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USC scientist serves as catalyst for a movie

Martin Gundersen and actor William Atherton
Martin Gundersen, left, and actor William Atherton (Photo/Bobbi Goldin)

USC Viterbi School of Engineering Professor Martin Gundersen is internationally renowned for his development of pulsed power, a technology that has applications ranging from clean energy to cancer therapy. Now his contribution in a disparate field has yielded interesting results.

On Oct. 30, Valerie Weiss’ film Losing Control will become available as a DVD, following its recent theatrical release in seven cities. Weiss’ path from the Harvard biophysics PhD program to PhD Productions, headquartered in Hollywood, accelerated at the 2004 “Catalyst Workshop: Communicating Science and Engineering,” which was held at the American Film Institute.

Gundersen, who has an appointment in the Department of Physics at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, as well as the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering and Electrophysics at USC Viterbi, was the catalyst for Catalyst, one might say. He had previously worked in films as a scientific adviser and had even appeared as a character, a math professor, in the 1985 Val Kilmer comedy Real Genius.

When then-National Academy of Engineering President William Wulf wrote a letter expressing support for what he was doing, Gundersen put in a funding application with the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, which resulted in support for Catalyst. The AFI workshop included an intensive coaching session for budding screenwriters, including Weiss.

Catalyst concluded in 2007 after exposing numerous scientists to the needs of the entertainment industry voiced by industry notables, including director Martha Coolidge, with whom Gundersen worked as a scientific adviser on various projects. The workshop was subsequently revived with private funding in 2009.

Gundersen remained in touch with Weiss, who continued to hone a screenplay about a female scientist who wanted to develop scientific proof that her boyfriend was the right one.

Losing Control, she told an interviewer on the Website Scientista, “has been a big part of what I’ve been doing since I left science — it’s very authentic in terms of how it approaches science and scientists. Realistic, authentic portrayals of scientists, which people are so grateful for when they see it: no stereotypes.”

Weiss got funding, went into pre-production in 2009, completed the film in 2011 and went through the intricate business of acquiring distribution, not a skill taught in biophysics, while also directing several television projects.

In March, she spoke to NPR about the experience, saying she based her lead character “on myself and my friends. … My [Harvard science] class was actually 50 percent women. And the women weren’t like the stereotypes you see in movies. They were real and vulnerable and had boyfriends and lovers.”

In the meantime, other efforts to encourage the development of science, particularly among young women, were completed. One project produced by the European Commission that raised hackles on both sides of the Atlantic was titled Science: It’s a Girl Thing!, a video in which a parade of high-heeled models strut across soundstages to a retro-pop soundtrack intercut with scientific images.

USC scientist serves as catalyst for a movie

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