Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight
July 31, 2002

Valerie Weiss's first film, Dance by Design, is about an architecture student who wants to be a professional dancer.

Have PhD, will make films
Valerie Weiss ’95 started a film program for Harvard graduate students like herself

By Rick Klein ’98

If there’s a nexus between biochemistry and filmmaking, Valerie Weiss ’95 has found it, and she’s not moving away from it any time soon.

For Weiss, it’s simply been a question of following two of her passions: science and drama. That's led her to a PhD from Harvard Medical School, a post as "filmmaker in residence’’ at a brand-new film program for Harvard graduate students, and completion of first feature-length film.

"I thought that if I could do a PhD, I could definitely make a film," says Weiss, a Philadelphia native who now lives in Boston. "It was sort of a dream to always be doing this, but I wasn’t sure how to make the transition."

The answer, essentially, was to avoid the transition entirely. While working on her doctorate in biochemistry, Weiss petitioned Harvard administrators to allow her to purchase the equipment needed to launch an extracurricular film program for grad students. They agreed, and three years ago, the Dudley Film and Drama Program began, with Weiss in charge.

And so, while completing work on her dissertation — for the record, she solved the X-ray crystal structure of an arginine methyltransferase involved in nuclear transport — she also launched production on a feature film, Dance by Design.

It’s about an architecture student who harbors a dream of becoming a professional dancer, and more specifically, her emotional and professional struggles as she decides which path to take.

Weiss notes that the film program attracted a bevy of similarly situated grad students — would-be filmmakers who were pursuing advanced degrees in genetics, Spanish literature, graphic design, and urban planning. All brought their own perspectives and helped develop the script, which she describes as "collectively autobiographical."

"It’s a common thing for people in their 20s," Weiss says. "You have this present path, but you also have other potential dream paths. The philosophy behind the program is to teach people who are studying unique subjects how to use film to express themselves and their ideas."

Weiss has always been interested in science, but she’s never been far from the theater, either. At age 9, she cowrote a musical, and she acted throughout high school. At Princeton, she majored in molecular biology while earning a certificate in theater and dance.

Most of her out-of-class time at Princeton was spent directing plays at the Forbes, Wilcox, and Intime theaters. And while she only makes a cameo in Dance by Design — the film uses mostly professional actors who live in the Boston area — she still harbors an ambition to be on the other side of the camera.

For now, at least, Weiss is making a living as a filmmaker. She described a recent job shooting a fundraising film for the United Way as a "way to pay the bills," and she’s looking to debut the feature film at a nightclub in Boston this fall, with the hopes of attracting the eye of a distributor down the line. She's also at work writing her next feature film, tentatively titled Losing Control."

"I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything," Weiss says. "It’s just been a really exciting time."

Rick Klein ’98 is a reporter for the Boston Globe.