BioBus, a biology classroom on wheels; and one about the state of Indian science and education with Satajit Mayor of NCMS, Bangalore, and Subhash Lakhotia of Banaras Hindu University.
One July morning found Vale prepping Ed Taylor and Gary Borisy (the MBL’s president and director) for an iBio taping. The topic? Their discovery of a fundamental structural protein in cells, now called tubulin, in the mid-1960s when Borisy was a Ph.D. student in Taylor’s lab.
Ed Taylor and Gary Borisy prepare for videotaping in iBio's "chroma key" studio set up in Lillie Laboratory. Photo by Diana Kenney
After a spontaneous and colorful discussion of how the two would enter the frame, Vale began coaching them on the do’s and don’ts of iBio conversations. One bump in the road soon appeared: Taylor and Borisy didn’t have the same version of the tubulin story in their heads. Their chronologies differed slightly; as Borisy noted, “Memories dim and we have different takes on things.”
Vale was nonplussed. “This could be a lot of fun!” he said. He positioned them in front of the “chroma key” green screen, a backdrop similar to what TV weather anchors use, upon which slides, maps, and other visuals would be displayed later, during editing. Vale then encouraged Taylor and Borisy to tell the story of their discovery, and to conclude with a message or lesson to young people about how science really happens.
Ed Taylor and Gary Borisy prepare to tell the story of the discovery of tubulin. Photo by Diana Kenney
With the camera rolling, Taylor and Borisy traveled back nearly half a century to a tale of discovery that included their mutual fascination with understanding how living cells divide, Borisy’s first visit to the MBL, tantalizing leads, intriguing paradoxes, several “red herrings and blind alleys” and ultimately, a fundamental discovery about cell structure that has had widespread and lasting importance.
Taylor’s takeaway lesson? “Choose an important problem when you are just starting out in science. Don’t work on a trivial problem. Then, if you succeed, you’ve really done something good.”
And Borisy’s: “Sometimes you encounter contradictory results, paradoxes. Don’t sweep those under the rug. Resolving those can bring you to your answer.”
Curious about the full story? You’ll just have to see the movie.
iBio Seminars is funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the American Society for Cell Biology, and the University of California-San Francisco.