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Leshner Fellow Samira Kiani is Using Film to Start Conversations

Samira Kiani and the Tomorrow Life Team visit Sonoma Mountain Zen Center.
Samira Kiani and the Tomorrow Life team visit the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center in California.
Photo credit: The Tomorrow Life Team.

Samira Kiani’s interest in art and storytelling began at a young age, when she was growing up in Iran. After starting her own lab at Arizona State University working on CRISPR gene editing technology, she saw an opportunity to connect science with these interests. There were “all these serious ethical debates, and I thought, ‘What if I made a film about this?’” Kiani says, a 2019-20 AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow. Three years later, she is close to that goal, and has learned a lot about the challenges of filmmaking. Despite it being a “second full-time job,” she loves it, and her institutions (she is now an associate professor in the department of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine) have been very supportive.

After finishing medical school, Kiani spent time pursuing her other interests, including through an internship at a PBS station in Seattle, before deciding to focus on science. When she had her idea for a film about CRISPR, it was through a friend she met at PBS who had also moved to Arizona that she was introduced to Cody Sheehy, a filmmaker at Arizona State University. 

Kiani succeeded in interesting Sheehy in her idea, and convinced him of her willingness to put in the time needed. While her goal had been to talk about the science and ethics of CRISPR technology, she realized the film needed to primarily be about people – especially because Kiani wanted to reach audiences who might be interested in a more entertainment-style documentary film, rather than those who might watch a PBS-style educational piece. They set about finding interesting characters to follow, and tried to be there to capture important moments in their lives. “You have to be patient and let the story take you where it goes,” she explains.

After creating an initial rough cut, they showed it to well-established producers in the film industry, who helped them raise money to further develop it. Kiani and Sheehy are now revising the focus of the film with input and assistance from other professional filmmakers, and expect to roll it out at film festivals within the next year.

“Modifying the human genome is a very complex thing, and understanding that complexity allows us to make better decisions,” says Kiani. She hopes her film will help convey that there are very beneficial uses of gene editing technology, such as those for treating disease, but there are also other outcomes we could pursue, but shouldn’t. Editing the germline itself -- the cells in the body that pass genetic information to offspring -- has consequences for future generations that we don’t yet understand, she explains. There are also issues with access and inequality. Kiani wants to encourage [or facilitate?] a more inclusive conversation about these topics.

 “Films can bring people to the table, but the actual conversation has to happen elsewhere,” Kiani points out. This is the impetus behind Tomorrow Life, an online platform she and Sheehy are creating through his new company, Filmstacker. The website contains vetted “stacks” of one-minute film clips that people can use and recombine to highlight parts of the story they find most relevant, then share on social media. They are inviting teams of filmmakers, scientists and members of the public to contribute short films, and will be vetting the mini-films before they can be shared. They are collaborating with an international science film festival on a first big, virtual event next spring.  

Kiani already has ideas for another film with Sheehy about space exploration and preparing for future life in space. Part of what motivates her is that “the stories you learn, they make you appreciate that life has much deeper meaning than just what I experience every day in my life. I want to communicate those deeper meanings about life and human experience, and I am grateful to have this opportunity to do that.”

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 10-15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society