Graduate student explores genetics, female empowerment in awarded script

Marlee Roberts and her crew sit around a conference table during a readthrough of her teleplay.
The Roberts sisters hope to bring their teleplay to the screen and look forward to creating media that showcases women in realistic roles (Photo courtesy of Marlee Roberts)

When Marlee Roberts, a graduate student studying entrepreneurship and innovation, first began working in the film industry, she was a child actor alongside her sister, Karlee Roberts. The more auditions they attended, the more they realized that the roles they auditioned for seemed one-dimensional. 

As much as Marlee loved being in front of the camera, she preferred to be behind the scenes, creating stories that featured strong, multi-faceted women alongside her sister.

“I don’t know if there was ever a time where I wasn’t interested in telling stories through the medium of the film,” Marlee said. “There’s no one moment that it just happened. There was no film that I watched that said I had to do this. It was kind of innately born from the need to share stories in a way that could reach a large audience.”

In July, the script for her and Karlee’s teleplay “Unnatural Selection” was selected as a finalist for the Humanitas Carol Mendelsohn College Drama Fellowship, and the winners will receive a $20,000 cash prize. Humanitas, a nonprofit organization, is dedicated to honoring the work and time of both film and television writers whose work explores the greater nuances of the human condition.

“Unnatural Selection” is a story told through the perspective of Cassandra, a single mother who is also the CEO of a leading fertility clinic that enables vitro gene editing for patients battling preventable diseases. The story also explores the complicated nuances of motherhood and the consequences of working in a field with ethical dilemmas. Karlee first learned about gene editing during her time as a graduate student at Columbia University and talked with her sister about whether the topic could be used ethically, which led them to their idea for the play.

“I was sitting in a sociology class when I first learned about genetic gene editing and genetic modification of humans,” Karlee said. “Right after I ran up to Marlee and I was like, ‘Marlee, we can control our own evolution?’ There were so many moral questions that we had following afterwards. We were taking a look at this technology, and we were realizing that it compounds so many pre-existing issues today in our society.”

To accurately present the science behind the script, the two sisters began by researching CRISPR-Cas9, the technology utilized by medical researchers and geneticists to remove, add or alter parts of the DNA sequence. Along with researching CRISPR-Cas9, the two sisters took a hands-on approach in enlisting the help of professionals, while keeping the overarching goal of successful storytelling in mind.

“With the aim of staying true to those scientific elements, Karlee enlisted the help of professors in the biological sciences,” Marlee said. “And I shadowed the day to day of fertility clinic specialists. The goal is to carefully try to convey that work through the accessibility of storytelling.”

As Marlee began writing the script, she noticed elements of her graduate studies influencing the choices that she made during the creative process, which in turn bled into the creative process that she shares with her sister.

“I took a design thinking class, and I never kind of expected it to really challenge the way that I thought about writing, but it did,” Marlee said. “When you’re thinking about design thinking you’re dissecting problems and needs, and since we have a show with all these kinds of moral dilemmas, it’s helpful to have that kind of framework to decide which perspective we want it to take with the characters.”

In the design thinking class that Marlee took, “The Entrepreneurial Advisor: Problem Solving for Early-Stage Companies,” taught by Marshall School of Business lecturer Jeremy Dann, she worked on “Creative Immersion,” a project for students to document the growth of their mindsets through a creative journey. Dann said he remembers that Marlee came from an innovative background due to her experiences in filmmaking, which reflected in her “Creative Immersion” project about remodeling her bathroom.

“A key thing is you don’t just do the project,” Dann said. “You document it every day, where you succeeded, where you failed. You document all the times your brain hurt. She did a really strong job doing that. Even for someone who considers themselves creative, you can still find a whole new kind of muscles in your brain to be working out.

Dann also said Marlee’s willingness to share her creative process was something that other students were able to learn from as well.

“In a class like this one, the professor knows quite a bit about the subject and knows the ways that they might try to force people to stretch their capabilities,” Dann said. “But also you need your allies amongst the students who know a lot about some of these areas. She was definitely someone that would make comments that other students could learn a lot from about creative thinking and having that mentality that you bring from experience to experience.”

Although the process of writing the teleplay together as sisters was not an easy one, especially since Marlee lives in Los Angeles and Karlee resides in New York City, it was one that both sisters said they felt was worth it in the end because they were able to shed light on a topic that is important to them.

“Marlee and I were together when we found out that we were finalists, and she just gave me the biggest high five,” Karlee said. “We were so happy. We did a high five and a hug but it felt so validating that these types of stories can be told on screen and that you can have a powerful woman in STEM and have her as a leading protagonist and focus on a script that’s so grounded in motherhood.”

Currently, the sisters have plans to bring their teleplay to life on the big screen. They want to continue creating projects that show women in more realistic roles.

“We’re using this momentum from the fellowship to help push it forward and try to get it into production,” Marlee said. “We have a slate of other projects as well that we’re working on all that kind of unravel notions of femininity and various cultural constructs.”