In Britain’s often ill-tempered culture wars where—like Twain scientists and literary intellectuals are destined never to meet, Sunetra Gupta is among the exceptions: a well-known scientist and an equally well-known writer. She has just been honoured for her contribution to science but through the medium of art!
Professor Gupta was among a select group of female scientists whose specially commissioned portrait sketches were shown at the Royal Society’s "Great Women in Science’’ show as part of its prestigious summer science exhibition in London. A rare honour, it confirmed her status as a true representative of C. P. Snow’s "two cultures" _ someone who is able so effortlessly to straddle the perceived gap between science and art.
Like Snow, she doesn’t see a division between art and science and believes that they are simply different ways of expressing ideas.
"A mathematical equation can be as beautiful as a Keats’ poem," she said in a BBC interview.
Asked whether she saw herself primarily as a scientist or a novelist, Prof Gupta, who has written five novels one of which was long listed for the Orange Prize, replied: "I think of myself as both. What I want to do is to shed some sort of light—some minor illumination—on human condition. I use different languages to explore it. I think certain languages are more appropriate like the language of mathematics for understanding the physical world—and other languages such as poetry are more appropriate when you are trying to understand what’s going on inside yourself."
Her inclusion in the art show was specifically a recognition of her achievements as a woman scientist in an environment that is not exactly friendly to female professionals.
"It is, of course, a great honour to have my portrait included in this show. The show is curated by Professor Uta Frith (a leading British developmental psychologist) who is a wonderful champion of women in science. The position of women in science is being increasingly viewed as a rational problem requiring scientific methodologies to understand and improve, and I am happy to be part of such a project," Prof Gupta told The Hindu.
About her own experience as a woman professional, she said: "Growing up in Calcutta in the 1970s and 80s, I was not aware that women could be discriminated against in their professions or that many would have to make a choice between having children and having a career. I was lucky not to be burdened with such preconceptions and my ability to persevere stems from this upbringing – and particularly in having a father (who was himself an academic) who made no distinctions between men and women at an intellectual level."
Currently, professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford University, she is known for her work on infectious diseases. She has won several awards, including the Scientific Medal awarded by the Zoological Society of London.