Sunetra Gupta
Epidemiologist and novelist

Sunetra has forged successful careers as both a scientist and a writer. She describes how her curiosity and creativity feed into her research into infectious diseases.

I was always curious about how things work, but I only started enjoying school maths and science when I was about 14 years old. It’s a journey, and the stuff you learn first is just the nuts and bolts. Once I got started it came as a surprise that maths was really interesting!

My parents didn’t work in science – my father was an historian – but they showed me how to be curious and interested. This gave me the courage to do what I wanted to do. I liked arts and sciences equally, but I chose science A-levels to keep my options open.

Epidemiologists study infectious diseases. I use maths and experiments to work out how viruses and bacteria evolve. The virus that causes flu changes all the time, which means that last year’s vaccine may not work this year. My team is working on a new type of flu vaccine that could help to solve this problem.

Our work could have a huge impact on human health. This is very motivating but at the same time, you are not expected to solve these problems on your own. It takes the work of a lot of scientists to arrive at a solution.

As a scientist, my job is to come up with new ideas to test. My interest in stories, poetry, drama and art helps me to think about problems in new ways. I always wanted to do something very stimulating and creative, and I am fortunate that all those expectations have been met!

The Department of Zoology is a friendly and supportive place to work. I was always able to take my children into work, and to work flexibly. Now that I’m a Professor, I have lots of responsibilities, including mentoring students. I work very closely with a fantastic team, and this is intensely rewarding.

BEST PART?

Working in science is like being ten years old forever, and going on an amazing adventure. I still wake up every day with a sense of excitement and wonder.

HOW DO YOU RELAX?

I love writing books, cooking, gardening, reading, watching films... just living life to the full!

Sunetra's Journey

Activities

MAKE ART INSPIRED BY SCIENCE

Time: 30 minutes

You need: Web browser, paper and pencils, art materials

Activity 1. Create a cartoon.
  • Visit www.shooting-stars-women-scientists.com with an adult helper. Sunetra uses comic conversations to tell the stories of some brilliant scientists.
  • Use books or the Internet to find out more about a scientist, inventor or engineer – it could be anyone you like.
  • Create your own cartoon or comic strip about the person you selected, and share it with other people.
Activity 2. Make art inspired by the tiniest living things.
  • Sunetra studies living things that are too tiny to see without a microscope. Take a look at pictures of the flu virus at www.bigpictureeducation.com/influenza-images (this is a free Wellcome Trust resource).
  • Make a piece of art inspired by the pictures. It could be a drawing, a painting, a collage or a 3D model. Be as creative as you like!

Enjoyed This? What’s Next…

  • Visit the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford to marvel at microscopes.
  • Learn more about microorganisms on this interactive website: bit.do/microorganisms
  • Find out how big (or small) microorganisms are by playing with these interactive scales bit.do/cells-scale and bit.do/cellsalive

Talking points

#1 Be curious

If something sparks your child’s interest, help them find out more about it. There is no need to wait until it’s covered at school.

#2 Be creative

Remind your child that science is not about remembering facts or passing tests, it’s about thinking and solving problems.

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