Shubha Vij’s Short of Science is based on an intriguing premise. It chronicles the journey of Ph.D. candidate Sanyukta at the Department of Plant Genetics at Delhi University. The author herself is a geneticist and a researcher and she channels her experiences into this insightful story that throws light on the behind-the-scenes action in cutting-edge research.
Sanyukta is a bright-eyed and driven scientist. She joins Professor Lokesh Kapoor’s lab for her doctoral thesis. The laid-back professor has just received a grant for developing a high-yielding grain of basmati rice through genome sequencing. Sanyukta faces many roadblocks as she receives little to no guidance from her professor and faces hostility from some of her colleagues. Despite her social awkwardness and poor networking skills, how she overcomes her challenges forms the rest of this gripping read.
This book is unique because it highlights the ugly side of academia and the research world- one that involves scrambles for grant money, scuffles for authorship crediting, and politics. Data is fiercely guarded, and colleagues try to sabotage each other’s experiments. The story also showcases the difficulties faced by young mothers in research. One of the characters in the book narrates how her job application was rejected despite her being qualified because she was due for maternity leave. Women juggle their research jobs and motherhood duties; they plan and schedule experiments such that they complete by 6:00 PM, allowing them to return home on time. These anecdotes were very poignant.
The reader resonates with Sanyukta; she is a brilliant scientist who recalls lines from the Hanuman Chalisa and pursues her goals with dogged determination. She also has a love interest in this story. Some parts are deeply emotional, especially the ones where Sanyukta remembers her grandmother. Her bond with her father who is her friend and biggest cheerleader is simply delightful.
Some chapters will make you chuckle. The professor is a foodie, and his password is chicken65. Some parts make you sad, especially when Sanyukta feels dejected that her hard work isn’t getting her anywhere. The reader feels her anger, her indignation, and her pain. The final chapter will make you cheer loudly for her.
This book is science-heavy with terms related to genetics and genome sequencing used liberally, thought it does not mar the reading experience. There is a quote from Marie Curie that has been included.
‘Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.’
This message comes across nicely in this book and the reader gets impressed by the protagonist’s resourcefulness and enterprising nature. The other works I have read on a similar premise that feature women in STEM and the challenges they encounter, are neuroscientist Ali Hazelwood’s.
Shubha’s book was an eye-opener for me and helped shatter many stereotypes on a subject that is not written about much, especially in the Indian context. This is a must-read for those in research or academia. More power to women in STEM!
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