Sunetra Gupta, winner of the Scientific Medal by the Zoological Society of London and the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award for scientific research © Daniel Spiller

Dispelling science’s gender myths
Award-winning Sunetra Gupta, novelist and Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at the University of Oxford, reveals her pathway to success
1 Jun 2024

Please tell us about your career in science and your motivations to pursue a career in this field?

My career is slightly unusual in that I have combined two things: being a scientist and a writer. I always wanted to be both, but growing up in Calcutta, India, there wasn’t so much of a distinction between arts and sciences.

To be a scientist, I knew I needed to study science, whereas if I wanted to be a writer, I could probably do that without studying literature. So that was the plan. But then I ended up, through a somewhat unusual set of circumstances, at Princeton University in the United States, which luckily had a very broad curriculum.

At Princeton University, one was encouraged to take lots of different courses. I went there initially to study physics, and then I realized you could use mathematics, (which is, of course, the core of physics) to study biological systems, animal behavior, and other physical systems. 

I then did a PhD in infectious disease epidemiology, using mathematical models to study these systems (which involve two interacting species: the pathogen and its host) from an evolutionary and ecological perspective.

In the last 10 years or so, my research about flu has led to a whole new method of making a flu vaccine that will protect against all strains. We’ve already patented and licensed this vaccine based on the results of a mathematical model, backed up by laboratory work. My career has moved from being purely theoretical to now being more on the translational end.

What would your advice be to girls also wanting to work in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)?

I have been very involved in speaking to women at events and supporting women in sciences. I’ve also been engaged in various projects, such as one where we ended up creating a website – shooting-start-women-scientists.com – on women scientists in history. Funnily enough, I grew up in an environment where my gender was never an issue. Some of my aunts were scientists and my mother taught science and math. Unexpectedly, perhaps, the culture I grew up in- in India-, was one that was very supportive of women going into science. Perhaps it was because care of children was not so focused on one person, or a small nuclear unit, which makes it easier for women to pursue careers in STEM.

What do I think women or girls wanting to go into science should do? They should first remember that it’s a vocation and you need to really want to do it. They also need to be aware that there will be impediments, but these are possible to overcome. It is important to also mention that the joy of the actual work is often what compensates for so many of the downsides.

Championing women in science through
tackling systemic barriers to success © Freepik

I do think there needs to be a cultural change right now because science needs to be more open to debate. Rather than giving advice on how to be like current women scientists, I think my message to young people would be: let’s take science back to where it was 20 or 30 years ago, you can do it, you could create that collegiate atmosphere again, the atmosphere of debate, of respect between scientists. Let’s recreate that.

I didn’t ever think of myself as a woman in science, which is probably because of the background I came from where it didn’t really matter. Ability divides itself, but it does not divide itself according to gender.

I think the reason why women have fallen back in science now is because we have adopted a market-driven model, which means that you must work in a way that’s not conducive to having a family or having other interests. We need to demolish the current model and go back to where success is not measured by whether you’re pulling in lots of funding. Science should be pursued for the aim of pushing forwards boundaries of human knowledge, and technology, which is what eventually benefits society more than short-term success in funding and publication.

How do you see the future of science evolving alongside technology like AI?

Generally speaking, I think AI is fantastic. I’ve used it a lot recently in my work, namely this brilliant program called AlphaFold, which I’m obsessed with as it allows you to visualize how a virus looks on the surface. It’s amazing. I think, generally, AI is extremely valuable. The reason why we worry about AI is because we have this peculiar system of wealth distribution, which is linked to your ‘economic’ value. I think that we need AI, and it could really benefit humankind provided we don’t use it to exploit people. We need to ensure that we pay people as they would have been in the absence of AI, so that AI doesn’t cause them to starve. It is only through these revisions that we will be able to harness AI’s full potential. 

* Mollie Fraser-Andrews is Editorial Coordinator for UN Today.
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