Inspiring Conversation with Dr. Francis Collins, head of NIH

On Thursday night, our production’s wonderful consultant on all things scientific, Dr. Martin Kessel, conducted an onstage interview with the illustrious Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. We had 190 in the house (a great turn-out considering that this fabulous production still has not been reviewed in The Washington Post — we wait and wait, even as three other wonderful reviews have come out — [more on those in a follow-up]), and the draw, in equal measure to the play, was Dr. Collins, a gifted speaker and writer and given his previous leadership of the Human Genome Project, one of the most prominent public scientists in our country. The performance was attended by many members of the Rosalind Franklin Society as well as their Founder and Executive Vice President, Mary Ann Liebert, who also addressed the audience.

We were all transported by Dr. Collins’ reflections on the significance of the discovery of the structure of DNA, triggered in so many ways by Rosalind Franklin’s photography and formulations, and the pathway leading toward where we are today, a half century later, mapping and naming thousands of individual genes as part of the Human Genome Project initiative.

Frustratingly, our rather primitive video flip cam shut off 7 minutes into the discussion and the two clips that were saved are now unsalvageable. So we will leave this wonderful exchange between Dr. Collins and playwright Anna Ziegler, kicked off by a flurry of “thank yous” to last as the marker for one of the more transcendent evenings at the theater – a remarkable twin-bill of a brilliant play, and an equally brilliant and insightful talk, appreciating the art and supplementing the historical record with wonderful stories of Collins’ predecessor at the Human Genome Project, Dr. James Watson himself (an engaging antagonist in Photograph 51).

From: Ari Roth
Sent: Friday, April 01, 2011 8:28 AM

Dear Francis and Martin,
Thank you for elevating all our collective IQs and for creating a truly transcendent experience last night, expanding and deepening our appreciation for the story of Rosalind Franklin and her involvement in the “discovery of the century.” We were blessed by the eloquent presentations you both shared with our audience and by your wonderful engagement with so many astute questioners. The evening couldn’t have gone any better.

From: Collins, Francis (NIH/OD) [E]
Friday, April 01, 2011 8:10 AM

Thanks for your nice note, Ari – it was a privilege to take part in last night’s discussion. The play was superb.

From: Anna Ziegler
Sent: Friday, April 01, 2011 9:14 AM
Dear Francis,

 I’m so disappointed I couldn’t be there last night to hear you speak. I was so incredibly honored when I heard you were coming to see the play. I’m thrilled that you enjoyed it, and I can’t wait to hear some of the talk-back, which Ari has said he’ll post online. 

Thanks so much to you and Martin for taking an interest in this play, and for giving the audience a thrilling night.

I hope to meet you in person one day! Maybe at the World Science Festival in June when the play is being remounted?

all my best,

On Fri, Apr 1, 2011 at 8:49 AM, Collins, Francis > wrote:

Wow, it’s nice to hear from the playwright herself! The play is extremely well done. I could quibble about resetting the timing of Rosalind’s ovarian cancer diagnosis back to 1953, but I can see why you wanted to include that as part of the climax. And I loved the fanciful ending of Maurice and Rosalind getting it right at the theater, and what that might have meant for history.
Warm regards, Francis

From: Anna Ziegler
Sent: Fri, Apr 1, 2011 1:23 pm

Yes, earlier drafts of the play were true to the actual time-line, but then I realized, after a couple productions, that too much of the play felt like an addendum after the end of the race. The play cohered much better after I reset the timing, and conveyed the themes I was trying to convey more fluidly. But history has a loud voice, even though it’s often subjective, and I’m sure I will always get feedback about the ways in which I played fast and loose with it.

Anyway, I can’t thank you enough for seeing the show and for this kind email. I’m glad you liked the ending!

all best,