New Play by Columbia Scientist Explores Early Days of HIV Epidemic
With the COVID-19 pandemic in our not-too-distant past, much of the action of “Love + Science,” a new off-Broadway play written by David J. Glass, MD, adjunct professor of genetics & development at Columbia University, may feel eerily familiar to theatergoers.
The play takes place during the earliest days of the HIV epidemic, when the disease was still referred to as gay-related immune deficiency (GRID) and wasn’t believed to be a communicable virus. It tells the story of two gay Columbia University medical students who meet while working in a retrovirology lab in the early 1980s. As the HIV epidemic begins to take shape, the two students’ diverging responses send them on different paths in their lives and careers and cause them to question their values as scientists and doctors and their responsibilities as gay men.
“What really inspired me to write the play was the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Glass, who trained as a playwright in the 1980s and has had work staged at Playwrights Horizons, including five plays performed off-off-Broadway.
“The confusion, misinformation, lack of certainty, and fear were all very reminiscent of the beginning of the HIV epidemic. Of course, the difference is that there was an immediate worldwide effort to combat the COVID-19 virus versus what happened with HIV. These differences were also very telling.”
Much of “Love + Science” is based on Glass’ own life experience. As a medical student at New York Medical College, he helped care for the first wave of HIV patients beginning in 1981. Later, as a postdoctoral scientist working in the lab of Stephen P. Goff, PhD, in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, Glass worked on the Abelson leukemia virus, a mouse retrovirus with an additional gene that causes leukemia. Research on retroviruses, which convert their own RNA into DNA once in a host cell, in non-human animals formed the basis of our understanding of HIV, one of a few retroviruses that affect humans.
In many ways the play is a tribute to the power of basic science research, which Glass notes is an often overlooked and underfunded area of science.
“One of the main lessons of the play concerns the importance of doing basic science research even if you don’t know exactly how it’s going to translate to human disease,” Glass says. “Funding organizations tend to insist that research must be immediately translatable, but studying these sorts of processes allows us to develop potential therapeutics. You have to really understand the basic mechanisms, and then you can make informed judgments about what might be translatable to help human disease.”
One of the play’s lead actors is Matt Walker, a PhD candidate at Columbia working in the labs of Samuel Sternberg, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry & molecular biophysics, and Laura Landweber, PhD, professor of biochemistry & molecular biophysics. Walker’s experience as a scientist and artist—like that of Glass—made him a unique fit for his role in the play.
“The whole point of science is to keep asking questions,” Walker says. “I find that's also what I love about acting: asking questions about a story or a character or an experience. For me it’s very important and helpful, in the lab or on the stage, to keep the curiosity alive.”
“Love + Science” will run through July 6 at New York City Center Stage II, located at 131 W. 55th St. in Manhattan. For more information, visit loveandscienceplay.com.