Professor Sunetra Gupta
Professor Sunetra Gupta is a novelist, essayist and scientist. She is currently Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at Oxford University's Department of Zoology and a Supernumerary Fellow at Merton College.
Born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, Sunetra graduated from Princeton University in 1987 and received her PhD from Imperial College, London in 1992. She started her career at Merton in the following year as a Junior Research Fellow in Zoology. Her research focuses on infectious disease agents that are responsible for malaria, HIV, influenza, bacterial meningitis and pneumonia. Among her many achievements, she has invented a new method of producing a universal influenza vaccine which has been licensed by Blue Water Vaccines in the USA. She was awarded the 2007 Scientific Medal by the Zoological Society of London and the 2009 Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award.
Sunetra is also a novelist, having written five works of fiction, and is an accomplished translator of the poetry of the Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore. Her books have been awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Southern Arts Literature Prize, shortlisted for the Crossword Award, and longlisted for the Orange Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.
Most recently, Sunetra has been a prominent critic of the lockdown approach to the COVID-19 pandemic taken by the UK government. She has argued that there are alternative ways of preventing deaths among vulnerable groups. She has been quoted in numerous publications and has appeared frequently in the media.
Thinking of the first day you walked through the Merton Lodge arch as a Junior Research Fellow, what was your first impression?
I felt quite overwhelmed that I was going to start life in Oxford living in such an extraordinary place. I remember having a lovely room with a big window in St Alban’s Quad. It was a dream come true to have that space to myself and to be nurtured in such an extraordinarily supportive academic environment. It was quite magical, really.
Do you have a particular ‘Merton memory’ that stands out?
Yes. As a very young academic at the time, I enjoyed talking to the Emeritus Fellows and learning from their experiences. There was one particularly lovely man, Alec Cooke (Emeritus Fellow in Medicine), who came to dinner frequently and was particularly fun to talk to. He often spoke of his wife Vera, who had sadly died a few years previously. He told me that he had met her at a fancy dress party, and when I asked what she was dressed as, he replied: ‘A question mark!’
Tell us something about yourself that we would not know.
I did the first year of my undergraduate studies at the University of Liberia, reading Physics. I then moved to Princeton University in the United States in my second year.
What tips would you give your younger self to prepare for the career you’ve achieved?
I would recommend being more patient. Ideas often take a long time to be taken seriously, to be tested and to yield something of value.
Describe Merton in three words.
Vibrant; warm; quirky.
Professor Gupta gave an online talk, part of our 40 Years Series of lectures, on Wednesday 21 October 2020. Her subject was, 'Thinking in Two Languages: My Adventures in Science and Literature'.