Periodic Poetry With Mala Radhakrishnan

I don’t have much of a formal scientific background; rather, I studied journalism, and I approach scientific topics from a storyteller’s perspective. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Mala Radhakrishnan, who comes from the opposite direction: she infuses her scientific subjects with artistic inspiration.

Cover of Atomic Romances, Molecular Dances by Mala Radhakrishnan.Radhakrishnan is a chemistry professor at Wellesley College who performs interdisciplinary research in computational biophysical chemistry to help further the development of new drugs and other biological molecules. As if that weren’t enough, she’s also a poet who’s written two separate collections of chemical verse.

Her area(s) of expertise might sound intimidating, but Radhakrishnan is well equipped to make challenging topics more approachable. Her books are full of a clever wit and contagious joy. By endowing chemical characters with personalities befitting their real-life behavior, her poems make complex subjects less intimidating to approach, easier to understand, and highly memorable. Both books are peppered with lighthearted illustrations by Dr. Mary O’Reilly, a fellow scientist-artist.

It’s a refreshing way to explore a topic that is too often the victim of a stuffy and sterile presentation, when clearly that doesn’t need to be the case. The same attitudes that are present in her books have helped her to be an effective science teacher for students at every level.

On the flip side, I enjoyed hearing her describe how formal research could benefit from “bringing humanity to scientists.” Rather than framing research articles as a cold, objective presentation of facts, the community could actually benefit by hearing from a paper’s authors: What did you struggle with? What are your feelings about this research?

It was exciting to hear a prominent scientist advocate a holistic approach to scientific education on every level, from the high school classroom to scholarly journals.

Cover of Thinking, Periodically by Mala Radhakrishnan.Radhakrishnan’s students and colleagues are obviously breathing some rarified O2, but there are plenty of ways the rest of us can enjoy her work, too: Her two books, Atomic Romances, Molecular Dances and Thinking, Periodically: Poetic Life Notions In Brownian Motion are available on Amazon, and she recently judged C&EN’s #PeriodicPoetry contest alongside Mary Soon Lee of Elemental Haiku fame (a project we first spotted this time last year).

If you’re a chemistry teacher, you might be interested in Annenberg Learner’s chemistry course — she hosted the videos about phases of matter and the periodic table.

Finally, you can follow her @atomicromances on Twitter for frequent new chemical couplets.

Many thanks to Dr. Radhakrishnan for taking the time to discuss her work with me! If you or someone you know is working to synthesize the humanities and sciences in a similar way, and you think people might like to read about it, don’t hesitate to drop me a line!


I know that’s a lot of links, but one last thing: It’s pretty clear that the podcast should have some kind of social media presence. You can now follow @episodictable on Twitter, where I’ll post new episodes and share interesting tidbits I find in the course of my research.

 

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