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The lighter side of lab life

Jorge Cham / PhD Comics

Even if you've never put on a pair of Latex lab gloves or felt the familiar burn of lab goggles leaving pressure prints on your face, you're about to get a sneak peek into grad life, courtesy of a new movie set to hit college screens across the country. One man is bringing Ph.D. students across the world together with a comic strip that takes a good look at grad life through a microscope.


Jorge Cham / PhD Comics

Jorge Cham, the creator of "Piled Higher and Deeper, or, "PhD Comics," is a bona fide geek. He began grad life studying mechanical engineering at Stanford University. He started drawing the comics for the college paper, to reveal the real truth about grad life. That's "where the real pain begins," he once told iBioMagazine.

Cham's research was on robotics and movement, and one of his designs created a robot that mimicked the movement of a scurrying cockroach. "Isn't that what grad school feels like? ... Running constantly. With a more intelligent being stamping you down," he joked during a talk at Northern Illinois University

The comic strip started in 1998 as a humorous take on college life in general, then evolved into a behind-the-scenes look at life as a grad student — in the lab for his characters studying science and engineering, and out of the it, for those studying computer science or the social sciences. Lightly based on students he knew when he first started writing the strip, the characters gradually took on a life of their own. Veterans of the grad life will easily spot familiar themes in the clips, which poke fun at cranky professors, underappreciative undergrads and more. 

Jorge Cham / PhD Comics

Cham graduated and went on to take a lecturer's post at Caltech, concentrating on neural prosthetics. But the comics grew in popularity, and Cham started connecting with fans through a series of talks titled "The Power of Procrastination." Now that story is coming to the big screen. Cham recently teamed up with the drama department at Caltech to make "Piled Higher and Deeper," a movie inspired by his PhD Comics mini-franchise.

We caught up with Cham to find out more about his plans for the film. 

Cosmic Log: What’s the one message you want grad students and grad students-to-be to take away from this?

Jorge Cham: The movie has a lot of themes from my lectures and my comics. The main message, I guess, is to keep some perspective in grad school, because as isolated as you may feel, the truth is that you are not alone.

Q: Why a PhD Comics film?

A: People have been asking me for a long when there would be a TV show or movie based on the comics, and I just felt it was time that it happened. I generally feel that academics and scientists are not portrayed as real people in popular culture. Usually, shows and movies rely on one-dimensional stereotypes or caricatures. With my comics and the movie, hopefully we show them as real people, with many different personalities, interests and passions.

Q: Has it been fun?

A: It's been incredibly fun. Also, incredibly hard work! Little did I know that making a movie would take over my life.

Q: Were those real, live grad students in the film?

A: Yes! We found an awesome cast that also happens to be Ph.D. students at Caltech (well, one of them is an undergrad). I really felt this was important so that the performances were real and genuine.

Q: You teamed up with the Caltech drama dept for this feature. How did that conversation get started?

A: I just emailed Brian Brophy and that got the ball rolling. It's a one-man theater department.

Q: What was it like, filming on campus?

A: It was great. Caltech has a beautiful and unique campus that has a rich history, and exciting things happening in it. We tried to make the campus itself one of the characters in the movie.

Q: What were you looking for in the auditions, and how did you settle on this cast?

A: Almost everyone we casted had some sort of acting or performance experience, first of all. Mostly, we just looked for people who had a certain aspect of themselves that embodied the characters. We were extremely fortunate to find the cast we did. Did I mention already they are awesome?

Q: Did everything go as planned? Were there any memorable last-minute hiccups along the way?

A: We were really lucky in almost everything. Honestly, I am still amazed we made it this far. It's such a complex operation involving so many people and resources and equipment.  Meg Rosenburg, the producer (another Ph.D. student), deserves the lion's share of that credit. 

Everyone involved pulling together and working hard also made it happen. There were some hiccups, though: for example, finding out the day of shooting that a jazz festival is taking place right outside the window of the lab we were filming at. Or not having a location for filming a scene until the day before.  I definitely lost a lot of weight and sleep in those two months.

Q: What did you want to take from the comics to stuff into the film? Is it a condensed version of the comics? A selection of the best posts ever? A portrait of grad life that captures the PhD Comics essence? Something else?

A: I tried to make it as much like the comics in spirit and tone. You'll see that the movie plays a little bit with realism and comics mixed in, while maintaining some real emotions and feelings. When I was writing it, I went through every single comic I'd ever done and tried to pick out the ones that were most popular and could be pieced together to form a narrative and story arc.

Q: Have you been flooded with emails from grad schools everywhere, baiting you to come show off the film at their campus first? Do you know yet what the plan is for screenings? Who’s first? 

A: We did receive over 400 requests for screenings and are slowly sorting through them. I did get a few offers to be the world premiere, so we'll see what happens.

Q: How do you think people in the “real” world view grad students and grad life?

A: I don't think people on the outside really understand what academics or researchers do, and how they go about it. Again, there are a lot of stereotypes out there of what a scientist is supposed to look like or act like, but the truth is that there isn't just one type of personality. You can be a Nobel Prize winner and still have multiple interests in many things.

Q: What are your plans to take this film beyond college campuses? Is this going to be an Internet phenomenon? Or a film festival entry? Are we talking Sundance or YouTube?

A: We'll be submitting to festivals for sure. I think the Internet might have to wait a little bit.


Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and technology at msnbc.com. Find her on Twitter or Google+, and join our conversation on the Cosmic Log Facebook page.