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City face among science icons

- Sunetra in Curie gallery
Sunetra Gupta, by Garry Kennard, ink on paper, 2013
Marie and Pierre Curie, by Julius Mendes Price, chromolithograph, 1904

London, July 20: Calcutta-born Sunetra Gupta, an Oxford University professor, has been included in an exhibition at the Royal Society in London focusing on how inspirational women scientists can act as role models in society.

In a talk with The Telegraph, Sunetra laughed off the suggestion that she had entered the big league because the “Women in Science Portrait Exhibition”, which began on July 2, projected her as well as the likes of Marie Curie (1867-1934).

Curie, a chemist and physicist, has iconic status as the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize (which she won twice) for her pioneering work in the field of radioactivity.

“I have hardly the same status as Marie Curie,” quipped Sunetra.

Apart from being professor of theoretical epidemiology at the University of Oxford’s department of zoology, where she works on infectious diseases, Sunetra has a parallel career as a novelist.

The reason the Royal Society launched the exhibition, which showcases images of women scientists, is simple.

“Women in science have an image problem,” commented Uta Frith, the woman scientist who curated the exhibition.

“It is not so much deciding whether they should aspire to the hard image of being a scientist or the soft image of being feminine, it is the more serious problem of invisibility,” said Frith, a fellow of the Royal Society and a professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and department of psychology, University College London.

“Nowhere is this more obvious than in our august institutions, our imposing portrait galleries and grand museums. There is a dearth of dignified portraits of women scientists produced by distinguished artists.”

Sunetra is in august company. For example, the women scientists selected by Frith include Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994), “an x-ray crystallographer who determined the molecular structures of penicillin and vitamin B12” and won the Nobel for chemistry.

Britain is not like India where there is pressure on school leavers, boys and girls, to take up science.

Rosalind Franklin and (above) Sunetra Gupta

In Britain, science is still regarded as a subject mainly for boys. However, Sunetra did point out that the recruiting of women into science subjects at university has improved so that they now make up 50 per cent of the intake in many disciplines.

But there is a drop-off subsequently so that women generally do not make it into the higher levels of academia and become professors, for example.

Sunetra remains something of an exception. Certainly, there are very few scientists, men or women, who have managed to keep a literary career going as well.

“I am working on my sixth novel and also on a book exploring the emergence of narrative,” she said. “I have published a few short stories since my last novel came out.”

Her Royal Society CV says: “Sunetra was born in Calcutta and wrote her first works of fiction in Bengali. She is an accomplished translator of the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. Sunetra’s childhood and her family’s peripatetic lifestyle have had a great impact on her work. Her early years were spent moving between Ethiopia, Zambia and England. When she was 11, the family returned to Calcutta, a city which continues to inspire her writing.”

Rather like C.P. Snow, Sunetra has managed to bridge the worlds of science and literature: “Sunetra Gupta, critically acclaimed author of Moonlight into Marzipan and The Glassblower’s Breath, will contrast the languages of science and literature... drawing from her experiences as an evolutionary biologist and novelist.... Her fifth novel, So Good in Black, was published in 2009 — the same year in which she won the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award for her scientific achievements.”

To receive a medal named after Franklin was quite an honour for Sunetra.

Franklin died in 1958, aged 37. Had she lived the chances are she would have received the Nobel, along with Crick and Watson, for her critical work on unravelling the mystery of the DNA’s double helix.

As for Sunetra’s current work, “her main area of interest is the evolution of diversity in pathogens, with particular reference to the infectious disease agents that are responsible for malaria, influenza and bacterial meningitis”.

She is also the author of Pandemics: Our Fears and the Facts, which is available as a Kindle single.

As a novelist, Sunetra has been awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award (in 1996, for Memories of Rain) and the Southern Arts Literature Prize.

She has been short-listed for the Crossword Award and long-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian literature and the Orange Prize for fiction.