If you had walked through Lewis Thomas Laboratory one day last December, you might have seen an unusual sight: molecular biology professor Ned Wingreen taped to an office chair — and on the move. Wheeling him down the hall was his department colleague, Professor Bonnie Bassler. 

The two were filming a video for the department’s annual holiday party: “Dr. Crime,” directed by Zach Donnell GS. In this story of scientific espionage, Bassler discovers that Professor Zemer Gitai has recruited Wingreen to be his mole in the Bassler lab. In response, she gleefully sets the Gitai lab on fire. 

“We got to do crazy stuff that we don’t usually do as scientists,” Bassler said. “Plus, Zach made us the good guys, and we got to conquer the evil villains down the hall.”

The video was a hit at the holiday party, an annual gathering with skits and games that attracts hundreds of guests. The main event for years, however, has been student-produced videos that feature undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs and professors, who perform songs, cause chaos and destruction, and poke fun at life in a lab coat. A 2009 video even had a cameo by President Tilghman.

“Sometimes there are deliberate attempts to create jokes that incorporate science in them, but very often the ideas come up naturally,” said Alejandro Ochoa GS, who keeps a web database of the skits and videos (http://viiia.org/v/molbio/?l=en-us). 

Nikhil Deshmukh GS said he and Donnell “were hanging out one night, and we were like, what if our department were overrun by zombies?” The result: the 2010 video “Molbiohazard.” 

Deshmukh and Donnell took notes on zombie movies, recruited volunteer zombies (including four professors), and shot the 11-minute film in one afternoon. The experience encouraged Donnell to take a leave of absence to launch a visual-media business.

“It humanizes the department,” said Deshmukh. “You get to see professors acting and being silly, being themselves. That goes for the students, too.”

Click here to see Alejandro Ochoa García GS’s complete molecular biology holiday party video archive.