All posts by Matt Paolelli

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: http://www.timelinetheatre.com/how_and_why/

howandwhy

Photo by Lara Goetsch

 

10 Ways to Brighten Up Your Winter Quarter

Winter Quarter at NorthwesternPolar vortex got you down? Here are 10 things going on around campus to make Winter Quarter your favorite quarter.

10. Northwestern Basketball
Football season is over, but the Big Ten athletic action continues at Welsh-Ryan Arena–a brisk walk or quick shuttle ride away from the main Evanston campus. Admission is free for students, so check out the full schedules for the men’s and women’s teams and come support your Wildcats!

9. Ice Skating and Skiing at Norris
Even if you didn’t make the cut for Sochi 2014, you can still strap on some ice skates and take a spin around the Norris Center ice rink. And while you won’t find any black diamond runs on campus, you can always rent cross-country skis from Norris Outdoors and glide along the snowy lakefront.

8. Free Admission to the Art Institute of Chicago
Thanks to a new partnership with the University, undergraduate students now have completely free access to the Art Institute of Chicago during normal operating hours. A “Northwestern Night” kicking off the partnership will be held from 6 to 8 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 23. All Northwestern alumni, faculty, staff (and their friends and families) will have free admission that night, too!

7. NU Nights
Superman or Batman? Marvel Comics or DC Comics? Dress up as your favorite caped crusader for “Superhero Bingo” at 10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 17., at Norris.

6. Block Museum of Art Reopening
If the Art Institute didn’t give you enough of an artistic fix, the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art is reopening at 2 p.m. Jan. 18, after being closed for renovations. Check out the full lineup of winter exhibitions, including “The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’ 1929-1940″ and “Steichen | Warhol: Picturing Fame.”

5. Shrek the Musical
The 72nd annual Northwestern Dolphin Show is all about the timeless journey of an ogre and a talking donkey rescuing an unconventional princess. America’s largest student-produced musical opens Jan. 24 and runs through Feb. 1 at Cahn Auditorium.

4. New Treats at Starbucks
The Starbucks in Norris underwent a facelift over the break and now features pastries and hot breakfast sandwiches from La Boulange. Cozy up to the fireplace or big-screen TV and enjoy a hot chocolate or your favorite coffee concoction.

3. Board Games Night
As long as you’re at Norris, you might as well stick around for Board Games Night with Dead City Productions. There’s nothing like a good round of Settlers of Catan to take the edge off of a cold winter night.

2. Dance Marathon
It’s the biggest fundraiser/dance party on campus and marks the beginning of the end of Winter Quarter. This year’s beneficiary is Team Joseph, which raises money in the fight against Duchenne muscular dystrophy. If you’re not already involved as a dancer or committee member, stop by the NUDM tent to watch the fun. Will another fundraising record be broken this year?

1. Snow
As you’ve already noticed, Northwestern gets lots of snow in the winter. Make sure you take some time to enjoy it! Organizing a snowball fight, making snow angels or just creating some footprints in the fresh powder while walking around the snow globe-like campus are great ways to blow off steam and embrace the beautiful side of the cold weather. Happy winter!

University Library in Winter

Bringing TEDx to Northwestern

Nikita Ramanujam, a junior double majoring in learning and organizational change and French horn performance, is the student organizer of TEDx NorthwesternU 2014. Read about why she wanted to host the “genius talks” event at NU and how you can get involved. The event is scheduled for April 12 in the McCormick Tribune Center Forum.

This summer while interning in Boston, I watched A LOT of TED talks. They were my way of keeping grounded and staying inspired. I noticed many of these talks were taking place at universities and I wondered why Northwestern didn’t have a TEDx event. Over the past two years at NU, I had heard some of the most insightful, educated and brave thoughts coming from my peers and professors. We’re a world-renowned institution and our alumni are some of the most recognized across a variety of fields and disciplines. As the TED Talks slogan says, Northwestern definitely has ideas worth spreading.

I submitted an application last July and on Sept. 23 I received a phone call informing me that my license had been approved. From there I began to search for a faculty advisor and a student executive board. I came across Michele Weldon, the director of the Public Voices Fellowship and assistant professor emerita in Medill. We selected our executive board from over 55 student applicants and began planning TEDx NorthwesternU 2014. I’ve been so fortunate to meet some of the most qualified, passionate, and humbling people at Northwestern through this experience. I’m constantly learning from them, and it’s already been such a wonderful journey.

Together we hope to provide a platform for ideas to be heard and passions to be shared. This is going to be an event that unites our community and we truly can’t wait. We will be featuring nine speakers: three students, three faculty members and three alumni. Applicants can submit a one minute video with a description of their talk on our website by January 15, 11:59 PM. Applicants will be notified by February 1st.

Cool ‘Cats: Michael Payant (Medill ’16)

My name is Michael Payant and I am a Northwestern Wildcat superfan.

There was no single defining moment which inspired my fandom, no single event which served as the catalyst for my love of the Wildcats. Instead, it was a lifetime of little things which built up to make me the man and the fan I am today.

My parents shaped my love of sport. By encouraging me to play and joining me to watch sports, they made me happy, and in retrospect, shaped my personality.

My mom, Susan Cohodes, attended the Medill School of Journalism from 1979-83. She was here for the lowest of lows, when the ‘Cats set the major college football losing streak record at 34 games, yet still loved her time here enough to raise me to bleed purple and white. Despite the fact that I was born and raised in Seattle, Wash., my earliest “college visits” were to Northwestern to watch football games and meet some of Mom’s college friends who still live in the Chicago area.

Stories of NU teams’ exploits were common as my sister and I grew up.

I heard about the 1981 “Stop State at 28” campaign and the subsequent “Laking of the Posts” when the ‘Cats lost their 29th consecutive game. I became acquainted at a young age with Northwestern’s lack of NCAA tournament appearances in basketball. When Northwestern traveled to Seattle to take on the University of Washington in the NIT Tournament a couple years ago, I was right behind the NU bench, cheering my heart out as the ‘Cats fell 76-55. For the sports fan in me, these stories served not to dissuade my NU fandom, but to reinforce the notion that the team and the school never give up.

The stories weren’t all negative either.

Though I was too young to remember it, the ‘Cats 1996 Rose Bowl appearance has been commemorated by the pennant which once rested on my bedroom wall and is now displayed prominently in my dorm. For much of the time I’ve been a coherent fan, the football team has met or exceeded respectability under Pat Fitzgerald. John Shurna’s tenure with the basketball team will not be soon forgotten, and under Chris Collins, hope springs eternal that this NU Era will be a good one.

Being a Northwestern fan is not always easy. I could list the heartbreaking defeats the football team has suffered in the last two years alone, but this is still a little too sensitive a topic. On the other side, as ‘Cats across the country know, for this team, every win is exhilarating.

When I was younger, I believed my cheering determined whether the team won or lost. I still approach every game I attend with this mindset, and it is for our school and our team that I am a fan. I take pride in knowing I have given the team everything I have, and win or lose, I am a Wildcat until the bitter end.

The Hills Are Alive for Northwestern Alumnus

Ian Weinberger (Bienen ’09) spent the past several months working as a music assistant on NBC’s production of “The Sound of Music Live,” which airs tonight at 7 p.m. (CT). Read about his varied experiences working with the cast, crew and orchestra on this unique production.

Ian Weinberger

I’m really grateful to have had some great experience at Northwestern learning how to put together new musicals. Working on the American Music Theatre Project shows and the Waa-Mu Show taught me so much about how musical theatre is made. While “The Sound of Music” isn’t exactly a new musical, and while working in television is a whole different animal, there were certain elements of this process—new dance music, different keys, working with orchestrators and copyists—that my Northwestern experience absolutely prepared me for.

I was brought onto “The Sound of Music Live” by music director David Chase. I’d worked with David on a couple of projects over the last couple of years. He wrote to me in August and asked if I’d be interested in being the music assistant…and I’m so glad he did. My duties have been pretty varied, but in general I’ve been working with the orchestra, the cast and the creative team to help put this thing up.

We’ve been rehearsing the show since mid-September, and for the first couple of months the rehearsal process functioned very much like a Broadway show. My first major set of tasks had to do with preparing for the recording sessions. We recorded the orchestra (37 stellar Broadway musicians) that you’ll hear on the broadcast tonight, and the actors came in to record the companion cast album that was released earlier this week.

The tricky part was, unlike a Broadway show, we were recording the album about five weeks ahead of our “opening,” and only a couple of weeks after our official start of rehearsals. So a tremendous amount of planning had to be done with David and the music department, director Rob Ashford and his team, as well as the actors, to determine what would be recorded. We knew certain changes could be made after recording had completed—if we needed a few bars to be repeated, for example, or if a certain section had to be a little slower, we could make those adjustments digitally. But, by and large, what we recorded is what we had—we couldn’t create new underscoring if we needed more music. In fact, in many instances we recorded several versions of something–at different tempi, or with both 2- and 4-bar intros, etc.—just so we’d have options as we started to piece the show together.

After the recordings were completed and mixed, I worked with David to organize the various playback cues that we’d use for the show. Some musical numbers needed to be split into several cues. For example, at the top of the show, when Maria sings “The Sound of Music,” there is a held note in the orchestra. Then she sings “My day in the hills…”—and the orchestra joins her in time on the word “day.” In a standard theatrical setting with a live orchestra and a conductor, this is as simple as the conductor holding until “day” and then bringing in the orchestra with Maria. But in this case, the playback was split into two cues—one for the held note, and then another for the rest of the song. So Mark “Wedge” Weglinski, who’s manning the playback, presses “GO” for the held note and then “GO” again when she sings, “My day in the hills.” All told, there are about 75 playback cues for the entire show.

The makeup of our music department differed greatly from that of any standard theatrical production that we’re used to working on. Aside from David—the boss!—we were very lucky to have Fred Lassen as associate music supervisor. Fred was left in charge with cast rehearsals while David went away for the 10 days of recording. (Tonight, Fred’s job is to sit at a keyboard and play along with the entire show, just in case—knock on something—the playback system and its backup system fail for any reason.) Steven Malone served as the music director dedicated to the seven von Trapp children and their understudies—working specifically on the kids’ music. We had two additional rehearsal pianists, plus I also played rehearsal piano when needed. Finally, Georgia Stitt, one of the nuns, took on the role of “nun captain,” rehearsing and leading the choir of 24 nuns on her own when David or Fred were otherwise tied up. Plus—Doug Besterman (orchestrator), a team of copyists, a recording engineer and two assistants, Wedge on playback, a sound mixer and his team…it has taken a village—for the music alone! I heard yesterday that all told, about 340 people are working on this.

Anyway, it’s all been very exciting and a very educational project for all of us. But now I am off to work! We’re just about to start our last (only our second!) full run-through at 1 p.m. before we do the show at 7 p.m. (CT) tonight. The excitement is palpable here in Bethpage, NY—we really can’t wait to share this with you. If you’re watching tonight, hope you enjoy!