This year, Harvard alumni Graham A. Sack ‘03 and Jennifer 8. Lee ‘98-99 recently received the Sloan Sundance Grant for their episodic TV project titled “The Harvard Computers,” a show Lee is producing and Sack is writing. They are excited to keep developing the show, which retells the groundbreaking true story of female astronomers at Harvard in the 19th century.
Both Sack and Lee studied STEM fields as undergrads. Sack concentrated in physics and Lee in Applied Math and Economics, and their new series brings them back into the world of Harvard science.
Sack and Lee first met through an email list that Lee made for Harvard alums in New York City. Sack, who grew up acting professionally on Broadway and in movies, had been active in the performing arts community in college. Sack’s career as a screenwriter began when his first script, co-written with another Harvard alum, won the Big Break screenplay competition. He then sold a script that was featured on the 2015 Black List, an annual collection of Hollywood’s best unproduced scripts.
Lee got her start in journalism, serving as the Vice-President of The Harvard Crimson and working as a reporter for the New York Times before starting to produce documentaries.
Sack and Lee’s first collaboration was a virtual reality film called “Lincoln in the Bardo“ with The New York Times that was shortlisted for an Emmy award.
Speaking on their inspiration for the Harvard Computers project, Sack said, “the earliest kernels came while I was an undergrad… I went to lectures at The Harvard Observatory. It started in earnest around the time Jenny and I met.” He notes that authentically portraying science presents a challenge for science fiction films, and movies tend to focus more on the personal stories at play. “What’s the right balance to take to keep it compelling?” Sack says. Striking a balance between telling the personal story and the science is of great importance for Sack and Lee on this project. As a history buff, Sack was interested in finding compelling stories that dealt with the issue of gender-based discrimination in the scientific community, a search that was amplified around the beginning of the #MeToo Movement. These events “set off a series of neurons” for Sack that inspired this multi-generational story of women in the STEM world supporting each other.
Sack described the origins of the computer as a tale with a “multi-generational ensemble,” so Sack and Lee decided a television series would be the best medium to portray the story. The series will center on Williamina Fleming, a Scottish immigrant who was abandoned while pregnant in Boston in 1878. She worked as a maid for Edward Charles Pickering, an astronomy professor at Harvard. When Pickering took over the Harvard Observatory and set out to photograph and map the night sky, he hired Fleming to work in his lab. At the time, women were beginning to graduate from Radcliffe, but the opportunities available for female professional scientists were still few and far between; The Harvard Observatory became one of the few places that hired women as researchers. Fleming and her female peers, including astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, began making incredible scientific advances in the Observatory. This historical saga forms the basis of Lee’s and Sack’s project.
Sack explains that, as a character and a focus of the series, Fleming is “amazing and is dealing with all these urgent, very visceral challenges.” The series is also animated by the charisma and connections of its characters; “They have banter and wit that softens the heaviness of the day to day science, and these huge social forces that are unfolding.” Indeed, the story kicks off during the early days of the women’s suffrage movement, the labor movement, and The Second Great Migration.
The series also covers the beginning of big data. “Astronomy is one of the first sciences to go through the transformation to big data,” Sack explains. “At the beginning of this story, it’s basically people staying up all night staring through telescopes and taking notes on what they see.” Pickering realizes the inadequacy of this method and creates a map of the night sky with his photographs; when people can stare at the same sky, new information becomes available. This shift gave the women scientists their nickname: “The Harvard Computers.” The Observatory scientists needed people to go through this vast expansion of astronomical data, and they could inexpensively hire female researchers to process it. “You have this intersection of big data and the labor that it creates,” Sack notes.
On her collaboration with Sack, Lee says, “there’s an emotional therapy and cheerleading role as a producer. You’re the first believer in a creative project, in something that’s a very lonely endeavor. You’re taking something that springs from your own mind and putting it out into the world.” Sack added that, with a project so many years in the making, having Lee as an ally to go through the ups and downs with has been critical.
Moving forward, The Sloan Grant will enable Lee and Sack to bring on an additional science advisor as the show moves toward finding a home at a TV network.
Sack and Lee are tremendously grateful for the support of The Sloan Foundation, and are ecstatic about telling a story that intersects with their alma mater, STEM background, and a groundbreaking moment in the history of women’s contributions to scientific discovery.
— Staff writer Raina F. Cohen can be reached at email@example.com.