Science Tales 2020

The latest Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Award Winners have been announced

By Noela Hueso

Space weather. Oceanography. Dream psychophysiology. These are just a few of the sciences incorporated into scripts written by a diverse consortium of M.F.A. screenwriters at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television who have been chosen as recipients of Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Awards. Every year, approximately 50 UCLA TFT graduate students apply for Sloan fellowships, which require that they write scripts that contain real or plausible science. Ultimately, 20 are chosen by UCLA TFT faculty to move forward in the competition as semi-finalists. Then they are paired with science mentors from UCLA and elsewhere to ensure — and, prior to the final judging round, confirm — the scientific accuracy of their scripts.

To further the development of their stories, in the 2019-2020 competition, two winners in the film production category each received $30,000, while two each in the feature film and TV pilot categories received grants of $15,000. Here's a rundown of the winning titles, with the students weighing in on their projects.


Matthew Johnson, Solastagia (suspense)
Logline: A career oceanographer is forced to grapple with the true purpose of her work when her mentee threatens to defy gag orders and expose everything.
Field of science: Oceanography
Science mentor: Nick Bond, University of Washington, Washington State Climatologist; Principal Research Scientist, Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean
Story inspiration: I got inspired to write my script after listening to a former colleague do a guest spot on The New York Times podcast called The Daily. During that interview, I listened in horror as she detailed the way scientists who conduct research at government agencies are now prohibited from publishing worst-case scenarios with regard to climate change; nor are they allowed to forecast beyond 2040. As a former journalist, filmmaker and human being, I strongly oppose censorship in any form, especially gag orders placed on this most essential area of scientific knowledge.
This is an important story to tell because: Our planet is very sick and there’s so much disinformation passed around today. It’s really important to show the public, in an engaging story, how politics are affecting the way government-funded science is done, what can be said or written by these scientists, and ultimately how much access the public is allowed to have to their important findings. We don’t have long to course correct our adverse behavior on Earth and there are some heroic scientists out there trying to help us learn what we need to know to do it.

Yugandhara Muthukrishnan, H4 Brides (drama)
Logline: Swetha is an Indian woman who hopes to pursue a doctorate in physics while living in the United States as a H4 dependent visa holder. She navigates the Indian arranged marriage system with the very scientific education that was given to her to make her a viable candidate for the entrenched social institution. She aims to pursue a higher education in the U.S. after marrying a H1B visa holder, an opportunity that was denied to her before marriage.
Field of science: Theoretical physics
Science mentor: Abhinav Prem, Princeton University, Princeton Center for Theoretical Science
Story inspiration: All the female characters in the story are taken from real life. Coming from India and knowing a truly broad culture, I have been fortunate to have met women of all strengths, those who've overcome their culture and women who have been confined by them. Knowing both ends of the cultural spectrum and knowing how each can affect women's lives in India has made me an advocate for their stories.
Why the focus on theoretical physics? It's one of the toughest fields for women of color to break into. It's traditionally seen as a bastion of male academics and for the longest time it was always assumed that women couldn’t work or compete at their level. Even if it's just fiction, I wanted to write a female character who was passionate about the field.
This is an important story to tell because: It weaves a direct correlation between science, scientific learning and the empowerment of women. It shows us how science can free us from the circumstances of our birth.


Marian Whitaker, Northern Lights (action-adventure)
Logline: An ambitious Alaska Native scientist spends her days as a glorified babysitter while studying the Northern Lights in a small Alaskan village. When disaster strikes, she must use her knowledge to save her fellow researcher and a stranded group of children.
Field of science: Space weather
Science mentors: Vassilis Angelopoulos, UCLA Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences; Emmanuel Masongsong, UCLA Experimental Space Physics
Story inspiration: I have worked in Alaska (admittedly not as a scientist) and fell in love with the place and its culture. The children and wilderness skills in the script are very, very loosely based on my time there as a camp counselor taking care of kids.
Why the focus on space weather? The Northern Lights are a scientific and spiritual anomaly that have enraptured people all over the world for thousands of years, so I decided to explore its mysteries and phenomena through space weather science.
Most interesting fact learned in the writing process: The geomagnetic substorm from the Northern Lights, if strong enough, can affect electromagnetic fields on Earth and in space, causing power and radio issues.
This is an important story to tell because: This story explores the meeting of science and spirituality, which I think is something we tend to separate in our lives. It asks the question: Can we find miraculous beauty in science?

Jen Zhao, DOLPHINELLA (period drama)
Logline: Anna Fei joins a NASA-funded lab with the aim of teaching human speech to Finn, a bottlenose dolphin. She lives with him in a house half-filled with water, and upon observing his intelligence and emotional capacity, starts to question the morality of the experiment.
Field of science: Cetology
Science mentor: Maddalena Bearzi, Ph.D., Ocean Conservation Society
Story inspiration: A few years ago, I listened to a podcast about a particular experiment in the ’60s that stuck with me: A female researcher lived in a house filled with water, with a dolphin, as she tried to teach him English. Revisiting the experiment for the script showed a lot of issues: The science that the study was based on was very flawed, and the people running the lab never changed their stance on it. I had to rethink and reimagine the ending — what if the main character wanted to do it the “right way” — study dolphin language in the wild rather than teach a captive dolphin to mimic English?
Most interesting fact learned in the writing process: I knew vaguely that dolphins were emotional, intelligent creatures, but hadn’t done much reading on just what they are capable of. Through research for this script, I learned that they have intricate social structures and complex behaviors, including tool use — and they clearly express such deep emotions! I read about so many sad cases…it’s safe to say dolphins should not be kept in captivity for human entertainment.


Rosalind Grush, The Home Front (period drama)
Logline: After German troops in World War I use a deadly poison gas on the battlefield for the first time in history, a female chemist at Imperial College London organizes a secret team of women scientists to start developing an arsenal of wartime technology to help the Allies win the war.
Field of science: Chemistry
Science mentor: Richard Kaner, UCLA College, Chemistry & Biochemistry
Story inspiration: My biggest goal in working on this project was to show people doing science, ideally conducting an experiment. Science in this country right now is something that people feel they need to "believe" in, but scientific conclusions aren't magical thoughts easily arrived at that require a politician or civilian to evaluate their veracity. I also wanted to use this opportunity to honor some of the women scientists who have broken down barriers and done the work — and done the work well — even with the deck stacked against them.
Why the focus on chemistry? Chemistry was my favorite science class that I took in school, and it was exciting to find a group of women who were using this knowledge to invent new things. As soon as I started reading about Martha Whiteley, I knew she was the protagonist for me. I'm also very interested in the history of war. We have the idea that militaries are very organized, but if you read any soldier's account of being on the battlefield, it's always chaos. So, with chemical warfare being brand new at the time, the question of how gases on the battlefield were deployed at this point is an interesting one.
Most interesting fact learned in the writing process: During WWI, there were experimental trenches where the scientific researchers would throw weapons they were developing at each other to see how they worked.

Yashna Malhotra, The Sleep Watchers (period drama)
Logline: In the 1950s, Nathaniel Kleitman, Eugene Aserinsky and William Dement were the pioneering scientists who discovered REM sleep and fought tirelessly through personal and professional obstacles to put the world of sleep research on the map for scientific scholarship.
Field of science: Dream psychophysiology, REM sleep, sleep disorders, behavioral science
Science mentor: Vwani P. Roychowdhury, UCLA Electrical Engineering
Why dream psychophysiology? I found it strange that up until relatively recently, the importance of sleep wasn't emphasized by the scientific community. It was believed that the brain turns off when one sleeps. Only much later was it discovered that the mind and body carry out so many essential functions for the human body while one sleeps, and REM was a huge part of this discovery. I wanted to capture this transition, and the importance of this discovery because it truly changed the way we think about sleep.
Thought process: The worlds of sleep and wakefulness are so rich because you have dreams — an in-between state where one is both asleep and “awake” in a sense, at the same time. Thematically, I also wanted to explore, in the background of a very scientifically driven and competitive environment, what makes these huge scientific figures human? What keeps them up at night? For the very complex characters in this pilot, what keeps them up at night are their goals, dreams, feelings of guilt, excitement and love — all universal to the human experience.
Science fact learned: There was a sense of hubris within the scientific community regarding the study of sleep — it wasn't considered a legitimate science. Sleep and dreams especially were considered the exclusive domain of psychoanalysts and the physiological aspects of sleep weren't taken very seriously until Kleitman made a significant contribution to the field.

Interested in being considered for the next Sloan Foundation Fellowships? Interested in becoming a faculty mentor? First, second or third-year M.F.A. screenwriters and M.F.A. directors who will advance to candidacy in 2020-21 and UCLA south campus faculty are encouraged to attend the mandatory Zoom colloquium taking place Saturday, Oct. 10, at 10:00 a.m. or 3:00 p.m.
RSVP at:

Posted: October 6, 2020