Shirlene Obuobi author of On Rotation tells us why women in STEM are the hottest protagonists in the romance genre right now.
Ghanaian American cardiologist and author Shirlene Obuobi began writing On Rotation while in her second year of medical school. Her novel is a love story that will doubtlessly appeal to fans of Grey’s Anatomy and other medical dramas and novels.
On Rotation follows the life of Ghanaian American Angela Appiah, who has checked off all the boxes for the “Perfect Immigrant Daughter” by enrolling in an elite medical school, snagging a suitable lawyer/doctor/engineer boyfriend, and surrounds herself with a gaggle of loyal friends. However, when she is dumped by her boyfriend and she fails the most important exam of her medical career, Angie finds herself in the middle of a quarter life crisis of epic proportions. Just when things couldn’t seem to get any more complicated, enter Ricky Gutierrez – brilliant, thoughtful, sexy, and most importantly, seems to see Angie for who she is instead of what she can represent. Unfortunately, he’s also got ‘wasteman’ practically tattooed across his forehead, and Angie’s done chasing mirages of men.
“… Unfortunately, he’s also got ‘wasteman’ practically tattooed across his forehead…”
Dr Shirlene Obuobi, the multi-talented author is also an artist; she drew the cover for On Rotation herself and has gained a loyal following for her comics which she draws under the name ShirlyWhirl, M.D.
On Rotation is a love story, but it is also a story about a Black female medical student finding her footing in a profession that doesn’t quite accommodate her, navigating research interests and a competitive training environment all while balancing both her established and new personal relationships. This scenario couldn’t be more topical, and it seems to us a whole new generation of romance novel readers will soon fall in love with the women in STEM romance genre.
To explore this more, we asked Dr Shirlene Obuobi about her interest in romance novels. She said:
“Growing up, I regularly inhaled all manner of romances: contemporary, paranormal and YA fantasy books, comics and movies featuring a quirky, clumsy, beautiful-but-doesn’t-know-it heroine and her dashing gentleman suitor(s). Most of these stories had a few things in common: the protagonist was often white (I am not), thin (I have never been), and had a career as far away from the sciences as possible. After all, how would she have time to pine over the male lead if she was too busy poring over Petri dishes? Notably, the male leads were rarely similarly encumbered; often, they were surgeons, physicians and tech billionaire geniuses.”
“Most of these stories had a few things in common: the protagonist was often white (I am not), thin (I have never been)…”
However, all of that has changed in recent years. She said: “We’ve seen a resurgence in books in which the female protagonist gets to do science too! Books like Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers, a sapphic coming of age/ romance featuring a main character who’s just finished up her PhD in astronomy, or The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood, which, outside of its steamy romance, also explores issues of sexism in academia. My debut novel, On Rotation, contributes to this trend, with its medical student protagonist.”
We wanted to dig deeper into the perceived new interest in STEM protagonists in romance novels and who better to ask than a woman in STEM romance novel author?
View this post on Instagram
Read on to learn what Dr Shirlene Obuobi believes is driving the interest in STEM protagonists within the romance genre.
Increased representation of women in STEM
According to the US census bureau, the percentage of women in STEM has increased from just 8% in the 1970s to just about 27% in 2019. And while these numbers aren’t quite at the 50% mark yet, they still represent a sizeable portion of a population who is likely very excited to see itself on the page. Additionally, the depiction of women in STEM in the media is usually as the awkward, bespectacled woman whose love story is either tangential, comedic or non-existent. Romance novels place women in STEM at the centre of the story and allow for more nuanced and diverse characterizations that most people can relate to.
More authors in STEM
“Write what you know” is a frequent adage amongst aspiring authors. Most published authors write as a part of their professions, and hence, romance novels are populated with protagonists who are journalists, lawyers, authors themselves, editors, and more. However, in recent years, we’ve seen more writers who have a background in STEM join the ranks. For example, the author of A Brush with Love, Mazey Eddings, just completed her training in dentistry, and the author of Would You Rather, Allison Ashley, is an Oncology pharmacist!
“For a long time, female leads were only presented as career driven as a device to bring them down to earth…”
Career-based sources of tension
Most romance novels include a source of tension that exists outside of the relationships between the leads, and often that source comes from the characters’ careers. As careers in STEM are still male dominated, there is often room for commentary on misogyny in the workplace. STEM careers were designed with men in mind, and thus, many women in real life and in fiction must fight an uphill battle to be recognized, presented for promotion, or given the tools they need to succeed. Readers outside of the field may be intrigued by the window into these conflicts!
Changes in relationship dynamics
Women have long been masters in their fields. However, for a long time, female leads were only presented as career driven as a device to bring them down to earth; as part of the plot of the story, she would learn to prioritise family, fun, and her often more easy-going love interest. Most of the main characters in STEM romances don’t fit this mould. Careers in STEM are intrinsically intense, rife with long hours and often minimal returns, and women in STEM often must claw their way into their positions. Thus, the characters are passionate about their fields, and their dedication to them is non-negotiable.
Women both in and out of STEM may find this relatable – after all, about 30% of women are now the primary breadwinners in their households – and may find it refreshing to read about romantic interests who are by and large supportive of the main characters’ expertise.
On Rotation by Shirlene Obuobi is published by Quercus and is out now.
Buy the book here.