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09/20/2011 07:00:00

The PHD Movie, Starring Caltech's Own PhDs!

You've created a wildly successful webcomic about life in academia that is followed avidly by readers all around the world. You want to do a film adaptation. Who you gonna call?

If you're Jorge Cham, creator of Piled Higher and Deeper (a.k.a. PHD Comics), you call Caltech—in particular Theater Arts at Caltech (better known as TACIT) and the wider community it represents.

Screenings of The PHD Movie have begun on college campuses across the globe, and the film is having its Caltech premiere on Thursday, September 22, at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. in Beckman Auditorium. Seats for the 8 p.m. show are first-come, first-served to all members of the Caltech/JPL community, their personal guests, and everyone who worked on the movie. The second show is open to all comers. Admission is free for both screenings.

By turns humorous and poignant, The PHD Movie offers an intimate look at life in the high-stakes world of academic research through the eyes of four graduate students, some trying to start—and others to finish—their PhDs.

The project is unique in that it was produced entirely by members of the Caltech community, with actual Caltech grad students filling many of the top roles. Directed by Vahe Gabuchian, who is studying for his PhD in aeronautics, the film was produced by Meg Rosenburg, a PhD student in planetary sciences who recently was lead author on a Journal of Geophysical Research paper regarding lunar topography. The director of photography was Lucie Adalid, who is the wife of a postdoc and had experience as a cinematographer in France. Much of the score as well as the movie's original songs were written and performed by Caltech-affiliated composers and bands.

Alexandra Lockwood, a PhD student studying how new planets are created, stars as Cecilia, "the perfect grad student," and the film features Crystal Dilworth—who is working for her doctorate in the neurobiology lab of Bren Professor of Biology Henry Lester—as Tajel, the fiery campus activist who is also Cecilia's best friend. Raj Katti, now a sophomore in physics, stars as the Nameless Grad Student. His bane and possible savior, Professor Smith, is portrayed by IMSS systems administrator Zachary Abbott.  Chemistry grad student Evans Boney plays the inimitable and eternal grad student Mike Slackenerny. The movie features cameos as well by numerous postdocs, scientists, and prominent professors, including two recipients of MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowships. The pivotal ballroom dance scene, which required dozens of extras, drew students and researchers from schools all over Southern California as participants.

"It is fitting that a story about the multidimensionality of academics and scientists be told by real researchers," says Cham, whose website, www.phdcomics.com, receives over 7 million visitors each year. "Too often in the media, scientists are depicted as stereotypical caricatures. Our goal was to show they are real people."

Cham, who began writing and drawing the comic in 1997 while earning his PhD in mechanical engineering at Stanford, was an instructor and lecturer at Caltech from 2003 to 2005, doing research on the design and manufacture of "smart" neural implants capable of enhancing signals from live neurons. 

Additional details about the premiere, including a link to a campus map, can be found here.

Written by Michael Farquhar