Dr. Mala L. Radhakrishnan - An Interview
“You can really think of chemistry
like a soap opera,” said Dr. Mala L. Radhakrishnan,
physical chemistry professor at Wellesley College and published
chemistry poet. “It’s all about the atoms and molecules
getting together, and breaking up, and cheating on each
While this may not be the typical way of looking at atoms
and molecules, Dr. Radhakrishnan has spent many years thinking
and writing about chemistry in precisely this way. She
first started using such personification while teaching
high school chemistry in California through Teach for America.
Dr. Radhakrishnan found that such analogies helped the
students to better understand difficult concepts in chemistry.
When Dr. Radhakrishnan decided to continue her chemistry
education as a graduate student at MIT, she continued to
use such analogies to help her and fellow students understand
chemistry. As a natural outgrowth of this creative perspective,
Dr. Radhakrishnan began to write chemistry poetry. A collection
of her poetry, entitled, “Atomic Romances, Molecular Dances,”
was recently published by lulu.com and reviewed in the
October 2011 issue of “The Nucleus.”
Much of the poetry is based on stories that Dr. Radhakrishnan
used while teaching high school chemistry. For example,
at the end of the academic year, several of Dr. Radhakrishnan’s
students made a mural entitled, “One Half-Life to Live,”
which chronicled a soap-opera-esque tale of atoms and molecules.
During graduate school, Dr. Radhakrishnan regularly read
her poetry at open microphone nights in Cambridge. She
became known as the “chemistry poet,” and eventually participated
in a poetry troupe called “Dr. Brown’s Traveling Poetry
Troupe.” During this time, poetry “worked the other side
of my brain,” said Dr. Radhakrishnan, and provided a much-needed
stress reliever during graduate school.
Following graduate school, Dr.
Radhakrishnan immediately began her current position, as
a tenure-track professor of chemistry at Wellesley College.
Although most newly appointed chemistry professors have
prior post doctoral research experience, Dr. Radhakrishnan
was fortunate to obtain a faculty position without such
experience. Dr. Radhakrishnan had been applying to various
post-doctoral positions concurrently, but felt like she
“likely fit the need of the department at that time.”
In her current position, Dr. Radhakrishnan does not have
much time to compose new poetry, although she “would like
to go back to it when I have more time.” Her colleagues
at Wellesley are well-aware of her poetry, and several
have used her poems in their chemistry curricula. In fact,
many students report that they really appreciate and enjoy
the chemistry poetry.
Dr. Radhakrishnan also hopes that the poetry has value
beyond education. “It can be entertaining for everyone,”
she said. “There are a lot of people who like to read nerdy
Dr. Radhakrishnan’s book was self-published on lulu.com
in April 2011 and has been available on amazon.com since
the summer. So far, much of the feedback has been positive.
For example, a reviewer on amazon.com gave the book five
stars, and wrote, “Chemistry in this form is anything but
dry!” Another reviewer (http://dougholder.blogspot.com)
wrote, “It is a clever compilation of word play fun for
scientists, poets who find science fun to study, as well
as a tool for science teachers.”
Dr. Radhakrishnan is optimistic about the success of her
poetry book. “One thing that makes the book unique is that
I really try to humanize the atoms and molecules,” said
Dr. Radhakrishnan in conclusion. “I think you can really
learn some life lessons through learning about chemistry.”