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#122 Infertility Series: ANYA, Science Fiction Film

by Kira Dineen
May 15th 2020

This episode continues DNA Today’s series about infertility. Over the last few episodes of DNA Today, we talked with experts in fertility. On More

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I'm your host here Dancin on this show. I explore genetics and how it impacts our health through conversations with leaders and genetics. These are genetic counselors, researchers, doctors, patient advocates and more. This episode continues denatured a series about infertility. Over the last few episodes of DNA Today we've talked with experts in fertility on the first episode we heard from Loren Eiseley, a genetic counselor about artificial reproductive technologies and the genetic counseling side. Following that we had the Baileys on the show to share their reciprocal IVF journey in part one and part two I guess today to continue this fertility series are documentarian Jacob Kolkata and anthropologist Carolina taylor who wrote and produced Anya a fictional film about fertility through their company. First encounter productions Carolina and Jacob are committed to creating complex characters and compelling stories informed by anthropology, science and current events ANYa has had international screenings and was featured as a science and diversity film on Forbes. Thank you both so much for coming on the show.

I'm really excited to talk about your film and it was great to be able to meet you in person and being a screening and had not long ago. Thank you. Thank you. It was great to meet you as well and thanks so much for having us on DNA today. Yeah. And for those that are listening in Connecticut at UConn specifically you may have already heard of their movie because you guys actually had a screening at UConn which is how I found out about you guys. So um it may sound familiar to some people um but we can jump into it. So can you give our audience a tease of what the film is about? Sure. So Anya is a contemporary science fiction story. It's about a couple who are trying to have kids and running into a lot of problems. Um They turned to a geneticist for help and find themselves in the middle of a major discovery um that they then have to kind of deal with on the fly. And we bring in a lot of anthropology and genetics into the conversation. And how did the project start?

What inspired you to delve into a film with this focus of fertility and also the other topics that you just mentioned? Well uh we started writing on your in 2014. I think when just I think I think the conversation started with kind of a what if question? Uh and I think the question was what if there were other species of humans living among us today? Um Right more or less Carolina. Okay I'm trying to remember like you know we like to pose you know questions like just for the hell of it and you know what if questions and then follow follow the chain la Jack. And so you know the idea that you know there could be other species of humans living among us was kind of interesting because it made us or it made me Wonder Well How does one define a species?

And then Carolina being an anthropologist has some background in and uh teaching genetics right? A little bit. So she was able to kind of give me give provide like you know one definition. And then from there we were like well that's interesting. Uh how would we discover? How would how would people scientists uh make a discovery of like other species of humans living among us today. Um You know fertility was like kind of the most obvious. Yeah I mean there's so much infertility is unexplained and we're gathering more and more data as people are trying to um have kids and explore the reasons for their infertility. And I think as scientists start going through this growing database around fertility, they're going to start making some interesting discoveries.

Maybe not that there's a second species of humans alive today but that has happened in our past. Um So the story became a, what if it happened now, how would it be discovered through fertility? Um and what would it be like for the couple that finds themselves in the middle of this and for the scientists who is making the discovery? Right? So it was interesting to us to to the idea that a couple an infertile couple who you know wants to conceived, you know just and you know live their lives in this. Like a normal couple would then have to deal with the fallout of being part of a a scientific discovery that also has kind of you know implications on how we define ourselves. You know like lots and lots of cultures have this idea of um well human special place in the you know among all.

Yeah a lot of the names for different cultures actually get translated to the people or the center of the earth. Like it's um right, it's kind of inherent in how we think of ourselves of this centrality of it. So what happens if you have another group out there who's different enough? Do we care? Do we turn to genetic technologies to overcome the difference? Right. And it's such an interesting concept to have this. Oh there's two species that you're thinking, oh yeah, everybody's human in the movie. And what we're alluding to is that there is this oh, some of these people are actually a different species and that's where the infertility issues are coming into play. And you know, first people are like, oh, how can I relate to that of different species happening? But I mean like out of 100 couples in the us, 12-13 of them have trouble becoming pregnant and have those fertility issues. So it's a cool combination of really that kind of uh maybe humanistic isn't the right word in this, but kind of humanistic perspective and those feelings along with really cool science.

And I feel like that's what makes a good movie. Maybe just because I'm a huge nerd, but I think it really brings in both of those concepts. That's really cool. And a lot of people can relate to this. Yeah, we're nerds to like confirm nerves as well. Yeah, I think the three of us get the title. I think we've all achieved that by now. Yeah. To us, it was like, honestly they're making the movie was just on one level. It was just an excuse to geek out like, oh, let's learn about genetics. Let's, you know, we can write this movie and dig dig into into research and learn about genetics, but also meet also meet geneticists and talk to them and and get even deeper into into some cutting edge science and that's what we ended up doing in fact and the movie changed a lot because of that. I mean we So part of what we're not saying is that when we started writing on you um in May 2014 we were also finishing the edit of another movie um which is a documentary about called painting the way to the moon.

And that movie is about a mathematician and artist who makes a major discovery. And it's kind of engaging the narrative that people tell about discoveries. Um So this idea of discovery was really kind of deep with us at the time and we're also a couple and we got married that month. Um And I remember part of our what the woof question that day that that day of the what if a second species of human exists? Part of the what if was if I were a different species of humans, would you still marry me? And the answer was yeah. Yeah of course. What difference is that? I mean it's just fertility. And we that's kind of where libyan Marco and Seymour were born was from that kind of question. And we were able to take over the next couple of months. We were able to use my anthropology and Jacob's documentary background too craft a basic story but we really wanted real science for our scientists in the film to be discovering and to be investigating to give it the very similar to and that's when we got in touch with um the National Academy of Sciences Science and Entertainment exchange and through them.

Um Dr King Liu at Harvard Medical School. She's also works with a group called the Personal genetics Education Project PG Ed. And they're very she and her group are very interested in educating the public about genetics through film and congressional briefings and all kinds of interesting avenues. Um And she and Ruth came on. Dr Ruth McColl's was a postdoc with her at the time and is now out in Seattle and through our conversations with them through hanging out with them in the lab and going to these briefings, the movie just started to grow and more often start reflecting them more. Ruth wrote some seen and some very short scenes for the film. They shaped how we portrayed not only science but also our scientists and it became more and more grounded in like cutting edge genetics and what was going on in the world. And yeah, I'm really impressed with just how accurate it was because yeah, I didn't know you guys have showed up to the film.

I was like, okay, I hope this is good. You know, I hope it's all accurate and I was you know, very impressed that you had all of this in place to make sure it was and there are so many times where I'm watching some show and they do something about genetics and you know, it's the pet peeves of mine and I'm like okay that's not entirely accurate or like a lab person would never do that. And everything, the movie was like, wow, I can relate to that. Like I've done a little bit of of lab so far, like not too much of a background, but even little things like oh you had a centrifuge, you had kim wipes para film, like the little list bits that I'm like wow, this is like the lab that I used to work in. So it's it was really exciting and it felt very validating to have something be very accurate representation, at least of my experience can't speak to everybody. But um it was it was cool to be able to see that. Were you able to film it in an actual lab that was active or was it a lab that wasn't being used? How did that work? That was a real lab. Active.

Active genetics lab. Yeah. So did you just say, oh we're filming you you'll have to leave now. The process was a little more complicated. Um We hope to film at Harvard, but they got burned by a movie that came in and said they were one thing and then turned everything into a horror story. So they don't even let the social network film there. I mean that was just a no go. Even though our scientists were very eager to have us film and we had some great interactive scenes planned and stuff so that didn't happen. But Ruth put us in touch with a colleague of hers dr Andrea spinning who's at Carnegie Mellon University. Um He's a computational biologist, a computational geneticist I should say. And he was able to convince his filming office and his department that it was a good idea for us to come and film in his lab. Um And one of his postdocs was on hand with with us the whole time and she and Ruth acted as um onset science advisor on set science advisors like teaching our actors how to pipe it and how to use the very real centrifuge.

You made sure it was a balanced centrifuge when you were doing it and all of that. Um Even the sequencing so they don't have a single sequence er in that lab had we filmed in Harvard there would have been a sequencer in the same lab and we could have shot that but that didn't they don't actually do that in this lab. They have to send out there um their samples to get them sequenced and then they get thumb drives back with the data on it. So that's what Seymour dr Seymour Livingston are fictional scientist does in the film. Yeah he walks through the door and he's like oh that's the incoming data. He picks up the USB walks off to his office. It was I was like yeah that's because we can't all afford sequences in our labs. That's like you know you're lucky if you have one if that's what your lab focuses on. But yeah. Yeah we definitely paid attention to all the details. And um Ruth also put us in touch with the university of California santa cruz's um genome browser group. So you see in the film um Seymour's interacting with a data analysis program that helps him visualize the D.

N. A. And he's kind of like the brakes and and and the husband's DNA compared to the wife and some other things like that. That's actually a real program created by a real group at it. Um U. C. Santa cruz and I had the pleasure of um stopping by and showing them the film a couple weeks ago wow that's so cool. When I was watching I was like this looks really familiar and now that you say I'm like oh I have used that before, you know I'm not usually like doing things like that and more talking about genetics than doing it. But uh yeah it was it was cool to put that together and it's just so interesting even as an area in science people can go in of being able to collaborate with films and other you know types of media to say okay I want to make sure this is accurate. I had a chance to do that for a novel that was like a genetics thriller novel called bio hack. And so it's just so cool that that is an area to go into and So exciting that people are taking advantage of that and including the scientific community in what they're doing.

I mean it must have been really hard to keep up with all the genetic technology and news since you know, we've we've said that you started like in 2014, but the movie came out in 2019. So was it difficult to keep up with it? Like genetics changes every week? I wouldn't say that it was so difficult to keep up with it, but as the news came to us, it did shape the story. So when we started writing was around the time that we were um discovering major things about Neanderthal DNA. Within homo SAPIEN sapiens DNA and that we people from europe and Asia actually carry a percentage of their D. N. A. Inherited from neanderthals. So that infused into the movie very early on because of that. Um that news that was coming out. And then as we were working with Ruth and Ting, um we were aware that they were part of conversations about whether or not um Germline gene editing should be possible.

And we had conversations with George Church who's one of the founders of CRISPR um wow that's impressive, yeah, but we weren't we weren't out to make a movie about gene editing. Um We were just around it at a time when people knew that it was coming fast down the pipeline. Um so it ended up becoming part of the movie And I think the scripts in 27, 2016 had it, we filmed in 2017. So we were editing and putting the final touches on the, on the music and the color correction and sound design whenever the news um of the the chinese scientist who claims to have created the CRISPR twins came came out. We were we had already filmed that and we were editing when that happened, the film was finished by that point. It's complete, wow. I'm surprised because I could have swore the lead scientists in the movies had referenced something about the CRISPR babies in china and I was like, whoa, how did they do that?

But it must have just been like the way it was written and then it kind of now it feels like it alludes to that, but maybe you were thinking of something else. Like I was, because I was like how how does the dates work on that? I think, I think what he said was it's only been done in china, it's only been done in china. But it was, I think at that point when we had filmed there was maybe china hadn't signed onto the moratorium. Maybe that's what it was the right, I think they were doing more more research with CRISPR than we had or started clinical trials or something around that time. Um I could I could be wrong on that, that's just me guessing. But we knew that that was going to date the movie. But so we kept it vague enough that I think the inference that you made, like it kind of turned out to be more true than we realized. Yeah, it was amazing. I was like, did they go back and film just that? But I was like I was sitting there and being distracted, I was like, okay, get back into the movie. Was locked by that by then.

And we also didn't mention CRISPR by name at any point is interesting because non non scientists think that's a mistake and that we were being generic about it and we didn't know that it was on the horizon, we knew we knew it was there, but we also knew that it wasn't the only technology that was going to be able to do gene editing. Uh huh Right. And we're already using other technology that clinical trials are using like talents and things like that. So I feel like yeah, that's that's a good move to keep it general because there could be the next big thing in six months and you're like, wow now the movie is outdated where it's enough that you talk about the technologies and everything, but you still have a little bit of that mystery to and I think one of the things we were, one of the things we were interested in exploring was just the messiness of like a scientific discovery like how how things unfold in the movie is quite by accident this scientist accidentally makes this discovery and then you know is trying to you know follow up on it and it's it's ethically very difficult you know to handle You know on one hand the scientists real desire to to collect the data and and follow where the thread the threat is like pull on that thread.

But then on the other hand respect you know people's desire to um have their have their kids and you know and also have have privacy. So yeah so something we haven't really said yet is that um so this couple marco and Libby marco actually belongs to an enclave immigrant community in queens. And um so part of the movie is going into this community and um trying to determine, trying to get samples DNA samples to determine if they all share the genetic variant that's keeping um Marco from being able to have have offspring with other homo SAPIEN sapiens. And that piece of the film is seeming to resonate quite a quite a lot with geneticists, genetic counselors especially. Um But in practice it's actually coming a lot from my anthropology background because I mean I go into um communities and villages and throughout latin America and the U.

S. And we have to think about research ethics and how to include people and how to take into consideration their their needs and their wants and their beliefs and as much as possible allow that to drive the research. So a lot of the the ethics that we were first considering in the film were around this researching with vulnerable populations. And we're discovering now in the sharing of the film that that actually resonates with um with people who are doing genetic testing research or who are doing research with with vulnerable populations because of a certain disease or something. So it's been kind of a good coincidence in that in that regard or Yeah I was I had those thoughts when watching you know those scenes and especially this scene that we've kind of alluded to a little bit of when the scientists kind of speaking out loud of of his his ethical dilemma of I want to do this but I want to be able to respect you.

And so all of the bioethics part of the movie um I'm going to be a genetic counselor in the near future. And um I also identified with that of being able to really respect patients and where they're coming from. And also the really the disparity we have in genetic testing of most genetic testing. Research has been done on caucasian people, people of european ancestry and we don't have as much information and research on other ethnicities and populations. And so we have less to offer sometimes with genetic testing of the genetic testing isn't as a in depth or cover as much information just because if we find a difference in someone, if we find a variant, um or some people say mutation of if we find something, we may not be able to understand what it means as much as if we find something in someone of european ancestry because we have more research on it. And so that's something that we really need to address in the community.

And we're making a little progress, but it's a little bit so it was interesting to see you really be able to address this in the film and kind of explore it a little bit more. We basically made the movie for people like you. Yeah, I'm pretty much your target audience right here. And I mean, one of the things we found, I don't know interesting was just this the gap between what between the novel, like the general population, their their knowledge, the knowledge gap between like the general population and then the scientists. And like putting, we found it interesting just from a story point of view, to put put the scientist in this position of having to explain, like, really complex things to people who don't necessarily have a science background, which is my job. And it's very difficult and do it in a way that respects the listener. So it's a something I run into sometimes um with scientists in general, including social scientists, is that the when they talk about trying to explain their work to other people, they, the frustration that comes out is almost like talking down about the people that they're talking to and I think something that we believe in that Seymour the geneticist and the film believes is that the other the person you're talking to just because they don't have a science education doesn't mean they're not intelligent and they can't get up to speed.

Um but it's this it's still a dance of trying to um respect this person and they're equal nous and the conversation and get to a point where you can have an in depth conversation about ethics or medical procedures or or whatever the next steps are. Um so that's something that was in the back of our minds to as we're working on the film. And I think one way you you've kind of flipped the script on that um was how um the wife in the movie that's, you know, meeting people from her husband's ethnicity and everything. She starts learning about their culture. And so as the scientist comes in from, you know, our world is teaching about that, then it's the reverse that they're teaching kind of outsiders information about their culture and and having that kind of two ways. So it's not just giving information one way.

Um and it was it was also so refreshing to see such a diverse cast and you don't see a lot of scientists in the, in movies and media that um you know you just you see a lot of white scientists and so it was really refreshing to have a different perspective on that. Yeah I mean we so we cast Seymour as a a black man and that was very well that was like a dramatic choice, you know like a story choice because like you said you don't first of all you don't see that many black scientists but also we know just from talking uh with our science advisors that there are very few black black geneticists and and there they're treated differently and and just knowing that and knowing what what minority among scientists would go through.

It was an interesting story choice you know to have. Uh Seymour have to explain, explain to these people. Narwhal Narvel people in queens like uh huh you know. Mhm. From this kind of position of power but also as a minority who you know who was aware you know of of how african americans were subject to experiments, you know not that long ago. And so there's a mistrust among the black community you know for for science and research, you know because of you know these terrible experiments that were done on them. Um So we just thought that was an interesting dramatic choice and added a layer of complexity you know for our actor motel foster uh to deal with and we didn't like you know it's not like we talked about it in the film or anything but it was definitely a, you know, in the actual text but it was part of the background definitely.

And having it just be normalized to like don't need to address it. It is and that can be as powerful. Well I think we've sold people on watching the movie if they haven't already, where can people watch it just to go to on your movie dot com. So A N Y A M O V I E dot com slash watch now. Um We're on pretty much all the on demand platforms that you including Apple amazon fandango now, google play video, voodoo and Xbox as well as DVD. And I know you guys went to UConn and were able to talk with students there. Um if other university institutions communities are interested in utilizing the movie somehow. Um what have you done the past, what can you offer to either come on campus or Skype? I don't know what you usually do. So we've done a range of things and we have hosted screenings. This is just partnering with an organization or university that's interested in screening the film.

We've done very small things in a individual classroom in which case I've Skyped in and and larger 300 person screenings with. Um uh Yukon we've also been at several U. C. U. C. Schools. Um I'm going to Winston Salem north Carolina tomorrow for screening in conjunction with the science of Winston Salem and Wake Forest University. Um, and it's basically a matter of the emailing us. Um, you can do that through on your movie dot com, letting us know what you have in mind and we can work out an arrangement. Um, the, yeah, that's basically it. Um, and any other upcoming projects or really focus on distributing anyA and having people enjoy that. Yeah, I was just gonna say yeah, at this point, so we just released the film like last week, uh, Anya, so we're just kind of having fun promoting it and we don't have projects on the back burner that we're looking forward to coming to working on again soon.

Um, we have a project on gentrification that these are both at the script stage and one on immigration that's based on my research in Honduras. Very interesting. We'll have to keep our eye on those projects. Thank you so much for coming on the show and being able to just discuss all of these topics of bioethics and genetics and diversity. I mean, we covered a lot of different things today on the episode, but there's just so much more that you explore in the movie and it was just so well done and I left the theater. Like, wow, that was a really, really great film and definitely great for all you genetic nerds listening. Thank you. Thank you so much fun If you really would like to watch the movie. and you go to anya movie dot com, that's a N. Y. A movie dot com slash watch now. And if you really enjoyed this episode, I would suggest going back and listening to episode 84 of DNA Today. I talk with, I mentioned it in this interview, but I talked with the author um JD Laska of, he's the author of bio hack and we worked together on marketing this book when it came out in, the sequel has now also been released and we had a really interesting bioethical conversation about CRISPR, so very similar to this episode in terms of talking about fictional and how that impacts today's world and science.

We have going on that genetic editing. So I think you would really enjoy that episode as well. So I'll give you recommendation on episode 84 that's on DNA podcast dot com where all the episodes of the show are, but you can also find it on Spotify, Apple overcast, so many different podcast app. All you have to do is search DNA Today Pops right up. If you're on twitter, follow me please at DNA podcast. If you're on instagram at DNA radio, would love to connect with you on there. It's great to be able to interact with listeners because usually I'm doing the show one way and I don't get to interact too much. So it's great to interact on there. Another way to interact is by emailing at info at DNA podcast dot com. Any questions you have for guests that I have on like today's episode or you have an idea for the show or you just want to say thanks for doing the show, enjoy. It. Would love to hear from you, emailing info at DNA podcast dot com. Let's get checked. Has stepped up during this pandemic and I want to thank them for their new two part test for covid 19 right now for healthcare workers. They committed to 250,000 tests in the first match with the goal to scale to serve over a million in the next few months as most of you know, let's get checked is sponsoring the series with their at home testing kits.

They have a bunch of fertility tests. If you're curious about your fertility status, As I mentioned before, the kid gets sent right to your house and the samples of blood sample, but it's from a fingerprint so you can do it right at home. No need to go into quest and have your blood drawn. Then you receive your results in just 2-5 days, which in my experience is much quicker than most home testing kits where it's a couple of weeks. A couple of hormones that are looked at in their Clia certified lab for the female fertility tests includes follicle stimulating hormone and lutin. Izing hormone. I found the report on the website super easy to read, but there's also physicians and nurses that you can talk to if you're confused at all in reading this report, understanding really what it means. Try for yourself by going to let's get checked dot com and use code DNA today for 20% off your kids again. You can use code DNA today for that 20% discount on your kids at let's get checked dot com. Thanks for listening and join me next time to learn, discover new advances in the world of genetic DNA.

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#122 Infertility Series: ANYA, Science Fiction Film
#122 Infertility Series: ANYA, Science Fiction Film
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