Xiaowei Zhuang makes snuff films. First, she isolates her victims. Then she forces them into a closed chamber, surrounds them with known killers, and lets her camera run.

A couple of years ago, she won a MacArthur “genius” award for her grisly work. At 33, she’s a beacon in her field, winner of more than a dozen prizes worldwide. And, no, she didn’t go to film school.

Zhuang is a biophysicist. Her movie studio is a state-of-the art laboratory at Harvard, where she works as an assistant professor. Her crew is composed of 15 postdocs and grad students. And her cast? The victims are live monkey cells. The killers are influenza viruses.

Zhuang’s direct-to-video releases may not be especially entertaining – they all end the same way – but to anyone interested in potential treatments for diseases ranging from HIV to cystic fibrosis, they’re more revealing than a Michael Moore documentary. Most virologists have concentrated on before-and-after stills of viral attacks. As a result, they didn’t know, for example, whether viruses moved through the cell to the nucleus through diffusion or active transport. But Zhuang has developed a technique to capture the process as it unfolds inside a single cell. These movies are crucial to scientists searching for opportunities to block viruses in transit. Equally important, researchers may learn from Zhuang’s films how to mimic viruses, which could help them engineer drugs that penetrate cells and treat genetic disorders from within.

“I like to be able to see what I’m doing,” Zhuang says in her soft voice, strolling past a lab bench where grad students are preparing monkey cells for their impending demise. A small woman dressed in the trim fashion of an international executive, Zhuang expresses herself in terms equally simple and polished. “I believe that you can learn something new about any system if you really look at it. You just have to be careful to follow every particle.”

By Jonathon Keats

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