Lives of NU scientist and actresses collide for play

DuncanFrancesca E. Duncan, research assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, recently met with two actresses and a director preparing for the Chicago run of an upcoming play about female scientists. Duncan, director Keira Fromm and actresses Janet Ulrich Brooks and Elizabeth Ledo reflect on the experience of exploring Duncan’s world for artistic purposes.

Two actresses in a new production of Sarah Treem’s play, “The How and the Why,” wanted to pick Teresa Woodruff’s brain about being a female scientist. But Teresa, a leader in women’s reproductive research and director of the Women’s Health Research Institute at Feinberg, was booked. As a scientist in her lab, I snagged the assignment. But I wondered, “What could they possibly gain from me?”

That evening I opened the play’s script on my computer. I couldn’t stop reading. This play—about two female biologists—understood my life. It captured the essence and tumultuous emotions of being a burgeoning scientist in biomedical research. I identified with the naïve hubris of a young graduate student when starting his or her scientific career, the reluctance to hear constructive criticism about a hypothesis that one has devoted endless hours to craft and feeling devastated when new ideas are squashed at international meetings by scientific leaders.

This play also underscored the necessity of strong mentors to “grandmother” the next generation of scientists in the academic pipeline. Being successful in science is not easy. Every trainee needs a committed mentor to be a strong advocate, to provide unique opportunities, to be patient with mistakes and to be a tangible reminder of what it means to always stay in the game. This play nailed the evolution of a scientist from an emotional fledgling student into a confident inspirational leader. I couldn’t wait to show the actresses my world.

I met with director Keira Fromm and actresses Janet Ulrich Brooks and Elizabeth Ledo, who play Zelda and Rachel, respectively, in the TimeLine Theatre play. “Do you really get passionate about your work?” they asked me.

Science is 99.5 percent failure and .5 percent success, I explained. If you don’t have passion, you can’t survive.

Then, I gave the actresses a tour of our lab. They were impressed with the environment where we spend so many hours surrounded by glassware, chemicals, equipment and other scientists. Janet and Elizabeth explored every detail as they absorbed their roles. I showed them a microscope we use for microinjecting cells, and there was a note left nearby—scribbled in frustration—on a pad of paper that read, “If the machine is working correctly, the membrane should POP!!!!” The word “pop” was circled and underlined three times in red, striking a chord with Elizabeth, who commented on the emotional intensity packed into those three letters…P-O-P. At that moment, I could see in their eyes that the science world was demystified and now defined by its own tangible cast, set and plot twists.

From actress Janet Ulrich Brooks (Zelda Kahn):

I believe there is such a strong link between the artistry of science and the science of artistry. Our visit to Northwestern supported my feeling that we share a similar passion for mining truth. The opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with Francesca and tour the lab was invaluable research, which helped deepen the truth in our production. The devil is in the details — and our visit added specificity to the backstory of my character, adding a level of confidence to my performance. I’m so thankful to Francesca for being so open and candid. The experience was invaluable, and I believe our process made great leaps forward after returning from Northwestern.

From actress Elizabeth Ledo (Rachel Hardeman):

Getting an opportunity to go into the lab was a thrill. There was this energy of focus and calm, so to learn that a few hours prior to our visit one of the researchers had had a bit of a meltdown was a reminder that human behavior is human behavior. Whether you’re a scientist spending hours looking into a microscope or an actor throwing yourself into the psyche and emotional world of a character, we all get pushed to the brink and can lose composure. It was very refreshing to me.

From director Keira Fromm:

There’s nothing more edifying than context. As theater artists we spend much of our time cultivating our collective imagination. Informed by the research we can do online, in a library or via knowledgeable friends or family, we make inferences about character, story and environment. These inferences don’t always provide a complete picture—particularly when the character, story or environment relates to a field as dense and elusive as the hard sciences. Meeting with Francesca, talking about the women’s health issues she’s been at work on and touring the lab at Northwestern allowed us the chance to see science in action and context. Touring the lab and crossing paths with the female scientists we met along the way allowed our actresses (Elizabeth and Janet) to fully see themselves (as the scientists they portray) in this world. I know that it was a grounding experience for us as we moved into performances at TimeLine Theatre Company.

The TimeLine Theatre production of “The How and The Why” runs through April 6. For more information:


Photo by Lara Goetsch


One thought on “Lives of NU scientist and actresses collide for play

  1. This is a terrific and thought provoking play. The actresses and director are coming back to NU on Mar. 25 to participate in a short reading and panel discussion on the issues covered by the play. visit for information on this free event.

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