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These Summer Reads Have Scientists At Their Heart

Summer is nearly here and it's time to pack your beach reading. We're getting a little help from Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London, founder of the science advocacy group Science is Vital, editor of LabLit.com, and a novelist in her own right.

Here is her selection of fun summer novels in which scientists are the main characters.

First we start with Jenny's new book that’s called Cat Zero. It’s a tale set in present-day England about an up-and-coming female scientist who has to deal with sexual harassment, but does so with a sense of humor. Her topic of research is an obscure cat virus and when cats start dropping dead, she gets thrown into the center of a mystery story and strange virus. It’s a detective story, a romance, and a thriller all in one, and at the heart of the novel it has some great science about viruses and why you should never underestimate them.

Here are some of Jenny’s other recommendations:

Chemistry by Weike Wang is set in present-day Boston. It’s about a graduate student who’s not coping well with the pressures of graduate school. The main character ends up dropping out of her PhD program and is dealing with mental health issues. Rohn admits it sounds like a downer, but it’s hilariously funny. It tackles issues within science, but also science itself.

The Devil’s Garden by Edward Docx is set in the Amazonian jungle. It’s “very summery” and “pure escapism,” according to Rohn. It’s about ant scientists in a field station in the middle of the jungle, and what’s going on all around them: corrupt militia, cocaine runners, exploitive oil companies and poor indigenous tribes stuck in the middle. The title refers to a scientific phenomenon -- a type of ant in the jungle that devours every single species of plant except the one they like to nest in. Their eating habits create giant circles in the jungle. It’s a “thriller, fun and exciting,” Rohn said.

The Night of the Mi’raj by Zoe Ferraris is set in Saudi Arabia, where the author spent a lot of time. The main character is a woman who is young and ambitious, and who wants to be a forensic scientist, but she’s frustrated by the challenges facing women in Saudi Arabia, and specifically her field of work. It’s a murder mystery, but has an added, eye-opening element of the hidden world of Saudi Arabia.

God is an Astronaut by Alyson Foster is a “love story gone wrong,” Rohn said. The main character is Jess, who’s a botanist in Michigan. She’s pining away for a colleague who moved away, but Jess is married. The entire novel is a series of emails to the colleague, Arthur, so you don’t get other people’s perspectives. Also present in the novel is the fact that she keeps digging a hole in her back garden for a greenhouse but she never finishes it. Rohn didn’t want to spoil it, but “it all culminates with her going into space,” she said.

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty is an example of a novel about a scientist that has nothing to do with science. It’s a typical thriller, a courtroom procedural that became quite popular in the United Kingdom. The main character is a scientist on trial for murder. She has a great life and one day she encounters a man and has an affair with him. From there “it spirals downward,” Rohn said.

Rohn's last recommendation is a “real beach read.” In Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier the main character is a Victorian fossil-hunter who spent a lot of time leading famous men around and showing them where to find fossils. The male scientists get all the credit and the woman who helps them doesn't get to write any papers herself. It’s a novelized biography, Rohn said. It’s one of several examples of historical "LabLit" fiction that is about a real-life person but has a lot of parts that are made up. For instance, there’s a romance in the story that didn’t actually happen.

For more recommendations, you can check out lab-lit dot com.

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Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.