STEM versus the arts: It’s a seemingly clear-cut dichotomy that many of us feel forced to choose between the wonders of literature and music or cell biology and engineering.

Ijeoma Asonye, a junior mechanical engineering major at the University of Maryland, knows this all too well — and she’s written a novel about it. The Beautiful Math of Coral, published in 2021, explores the relationship of STEM and the arts with the human experience.

Asonye began work on the book in May 2020, and eventually published it with the hybrid-publishing model, which is a mix between self and traditional publishing. She is also currently working on a short film based on one chapter of the book.

The Beautiful Math of Coral follows a girl named Coral who arrives at college wanting to escape art, “the thing she hates most,” according to the book’s synopsis. This plot point is a twist of Asonye’s experiences.

“I really wanted to come to college and do something in the humanities and art, but I have a dad that’s very much into wanting me to do engineering,” she said. “Instead of typically just writing about a character wanting to do that, I decided to flip the switch.”

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The book’s title comes from a TED Talk of the same name, given by speaker Margaret Wertheim, who describes a project where people use crochet to model coral reefs. It’s intended to raise awareness about the destruction of coral reefs caused by global warming.

“The same way that humans treat coral is the same way we treat each other,” Asonye said. “How coral feel very devalued in the sea and are becoming white or losing their colors, I feel like humans do that to other people where we devalue people and make each other feel small and lose our colors.”

So far, The Beautiful Math of Coral has resonated with readers. Fatima Diallo, a senior psychology major at Towson University, talked about the personal connection she had to the main character of the novel.

“I relate to the book because … I am also a child of immigrant parents and they also expect me to do a STEM major, but it’s the opposite of the main character … so I relate to the character in that way,” Diallo said.

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The ideas about the intersection of STEM and the humanities also proved a touching theme for readers. Wasilat Dosunmu, a junior public health science major, believes in the importance of incorporating more creative activities into life as a STEM major.

“I feel like for STEM majors, people usually think you just have to stick to one thing — you can do both,” Dosunmu said.

The dichotomy between STEM and the humanities, though often referenced in the lives of students, is rarely explored in fiction. The Beautiful Math of Coral promises a refreshing look into the human experience.