LectureHop: Less Than Kind, More Than Lipkin

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Professor Lipkin

Last Friday at noon, our Diva of  Diseases Briana Last bopped over to the John Jay Lounge to listen to Dr. Ian Lipkin, a scientifically and cinematographic-ally relevant person, talk about epidemics.

The aphorism, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” rang all too true last Friday, when the cost of eating room temperature pasta was an hour and a half of boredom. The event, “A Conversation with W. Ian Lipkin,” was sponsored by various undergraduate health organizations, including Community Health House, Journal of Global Health, GlobeMed, and Health Leads. In addition to being a big deal scientifically, Lipkin consulted for Contagion, the 2011 medical thriller, keeping it accurate. But the promise that Professor Lipkin would “discuss the potential for deadly outbreaks and how the scientific community is working to stop them” fell quite flat.

Instead, an audience of about forty students, many of whom began to shuffle out of the John Jay Lounge even as the event began, sat to watch about thirty discontinuous minutes of Contagion. The screening felt more like a way to pass time, as each scene didn’t feel particularly relevant to the discussion which followed. When Lipkin finally sat down to talk, rather than delving into the science of deadly outbreaks, he dove into topics which he himself admitted were on the “fluffy” side. After a brief explanation as to why he was moved to get involved in a post-apocalyptic film, he described the efforts he had to go through to maintain the oft-praised scientific accuracy of Contagion.

He then began describing the making of the movie and what each actor was like on the set, details than an audience interested in public health and the supposed topics of the discussion would seem to find irrelevant. Dr. Lipkin added some funny nuances about the actors in the film, like the fact that most of the cast didn’t research their parts, that he got to speak with Jennifer Ehle while she was breastfeeding, and that Gwyneth Paltrow was “not normal.” “I don’t know what she is,” he continued, “she shows up on set, doesn’t talk to anybody, gets her lines, perfectly, she’s a pro, there’s no question. When she’s done, she’s gone. She doesn’t talk to you, she doesn’t make any small talk.” However entertaining these details were, they departed from the issues which the audience seemed eager to discuss.

The students finally got their due during the much longer question and answer session where Dr. Lipkin really got to talk about his ideas. They probed him for hard hitting answers regarding funding for scientists and the relationship between vaccine inventors with pharmaceutical companies. But these last moments did not make up for the relatively underwhelming talk the doctor gave about his filmmaking experience, which came off as more self-aggrandizing than informative.

Dramatic pipet usage via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Anonymous  

    Real scientists don't sell out in movie productions

  2. Ian Lipkin

    I'm sorry you were disappointed in the event. Apparently I misunderstood the intent of the organizers. It was my understanding that all participants would have viewed the entire film (rather than a few clips) in preparation for the class and come prepared with questions they wanted to address. I would address those questions and provide a back stage view of what its like to develop a film project. It was not intent to insult you or your colleagues. I'll be happy to give a lecture microbe hunting and epidemic response any time that is covenient for your group.

  3. Tehreem Rehman  

    Granted, the first half of the discussion focused on the production of the film. The purpose of this event was not to utilize the film (which we had also assumed everyone had watched beforehand and the clips were there to jog people’s memory of certain aspects of the storyline) as solely a tool for diving into epidemiology or virology, but to expose members of the student body who are not majoring in the “hard sciences” to the tension between the objectives of scientific research and how its mechanics are actually portrayed in mainstream media.

    Rather than focusing on trivial matters such as the “temperature” of the food, why not talk about how Dr. Lipkin’s talk helped dispel stereotypes of prominent scientists as cold and disconnected from fields outside of their own? How both students directly involved with the film industry and those just genuinely seeking more information about the production of high-budget films were very much interested in Mr. Lipkin’s candid, easygoing, and often humorous talk? Or how he mentioned that the reason why he took time out to speak to us (he is moderating a panel on “Dual Use Research: H5N1 Influenza Virus and Beyond” at The New York Academy of Sciences this very Thursday) was because we’re “Columbia students and practically family”?

    The second half of the discussion was allocated for people to ask any hard-pressing questions they had in mind for Dr. Lipkin in regards to microbe hunting. While this part of the event may have been particularly fascinating for a portion of the audience, it certainly would not have been for the group as a whole. Having the entire discussion focus on such topics would have alienated other members of the group and would have hindered the overall objective of not only the event, but the film as a whole — to promote public health education to the general public by employing mediums traditionally designated for mass consumption of popular culture. I suppose next time we can cut down on the graphics and just clearly delineate all of the objectives and intended implications of the event on our flyer.

    I’m glad to have heard from many of the attendees after the event whose feedback lay in stark contrast to the views conveyed in this Bwog post. And on behalf of the Community Health House, I would like to thank Dr. Ian Lipkin for graciously agreeing to give us this insightful and engaging talk on both the production logistics and scientific content of the movie Contagion.

  4. The Journal of Global Health  

    As Tehreem detailed above, there were many thought-provoking aspects to the discussion that Bwog's reviewer fails to have mentioned. Dr. Lipkin was both eloquent and engaging as he related real-life situations to the scenarios presented in the film Contagion. He told the students about the sometimes contentious relationship between the CDC and the WHO, and encouraged audience members to attend the panel on Dual Use Research that he will moderate this Thursday. Several audience members, intrigued by the opportunity, have already registered to attend, and attribute much of their interest in the event to Dr. Lipkin's discussion. The Journal of Global Health thanks Dr. Lipkin for taking the time to speak with members of the undergraduate community, and looks forward to following his research in years to come.

  5. 'temperature of the food'  

    lolz have you ever BEEN to a college event?

  6. GlobeMed at Columbia  

    Dr. Lipkin’s willingness to speak about the variety of topics his work constitutes, and in such an open atmosphere, provided a discussion with much more variety and interest than if he had exclusively “delv[ed] into the science of deadly outbreaks.” He revealed intriguing details of the very unique role he inhabits as an eminent expert who is regularly consulted in both epidemiology and the film industry, and also managed to relate this in a manner that proved interesting to audience members, judging from the number of enthused questions raised and attendees who remained to talk with Dr. Lipkin long after the event had ended. As mentioned above, the Bwog review fails to mention the many compelling aspects of the event, including Dr. Lipkin’s hypothesis on what virus is most likely to cause an epidemic today and why, and his earnest and informative answers to questions about specific aspects of his research, such as that on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Although Dr. Lipkin’s discussion had a strong focus on the film’s production, which the responsive audience seemed to enjoy, there was certainly no shortage of discussion concerning his epidemiological work. GlobeMed at Columbia is grateful that Dr. Lipkin dedicated his time to host such a thoughtful and intimate discussion about his work in both film and science.

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