It must be true…I saw it in a movie

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I can’t say I have a particular aptitude for science, or that I have had years of film experience, but I can proudly say that I was the catalyst for The Science & Entertainment Exchange, or rather my defective pancreas was. When I was eleven I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.  It’s all a bit of a fog now, but I do know that that particular day changed my parents’ lives forever.  My parents, Jerry and Janet Zucker spent the first few months after I was diagnosed buying me presents and basically tending to my every need (it was awesome) but they soon realized that this wasn’t going to cure me, and would most likely turn me into a rather inept teenager. They immediately sprung into action and started Cures Now, a non-profit with the goal of finding cures for diseases through stem cell research. Eager to help, I went from the tween that almost vomited when I had to watch a frog be dissected, to the tween that was pretending to know what I was talking about while casually discussing somatic cell nuclear transfer with Nobel laureates. I’m not going to lie… I was out of my element.

I watched my parents valiantly take on a Republican Congress, and help defeat a draconian anti stem cell bill.  At this point the public knew very little about stem cell research. We had opponents everywhere, not just pro-life republicans but pro- choice democrats too. I’ll never forget watching my mother be accosted by another parent at my school potluck. The father of a friend of mine went on a rant about how stem cell research was a slippery slope which was going to end with people growing monstrous creatures out of Petri dishes. This was confusing to me for many reasons, primarily because I couldn’t understand how he could have ever conjured up such a grotesque image, from what in reality were just tiny little cells. In hindsight I realized that a huge factor in my naivety was due to my lack of science fiction consumption. But at that moment it became clear to me why it made sense for my parents to fight this stem cell battle.  In fact, their business was partly responsible for the problem, and if negative images of science in film could be powerful, than positive ones could be too.  I realized that the contents of my parent’s films could have an impact, and one that reaches beyond twelve year old boys seeing their first naked breast in Airplane.

I recently watched the film Splice. For those of you who have not seen the film, the basic premise is that a scientist (Sarah Polley) decides to splice her own DNA with that of an animal to create a new hybrid species, and things go terribly wrong. So terribly wrong that this thing she created turns into a monster that kills her boyfriend and rapes her, leaving her pregnant with this repulsive creature’s child. When the film finally came to it’s appalling closure, I couldn’t help but be reminded of all of the terrible images people had of stem cell research. Perhaps my friend’s Dad was not so crazy, perhaps he had just been influenced by something he had seen.

The visceral fear I had of that creature was very real. After seeing a movie like that, being afraid of gene splicing (which, by the way, is what created human-based insulin) or even stem cells was not so crazy. The unknown is scary, and it is the entertainment community that bridges the gap between reality and what exists beyond our wildest imaginations.

What I learned through all of this is that Hollywood has real power to move the needle of public opinion.  For two hours that the audience is immersed in a world of our creation.  With that comes responsibility.

Katie Zucker attended NYU and is currently working as a creative executive at Zucker Productions.

Image credit: Warner Brothers (Splice)

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.