Sunetra Gupta: Juggling science and writing, playing music with words

For years Dr Sunetra Gupta has been working on mathematical models to make sense of the evolutionary ecology of infectious disease systems at the University of Oxford’s Zoology department and only recently, two months ago, she found herself featuring in a first-of-its-kind exhibition on female scientists. She became the first Indian female scientist whose portrait was part of an exhibition titled ‘Women in Science Portrait Exhibition, sharing space with the likes of physicist Marie Curie, best known for her pioneering research on radioactivity. The exhibition, held at London’s prestigious Royal Society, was an acknowledgement Gupta’s contribution as a professor of theoretical epidemiology to the cause of science. In 2009, she won the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin award for her scientific achievements.

Born in Kolkata and brought up in various parts of the world such as Zambia, Ethiopia and London, Gupta is now settled in Oxford with her husband and two daughters. Yet, home will always be Calcutta – she dislikes the changed Kolkata – which continues to inspire her other successful passion, which is writing. She is the author of five novels, including the critically acclaimed Moonlight into Marzipan and Glassblower’s Breath, and several short stories and poems. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1996 for Memories of Rain.

In an email interview with India Writes Network (, she talks about her achievements as a scientist, her illustrated book project on women scientists and how she doesn’t compartmentalize her two careers – writing and science. For Gupta, the two vocations, albeit disparate, merge seamlessly — they are just two things that she does, and with great success.

(Excerpts from the interview)

Q) What were your thoughts when you came to know that you had been selected as part of the Women in Science Portrait exhibition? Does this mark an important turning point in your life?

A) I was, naturally, extremely honoured to be included in this exhibition. I’m very lucky to have been chosen by Uta Frith to be among one of four to represent our generation of women scientists who all equally deserve this honour.

Q) So a few women scientists, Indians included, are actually given the recognition and credit that they deserve. Do you think this gender skew will be corrected with this initiative? What would be the other ways to bring women scientists the recognition that they deserve?

A) This is one small step in this direction.  It will take a long time before the playing field is level – one reason for this being that the problem is complex and we are only just beginning to understand the various ways in which women are discriminated against. I have only just started to realise, myself, how difficult it has been for me since I had children (my older daughter turns 17 next week, and I have another daughter of 14) –  most of this has stemmed from not having the time to remain ‘visible’ and this has affected both my careers in a number of ways.

There are a number of very imaginative ways in which some people are approaching the problem (see for example, Soapbox Science). One of the projects I am currently working on with the artist and writer, Ted Dewan, is an illustrated book on (historical) women scientists which I hope might also, in some small way, contribute to a much-needed change in attitude.

Q) The study of pure science is not an option that many children take up these days. Is it because of the way it is taught in school or the fear of being lost in the wilderness of laboratories for years?

A) That’s not true in the UK. I imagine it may be true in India because of its career prospects.

Q) What has been your greatest high as a scientist? How did that help you to grow in your career?

A) I’d say this was when a mathematical model I had set up to explore the evolution of the malaria parasite gave a completely unexpected result. At first, I thought I had done something wrong, but it continued to give this result no matter how I tried to ‘fix’ it. I realised then that I had discovered something new, which was that our immune responses to the malaria parasite can cause it to exist as a set of separate ‘strains’. Previously, it was thought that this diversity was maintained, like castes, through a lack of intermarriage. My results showed that the strains would retain their identities despite extensive intermarriage.

Being able to provide this novel angle on pathogen evolution gave me some confidence in my ability as a scientist but mostly it proved to me just how much fun it was to be in this profession.  I’d like to believe that these ideas, which I have developed further in the last 20 years, will have a lasting impact on how we control disease but that remains to be seen.

Q) You juggle two very interesting ‘careers’ – one, of course, that of a scientist, and the other of a successful author. How do you manage the two? Does writing provide an escape from the pressures and demands of a scientific career? Or, it helps you understand your scientific self better?

sunetra-rainA) I don’t see them as being different to each other except as how other people define me – some people think of me as a writer and others as a scientist and not too many people are comfortable to see me as both. But to me, they are just two things that I do.  It doesn’t seem to confuse anyone that a mathematician might also be a fantastic cello player, so I’m not sure why it should be all that surprising that I write novels and work on infectious diseases.  I don’t find it hard to keep both going in terms of the actual work that goes into it – what I don’t have the time or energy for is ‘being’ a scientist and ‘being’ a writer which seems to be more and more of a requirement these days.

Q) Being a writer and a scientist are two separate entities. Do you ever feel that the one intrudes into the other? Or are you able to maintain a distinct distance between the two? Which of the two is more important to you?

A) I don’t think that they are separate entities but I have certainly been advised by various well-wishers to keep them separate or indeed to choose one and jettison the other. I am incapable of giving up writing and I would be relinquishing many rich experiences if I gave up science.  It’s not easy to keep both going and to run a household and be a mother, but it is worth it.

Q) Your novels have a poetic touch to them. I remember so many portions in Memories of Rain have a lyrical quality about them. Does this come consciously to you?  Or is it that you think of your stories as poems and that’s how you write them?

sunetra-marzipanA) No, I don’t think of my stories as poems.  In fact, whenever I write a poem, it becomes absorbed into the prose of the novel that I happen to be writing at the time. I’m not sure why poetry and prose are expected to differ in language as well as form; the language of my novels may have some resonances with the language of certain poems, but they are still novels.

Q) In an earlier interview you have talked about your dislike for commas. Why this distaste?

A) No, I love commas.  They are full-stops and semi-colons that I tend to avoid when writing fiction.

Q) Who are your favourite writers? Do you keep track of new Indian English writing?

It would be impossible for me to name just a few favourite writers.  Samuel Beckett, Henry James, Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf would certainly figure among them, as would Bibhutibhusan Banerji and Premen Mitra – and of course Rabindranath Tagore. Among contemporary writers, John Banville occupies a very important shelf in my library.  A recent discovery is WG Sebald whose Vertigo I’ve just finished.  I also read a lot of poetry and non-fiction.  I’m currently reading, with much pleasure, Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta  – his prose style in fiction is equally as delectable.

Q) Is there a new book in the pipeline? If so, what is it all about?

A) I’m about half way into a new novel but I couldn’t really tell you what it was about.

Q) Where is home for you? Having grown up in different parts of the world, would you be comfortable in calling yourself a global citizen?

Q) I detest the word ‘global’ and believe myself, like everybody else, to be an international citizen. Home will always be Calcutta (not ‘Kolkata’ which – as Amit Chaudhuri points out – is a global construct).

(Meenakshi Kumar is a Delhi-based freelance writer with special interest in books, culture and women’s issues)