Real vs. Reel: The portrayal of science in pop culture

Welcome to Season 5 of Tiny Expeditions, a podcast about genetics, DNA, and inheritance from the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. In this season, we’re getting pop cultured! We’ll explore the world of genetics and biotechnology, as seen in your favorite movies and TV shows. Our expert guests will help us dissect the science behind it all, separating science fact from Hollywood elaboration.

In the debut episode, we broadly examine how science is represented in pop culture. From the exaggerated portrayals of scientists to larger-than-life discoveries in the blink of an eye, Hollywood knows how to tweak the truth to draw a crowd. But does this misrepresentation of science hurt anything? 

Our special guest helped us understand the differences between real labs and Hollywood movie sets and gave some good insight into the value of science as entertainment. Then, we tried our hand at writing a Hollywood script based on a real-world scientific discovery. You won’t want to miss it! 

Listen to Tiny Expeditions Season 5, Episode 1, “Real versus Reel: The Portrayal of Science in Pop Culture,” to explore the science behind genetics and biotechnology portrayed in pop culture while separating science fact from Hollywood fiction.

Behind the Scenes

We understand the world around us through countless lenses, and pop culture is a powerful lens. Movies, TV shows, video games, and even music often lean on narratives about science and technology. Lightening-fast breakthroughs, evil scientists, and mutant creatures frequently take center stage because entertainment thrives on drama and action, not necessarily accuracy. How can viewers separate scientific fact from Hollywood exaggeration? Should there be a push for more scientific accuracy in pop culture? 

These are some of the questions that we contemplated with our guest, Dr. Rick Myers. Dr. Myers is Chief Scientific Officer, president emeritus, and M. A. Loya Chair in Genomics at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. His lab studies the human genome to understand how changes in gene expression and allelic variation contribute to human health, disease, and basic biological processes. When we announced our new season theme, Dr. Myers was eager to be a guest because he has fond memories of science and scientists in old movies. 

Dr. Myers recalls early memories of science in movies being predominantly evil scientists in their labs working on something maniacal. That was truly the trend in early books and films about science. One of the most widely recognized scientists continues to be Dr. Victor Frankenstein, an eccentric character who tinkers with dangerous forces he can’t control and ends up with a monstrous creation. 

Rick Myers, PhD

Throughout time we’ve had evil scientists, mad scientists, ultra-nerd scientists, hero scientists, and superhero scientists. Hollywood portrayals of scientists seem to change with the ever-shifting public opinion of science itself. But why stray from accurate representations of science and scientists? Quite frankly, embellishments just make for good, entertaining science fiction. 

Can science be entertaining without blurring reality too much? We wrote a script to find out! We hope you enjoyed our “based-on-a-true-story” retelling of the Human Genome Project. Here’s the abridged version of the true story for comparison. 

In the mid-1980s, a young Dr. Myers attended a small scientific meeting in Alta, Utah. The discussion turned to determining mutation rates in a given person’s DNA. Someone in the group suggested that the mutation rates were so low that they would have to sequence the entire human genome to figure it out. Given the seeming impossibility of such a feat, this notion struck them all as laughable at the time.

One year later, the Department of Energy proposed the dedicated human genome project. Over the next 13 years, more than 2,800 researchers at twenty institutions across the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, and China worked together on the consortium to sequence the entire human genome. Individual chromosomes were assigned to different groups, splitting the genome into smaller, more manageable pieces.

HudsonAlpha Faculty Investigators Jane Grimwood, PhD, and Jeremy Schmutz were members of Myers’ team at the Stanford Human Genome Center. Together, they were responsible for finishing and performing quality analysis on the 320 million base pairs of human chromosomes 5, 16, and 19.

In our podcast retelling of the story, we emphasized the competitive nature of the Human Genome Project. A scientist in the project founded a private company to attempt to sequence the genome faster and cheaper with new techniques. This competition between public and private efforts spurred innovation on both sides, ultimately leading to a quicker completion of the project than originally anticipated. The full sequence was completed and published two years ahead of schedule in April 2003.

Episode Transcript

Sarah Sharman  00:02

Welcome to the debut episode of the newest season of Tiny Expeditions. In honor of our fifth season, we're doing things a little differently and swapping our metaphorical lab coats for buckets of popcorn because we're getting pop cultured! I'm Dr. Sarah Sharman, here to help you understand the science.

Chris Powell  00:19

My name is Chris Powell. I'll be your storytelling guide for this episode, and Dr. Sharman, pop culture, we're going to have a lot of fun with this one. Pop culture is all around us. It's the media that we consume. It's the arts and entertainment that we enjoy specifically, the movies and the TV shows that we watch and pop culture is incredibly important. We can't get away from it. And in some ways, it's kind of a mirror into what we think. But it also shapes who we are, it does a lot. It's the water that we metaphorically swim in. And if we're not looking critically and listening to pop culture, it can definitely impact the way that we see the world around us. So, we thought this season, let's look at how science is portrayed in pop culture. So, Dr. Sharman, what’s your earliest memories of science and film?

Sarah Sharman  01:04

I think my earliest memory of understanding that there was science in a movie was definitely Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

Chris Powell  01:10

That's a great one.

Sarah Sharman  01:11

I mean, the ray gun went off and shrunk the children. And then there were all these scenes of them running from lawnmowers, riding on giant ants, and eating mega Cheerios. I think I understood that it was science. I don't think I understood it wasn't possible science at the time, but I definitely knew I was watching something that had science.

Chris Powell  01:30

One thing that kind of bugged me was I felt like the mom wasn't angry enough at the dad for doing that.

Sarah Sharman  01:35

I know. She was just like, Oh, oops, science experiment gone wrong.

Chris Powell  01:39

I think for me, my earliest memory is Jekyl and Hyde. And not necessarily the movie but more the the musical. It's the image of the mad scientist in the basement mixing chemicals together. But being around the institute here, I've kind of noticed that's not how it happens in the real world.

Sarah Sharman  01:55

Exactly. And I think all of these incorrect or overinflated storylines in science are there because it needs to be entertaining, right? But science in pop culture isn't just entertaining us. It's actually how some people gain information and learn about science. With the COVID pandemic, we saw how misinformation negatively impacts science advancement, public health funding, and more. And misinformation also perpetuates a lack of public trust in science. So, I think we have to be really careful that we're writing that line between truth and entertainment.

Chris Powell  02:27

So, we're gonna get into some specific examples and specific films. But before we do that, we wanted to take a moment to sit down with Dr. Rick Myers, who is the Chief Scientific Officer and faculty investigator here at HudsonAlpha Institute, in order to hear about some general scientific misconceptions that we may have.

Rick Myers  02:44

I think maybe the misconception is how science actually works, how research actually works. I was naive about this when I first got into science; I thought you go in, you have an idea of something you want to study, you study it, and you make a discovery, and it ends up in textbooks. It just doesn't work that way. It's so much more complex and much, much more incremental. And that's important for young people thinking of going into science to understand that it takes a lot to even move the needle; it seems very slow. There are some things that are slow; it's really hard to develop new drugs that make it all the way through to being used clinically, for instance, because there are so many steps along the way where it can fail and where it's complex. And yet we do have lots of drugs that do work. And so there are advancements that seem really slow sometimes.

Rick Myers  03:39

The other thing related to this that I think is really important, and I learned this early on, and it doesn't surprise me at all. You rarely do this as an individual lab or individual scientists. Those incremental increases are due to lots of teamwork and lots of competition, as well. But scientists in multiple places doing it and making their data and information available rapidly. That's a big key thing in science and especially nowadays, where you can get that information much more quickly, that you make it available. And then one thing builds on another on another on another, there are steps forward steps back, and then ultimately, it leads to advances. My message is that it's slower and more incremental than one might think. And here I'm going to eat my words because I am flabbergasted about how fast things are going in the technologies, for instance, we have. When I was in graduate school, the thought of editing a gene and living organism was almost unheard of, and people wanted to be able to do it. They did it a little bit over the years. And then, in recent years, new technologies that were developed make it possible to do this almost overnight in some cases. Certainly, in cells In the laboratory, and then that is starting to happen, there is a huge impact on both human health and disease, other animals, and agriculture as well.

Chris Powell  05:09

Movies and TV shows are big business because we all love a good story. And when we see a story portrayed on film, there are certain traits that we look for. We look for a good setting, we look for good character development, we look for conflict and resolution, and also a sense of urgency. I mean, rarely will you see a film where scientists have a year to come up with the cure for the next pandemic, it all has to happen now. And that's just simply not how it works in the real world.

Sarah Sharman  05:39

As a scientist myself, it's not the abnormally fast discoveries or the Sci-Fi technologies that pique my interest. It's the portrayal of the scientists. The way pop culture portrays scientists has changed over time, alongside our trust of science itself. So, we've had evil scientists, mad scientists, the super nerd, and the hero scientist. But when it all comes down to it, we're all mostly just normal people trying to make the world a better place. Here's Dr. Myers with some of his memories of science and scientists in movies.

Rick Myers  06:10

When I think back about how I first learned about science, I didn't really learn about real science. It was from the 1950s and 1960s movies, and they were almost uniformly some evil scientist going into the laboratory doing something. I loved those movies. And I kind of thought that's probably how it works. I didn't really understand scientific research at all. And luckily, when I was in college, I had professors who pointed me in the direction of what you actually do in a research laboratory, what the whole motivation is: you're trying to discover something to learn how the universe works. While I still like to look at those old movies sometimes, they're not accurate because, yes, I'm sure there are and were evil people doing science, but the vast majority doesn't even come close to that. I mean, I think a lot of that is, what are the motivations? Why are we doing this to begin with? And I honestly don't know a single evil scientist; I'm sure there are, as I said, there are bad actors in every field in every area.

Rick Myers  07:15

But I think the vast majority of people who go into this and do it are doing it for several reasons. One of them is the thrill of discovering something. You have curiosity, I wonder why that happens. And then it turns out we have ways of figuring out how a lot of things happen. And that's just such a motivator. I think the vast majority of scientists I know that's their main motivation. I'm pleased that another motivation, and this wasn't really the case when I was in graduate school 100 years ago, that you hope that something good can come of it. And I've noticed in teaching and recruiting students and young scientists that more and more want their work to actually have a positive effect on society. Now, that may sound corny or self-promoting, but it really is a major motivator. And I'm really delighted that that's the case, we certainly see that every day in our work here at HudsonAlpha.

Sarah Sharman  08:11

We've covered a lot of the bad portrayals of scientists and pop culture. For a good portrayal, let's turn to Dr. Sheldon Cooper.

Rick Myers  08:18

One of my favorite television series ever, which ended just a couple of years ago, is The Big Bang Theory, which is about a group of physicists loosely based on Caltech there in Pasadena. And it's hysterical, for one thing, is just really, really funny. I remember being delighted that you hear the word postdoc on television. I mean, who knows what a postdoc is? For those who don't know, a postdoc is a trainee who's gone to graduate school and is doing more advanced training before they go off and runs their own laboratory or works in a biotech company or something like that. They actually got the science right in this too. And I actually know from having talked to people who are in the know and in Hollywood, where it's done, that they have pretty deep scientific advisors who make sure that the things that they say and talk about are actually accurate. Now, that's physics. And I think science in general has this principle of curiosity, of wanting to learn something. Lots of hard work that you can see in that show. So that was one of the positive ones. I mean, they were nerdy but the characters were just lovable once you got to know them.

Chris Powell  09:31

So Dr. Myers loves the Big Bang Theory. Sarah, as a scientist yourself, do you have that same affinity towards these characters in the program? Do you find yourself in the show?

Sarah Sharman  09:40

Yeah, Chris. I really do. I mean, even though I'm a biologist by training and not a physicist, I think that there are a lot of relatable qualities about the characters. And I mean, I just really enjoy watching a representation of people working in a lab. Shoutout to all the female scientists on the show!

Chris Powell  09:57

The thing that stood out to me that Dr. Myers kept saying was about characters, right? It's all about the character development in Big Bang Theory. He loved the characters. And not every story is necessarily about just the characters. When we were preparing for the season, we asked people to give us input on movies and TV shows that we could possibly use. And one that came up time and time again was Jurassic Park. You know, this movie is 30 years old now. But it still keeps coming up. And it's not necessarily about the characters for Jurassic Park. It's about the science for Jurassic Park.

Sarah Sharman  10:30

You mean science fiction, Chris?

Chris Powell  10:31

Yes, science fiction. Thank you for qualifying that. But are you sure it’s science fiction?

Sarah Sharman  10:38

Good question. I know I'm normally our science advisor. But today, I'm going to take on a little bit of sci-fi. So, for those of you who haven't seen it, Jurassic Park is a movie that focuses on a billionaire who creates a theme park that's all about bringing back the dinosaurs. So he found a chunk of amber and extracted some DNA from it, then he somehow clones extinct dinosaurs and brings them back. And the whole movie is basically surrounded around this theme park with dinosaurs.

Chris Powell  11:11

So, you're telling me that the science of Jurassic Park is science that is not based on reality?

Sarah Sharman  11:15

Well, at the time, yes. But now, maybe not.

Chris Powell  11:20

Okay, this is getting interesting. So what do you mean?

Sarah Sharman  11:23

So, a few companies today are looking to bring back extinct animals like the woolly mammoth. So check back in a couple of years, and we'll see how that went for them.

Chris Powell  11:35

The woolly mammoth, you maybe start a little smaller? But I guess that's kind of the point right is to think big. And movies allow us to think beyond what is possible in our present world. Just like Jurassic Park makes us think, well, what if this is actually possible?

Rick Myers  11:51

A major biology set of books and movies was Jurassic Park and the evil businessman who went into so that he can revive dinosaurs. And that was biology gone awry. And back when he wrote this, we all thought it was ridiculous because there's no way we're going to this is going to happen, and it probably wouldn't be able to happen even if you want. But being able to piece together genomes from little fragments of an extinct animal is possible. I think the part that was missing there was just a technical point; it's one thing to know the DNA sequence of an organism, especially a complex organism, with lots and lots of DNA and their genomes. It's another thing to figure out how to put that together and make an organism out of it.

Rick Myers  12:42

But I learned a long time ago, never say never, because I'll never forget going out in Palo Alto to pick up my newspaper one morning, and I saw it upside down. And it says, sheep cloned by scientists in Scotland. Dolly the sheep. And that went against everything that we knew as biologists. How could you do this? Because you have to reverse the development, essentially. And it turns out to be a major principle that has enormous positive implications and applications for disease and things like that. But that seems so fanciful; it seemed like science fiction. That's why I brought it up, it really did seem like that. And it didn't take long for us to realize our field to realize that, okay, here's how that probably happened. And here's how we might do something good with it.

Chris Powell  13:34

We watch movies and TV shows because we want to be immersed in stories, stories that are bigger than the stories of our own existence. And a lot of times that means going into the realm of science fiction and creating things that seem too good to be true. But as we all know, sometimes truth is even better than fiction.

Sarah Sharman  13:52

As we are talking with Dr. Myers, his role in the Human Genome Project came up. And I've heard him tell the story many, many times and every time I'm just fascinated that he was part of a such a groundbreaking project, a project that would probably make a really good movie. Chris and I decided maybe we wanted to be the first ones to try.

Sarah Sharman  14:20

And now, Tiny Expeditions Productions presents tonight's feature film formatted for the podcast as an audiological feast. We're calling it ‘Decoding the Mystery of Life: an Inward Voyage of Humanity’s Self-discovery, the Genome Saga.

Chris Powell  14:36

So that title is a little long, it's a working title. So maybe we just call it ‘A Movie about the Human Genome Project.’ But every movie needs a setting, so go with this. It's the mid-1980s in the Bay Area. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, the weather is absolutely perfect, and Uncle Jesse is fixing his hair for a night out on.

Sarah Sharman  14:59

I'm gonna step in and in fact check here. I don't think Full House came out until like the late 1980s.

Chris Powell  15:05

Oh, yeah, that's right, we're dealing with at ‘84/’85. Okay, let's redo this. The Golden Girls are getting ready for a night out on the town.

Rick Myers  15:12

So the concept came about in the mid-1980s, really ‘84/’85. I happened to be just sheer luck in the room when some of that was being first discussed because I was attending a small meeting. And I think, at the outset, at the initial conception of ‘Wait, we need to sequence the human genome.’ That meant we need to figure out, even from one person's genome or one composite person's genome, what is the genetic makeup entire genetic makeup of a person.

Chris Powell  15:48

As the camera pans out to show Dr. Myers and the team in the meeting, we see a DNA double helix float across the screen as a transition.

Sarah Sharman  15:57

If we're going to show DNA helices in this movie, we need to be really careful to get them right.

Chris Powell  16:02

So, what do you mean by that? It's just a double helix, right?

Sarah Sharman  16:06

Actually, the two strands of DNA twist together in a very specific manner. They go over each other in a right-handed direction. We don't want scientists to lose trust in our movie, thanks to an incorrect helix. And even though it was the early days of sequencing, the science community definitely knew what a DNA helix looked like.

Rick Myers  16:24

And the technology back then was so crude, it seems like the dark ages now that if we took the approaches that we had, then it would take 100 years or longer to actually do this or even one. But it ended up being a motivator for let's develop technologies and figure out how to do it. Part of the drama for us nerdy scientists was that we wrote grants in 1989 for the project started in 1990. And we were waiting to hear whether we were gonna get them.

Chris Powell  16:52

Between the year of 1989 and 1990 these nerdy scientists needed to pass the time while they waited for their grants. And since Taylor Swift was just born and they couldn't listen to her, they decided instead to go and consume a lot of In and Out burgers.

Sarah Sharman  17:09

Is this true? Or are you taking creative liberties again?

Chris Powell  17:12

Well, we're telling a story here, Sarah. So we don't need to confirm these; let's just tell the story.

Rick Myers  17:19

We were lucky. My colleague, David Cox, and I were able to get one of the first grants when we were at UC San Francisco in the mid-80s to 90s. And then we started the project. And there was an enormous amount of slogging. We had so many meetings; we didn't have the internet then. So we didn't have places to share data that way or to put the data. I think an exciting thing about the genome project was that from the outset, from day one, the scientists got together and said, this is not going to be the usual you do something, get results, and you can make a discovery maybe, and you write a paper, and it's peer-reviewed, and it gets published. And that's when people learn about it. We decided on day one that we were going to release the data rapidly for everybody to use immediately. Because how could we go in and just own all this for years before we start publishing things? Which would be terribly unfair.

Sarah Sharman  18:23

Wow, our story is really shaping up. But I think we need a little bit more character development.

Chris Powell  18:28

Yeah, I agree with you. Although I feel like we do have some character development here, I'm really fond of Rick and hearing about his colleagues. They're definitely setting themselves up as the heroes of the film. And, Sarah, we have heroes. I guess that means we also need some villains, though, right?

Sarah Sharman  18:45

Just wait.

Rick Myers  18:48

I'll give you one example. Literally 1000s of scientists were using the data as they were being generated. My laboratory at Stanford, that's where I was at the time, was able to use the data separately from our genome center, and we were able to find a gene that causes a type of childhood epilepsy when it has a mutation in it. Had we not had genome mapping and some sequence information, it would have taken 10 or 20 years longer to do that. And that happened to be something where it immediately had an effect on the kids who have this particular version of epilepsy because it allows the physicians to avoid prescribing a harmful drug but another drug instead. So that story is one of 1000s that I know of them. So it was really exciting.

Sarah Sharman  19:33

Wow, this is legitimately hero territory, saving children's lives through genetics. Our heroes are really on the right track.

Chris Powell  19:41

Yes, this is good. But what about the conflict? Every story needs conflict, Sarah.

Sarah Sharman  19:47

Chris, chill out, give it time. We're gonna get there.

Rick Myers  19:50

About 1998 or 99, One of our colleagues, this was a group of about 20 labs around the world actually who would come together in this consortium with all sorts of agreements about how we're going to work together, etc, about two-thirds of the way into it one of those colleagues who were had been part of this public effort as what we called it defected or decided he was going to go and have a company. There's nothing wrong with doing that. But they did the company started a company that was going to sequence the human genome.

Chris Powell  20:21

Finally, we have conflict! We've needed conflict, Sarah, so we need to really set this up correctly.

Sarah Sharman  20:27

Let's enter the office of a scientist for the public genome project. Let's call him Dr. Bad Guy. He isn't content with just unlocking the human code. No, Dr. Bad Guy craves the freedom to sprint ahead, translate knowledge into cures, and rewrite the script of life itself. A mischievous glint enters Dr. Bad Guy’s eye.

Chris Powell  20:49

Shouldn’t he have an eye patch or maybe a bionic arm? I feel like he needs something.

Sarah Sharman  20:55

What? Not every villain has to have an eyepatch.

Chris Powell  20:59

That's true. But would so with this Dr. Bad Guy become a visionary like Tony Stark? Or is this a maniacal scientist, kind of like Dr. Evil, who blurs the lines between progress and peril?

Sarah Sharman  21:12

Considering this as a ‘based on a true story’ movie? Why don't we let Dr. Myers tell us about the character?

Rick Myers  21:18

And they did. And we did it side by side, not happy with each other. He certainly was not happy with us. All of our data were out there freely for everyone to use, their data were not. But they did a good job on actually figuring out how to at least get the basic stuff going. And that actually increased our rate of doing things because this fellow argued to Congress (he was in the US) that they shouldn't be wasting their money on the public human genome effort. I love reading the transcript from what Congress said. They said, ‘Alright, are you going to release the data for free, how's this gonna lead in blah, blah, blah.’ And they they didn't believe him. And sure enough, darn good thing that they kept it [the public project] going. His company really produced a draft of the genome, not the completed genome, and we produced a draft at the same time. So there's some drama in there.

Sarah Sharman  22:27

The13-year project cost well over a billion dollars and involved scientists around the world. But boy, was it worth it.

Chris Powell  22:34

This is a really good story. And it's good because chapters are continuing to be written about it.

Sarah Sharman  22:41

New diseases are being diagnosed through genomics, and the technology from the genome project continues to improve, driving advancements in fields outside of just human health.

Chris Powell  22:52

While our story retelling of this story only lasted a few minutes, the reality is that these few minutes represents a lifetime of work for the scientist involved.

Rick Myers  23:02

But that's part of the big issue that we're talking about here: the day-to-day slogging through and making this kind of progress. The end result is sometimes utterly amazing, but it's not really sexy to look at what you actually ended up doing to get there.

Sarah Sharman  23:26

Thank you for joining us on this tiny expedition into the bigger-than-life world of science in pop culture. In our next episode, we're diving into a plotline that is really popular in comic books and movies, especially with superheroes.

Chris Powell  23:38

That's right, we're talking about mutants. During the two-part episode, we'll discuss the facts and Hollywood exaggeration surrounding genetic mutations.

Sarah Sharman  23:48

Tiny Expeditions is a podcast about genetics, DNA, and inheritance from the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. We're a nonprofit research institute in Huntsville, Alabama, with a unique mission.

Chris Powell  23:58

We bring together scientists and companies to develop and apply genomic advances to make a better world. That's everything from cancer research to agriculture for a changing climate.

Sarah Sharman  24:08

If you enjoyed this episode, swing by your favorite podcast app and hit that subscribe button. While you're there, consider leaving us a review. It really helps us spread the knowledge.

Sarah Sharman  24:18

Season Five of tiny expeditions is made possible in part by our sponsor EBSCO Information Services. They are the leading provider of online research content search technologies and workflow tools serving public libraries, schools, academic institutions, corporations and medical institutions around the world, proudly delivering information access for researchers at all levels online at

Chris Powell  24:44

Thanks for joining us.

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