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SFU lecturer wins praise for science-inspired fiction

Irina Kovalyova’s Specimen bridges cultures and disciplines

Kovalyova holds both a PhD in microbiology and an MFA in creative writing.
Kovalyova holds both a PhD in microbiology and an MFA in creative writing.

SFU molecular biology and biochemistry senior lecturer Irina Kovalyova is receiving critical praise for her most recent publication, a collection of short stories titled Specimen.

Published in June 2015 by House of Anansi Press, Specimen recently earned Kovalyova the Emerging Writer prize in Literary Fiction from Kobo. Kovalyova’s stories are influenced by both her background in science and love of literature.

In the story “Mamochka,” set in Kovalyova’s hometown of Minsk, an archivist at the Institute of Physics grapples with her daughter’s new marriage to a Chinese man living in Vancouver. In “Peptide P,” Kovalyova uses a clinical lab report to tell an emotional story about sick children.

While science and art are often regarded as separate worlds, Kovalyova sees things differently.

As a child growing up in the former Soviet Union, Kovalyova was an avid reader. She fell in love with short stories through the works of Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, and other Russian writers.

Even when she became interested in science in high school, Kovalyova said, “I never left literature behind.”

Kovalyova jokingly calls herself a “triple threat” as she went on to get graduate degrees in chemistry, microbiology, and immunology, and most recently an MFA in creative writing from UBC.

“I always find it strange that people are surprised by the fact that I’m a scientist and yet I’m also a writer. I don’t think the two things are necessarily separate,” she said.

Kovalyova learned to approach science with a complex, narrative point of view, and to apply a critical, investigative lens to her writing. Specimen’s unique combination of science, technology, and human emotion came naturally to the author. After all, it reflects her own life.

“Even if I set out to write a short story that doesn’t have any science in it at all, inevitably there would be something,” Kovalyova said. “That’s what I do and I can’t get away from it.”

She noted that she gets a lot of inspiration from her classes at SFU, adding, “I blame my students for a lot of the short stories.”

Kovalyova published several fiction and non-fiction pieces in literary magazines before compiling Specimen. Along the way, she realized that a lot of her work was linked by common themes of looking beyond oneself and fostering empathy.

Her stories take place across the world, from North Korea to Poland to Vancouver, and bridge cultures, beliefs, and expectations. She writes about the fall of the Berlin Wall in one story, and unexpected side effects of Botox injections in another.

Kovalyova plans to continue writing and experimenting with different forms of fiction. She hopes to remind readers of the power of collaboration, not segregation, in the workplace and their lives.

“Ultimately [. . .] my goal is to explore humanity and [. . .] urge people to integrate, not separate, but integrate in whatever way we can,” Kovalyova said.

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