The main idea of this documentary is giving a realistic view on the research process to a broad audience. This view is centered on the experiences of three PhD students (Rob, Kilpatrick, and Gabrielle) who are advised by the Prof. Larry Shapiro. In the process of becoming scientists by exploring challenging research problems, these students must deal with constant failure and pressure. I believe that the documentary is very successful in demystifying the scientist as a genius and portraying how the evolution of science relies so much on hard-work and a kind of obsession. Prof. Shapiro begins the documentary with the following words:
"One of the best things you can do as a scientist is to suffer from obsessive
compulsive disorder, so that you become obsessed with a problem and
can't stop working on it until you get your answer."
I'm pretty sure that many psychologists and psychiatrists disagree with Prof. Shapiro's opinion, but I also agree that obsession is to some extent important to drive the scientist along the research process, specially in failure situations.
The documentary was shot during 3 years and was also experimental in the sense that they did not know the results of the research projects the students were working on and, as a consequence, the future of the students who were taking part in the documentary.
All the students in the documentary were working on similar problems. Their main goal was understanding the functioning of a protein by looking into its structure. In order to get such structure, they had to engineer them as crystals and then analyze how they diffract X-rays by running experiments in a synchrotron. The main challenge was getting the crystals that would enable the diffraction.
Rob Townley, the main character of the documentary, is focused on a specific protein called AMPL, which controls the burning and storage of fat, being linked to diabetes and obesity. Rob is certainly not the successful young and smart kind of PhD student most of people are used to hear about. However, he is persistent and ends up providing many emotional moments through the documentary, specially in the end. But I won't be a spoiler here, so please watch it. This is favorite quote from Rob about the research process:
"Either you got to be a fool or an optimist."
But this is one of those typical cases where you don't have the skills to perceive yourself as a fool in case you are one, right?