Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Caroline and I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research project focuses on Striga - a genus of parasitic plants that devastates harvests by infecting food crops. I am exploring the defence reactions that can make host plants more resistant against Striga. Due to my ongoing battles with anorexia, I haven't made as much progress as I would have liked but I am determined to finish the course.

This blog charts the ups and downs of life in the lab, plus my dreams to become a science communicator and forays into public engagement and science policy....all while trying to keep my mental and physical health intact. Along the way, I'll also be sharing new plant science stories, and profiles of some of the researchers who inspire me on this journey. So whether you have a fascination for plants, are curious about what science research involves, or just wonder what exactly I do all day, read on - I hope you find it entertaining!

Thursday 22 October 2015

Meeting a marvellous woman in science....Professor Sunetra Gupta on thetrials of physics, translating poems, the politics of science and more!

Sunetra Gupta, Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at Oxford University, is renowned for her research studying the evolution of infectious diseases, such as influenza and HIV. In 2009, the Royal Society recognised her as a pioneering woman of science by granting her the prestigious Rosalind Franklin Award. Besides forging this stellar career in science however, Sunetra is also an accomplished novelist with her works attracting various accolades including being longlisted for the Orange Prize. To top it all, she is a passionate scientific communicator and frequently appears on the media to discuss the links between science and the arts. This week, the University of Sheffield was honoured to host her as a visiting speaker for the Departmental Series and a Q & A to discuss everything from her own career, the politics of science/literature and how science is taught in schools. 

What inspired you to take up a career in science?
When I was trying to choose what to do with my life, I didn’t really know because I found everything so interesting. I was fascinated by biology but also loved physics and I originally enrolled at Princeton University as a Physics major. But then I realised three things: Number One, that it was extremely hard.  Number Two, I would be spending most Fridays tackling problems that often had no solutions and we were rewarded for how far we got! Number Three, I had started to find advanced physics less exciting. What I really enjoyed was using mathematics to solve problems. A key moment was when I took a course on Animal Behaviour and I realised that we could use mathematics to study biological systems. Since then, I have never looked back. 

Professor Sunetra Gupta (Photo credit: Charlie Lee Potter)

Science and mathematics have a very technical language, yet you are also a novelist. Do you find that these occupations help each other in any way?

I like to think that both are manifestations of a creative urge and a desire to understand some form of reality – whether that is a physical reality or an internal reality. And in both cases, understanding comes through playing and experimenting. When building scientific models, playing comes by applying precise algorithms, like playing a game with very strict rules. Novels, on the other hand, try to push the boundaries of language but there are other rules that they have to abide by, such as narrative. I get great satisfaction when I feel I have understood something. In science, this is more concrete and, in my field, it essentially takes the form of generating a testable hypothesis. It is more difficult to tell in literature when you have understood something, but I feel happy when I create something with an internal consistency. 

You have also translated poetry. Does this consideration of language help you when writing novels and generating scientific hypotheses?
Translation – whether poetry or not – makes you aware of the gap between what is actually there and what you are doing. Mathematical modelling is based on a similar principle. You often can’t replicate the situation exactly, but you want to have an insight to understand it. When I translate poetry, there is sometimes such a gulf between the original words and what I write that I feel overwhelmed. In these cases, rather than directly translating the text, I feel that I have interpreted the poem, made a new poem in some senses. It makes me aware that science is not about replicating something exactly through experiments but finding a new, valuable insight into what is there. 

As a woman, do you find that you get different receptions as a novelist and a scientist?
In neither case have I felt discriminated against for being a woman but I have felt that both areas are very male dominated. What is really beleaguering the sciences and arts in general is their “clubbiness” – little groups that help and support each other but exclude others.  Also, it seems very important now for both scientists and authors to have a public presence and remain visible and this can really militate against women who often have other things on in their life. It is a complex combination of being visible, being networked and gender bias that has created this situation. 

You are a passionate advocate of science communication. Do you think that there should be more creativity in how science is taught in schools?
I think written exams are really very 19th century. Perhaps they were quite good for identifying who would do well in the Indian Civil Service, but they don’t make sense to me now. I enjoy outputs where you can be creative, enjoy the process and have a really enriching experience. Exams just cause so much stress. On top of this, at Oxford, the undergraduates actually have to dress in a very uncomfortable formal outfit to take exams…

If it was up to me, I would give the students a bunch of papers and a set of questions then see if they can read them in three hours and write something interesting,. This would be more challenging and it does still require that you know something, but at a more conceptual level. Another thing wrong with the current educational system is that it is not “strategic” to take courses in areas that you are not so good at. Yes, part of society is about badging people and finding out what they can do well, but education should also be about understanding things that you find difficult. 

With the money she was awarded as part of the Rosalind Franklin Award, Sunetra has been working on an exciting new website that creatively tells the stories of a fascinating collection of women scientists from history who deserve to be more widely known. The website has just gone live – do take a visit and meet these “Shooting Stars” from the past!

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