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In a University of Utah biology lab, writer Sylvia Torti unlatches a soundproof cooler to reveal the zebra finch hopping around inside the cage, wearing a wire attached to a computer to record his breathing and song.
It's a quiet Monday morning between terms, and Torti casually, knowingly, points out birds as well as the ingenious hacks and inventions underlying the research in colleague Franz Goller's lab.
Torti, dean of the U.'s Honors College, has spent years wandering through the university's biology labs, where she earned her Ph.D. in tropical biology in 1998. But instead of continuing to pursue tropical research, Torti, 48, turned her curiosity to storytelling.
And in the ongoing songbird research conducted in Goller's lab, she found fictional riches: It's the setting for "Cages," her new novel about language, communication and loss, as well as the complications of scientific ambition and the human urge to connect.
On Thursday at Tracy Aviary, Torti will launch her second novel at an event that will feature "Lab Birds," a sound and art installation she created with artists Krista Caballero and Frank Ekeberg. "Cages" won the Nicholas Schaffner award for Music in Literature and was published this month by the independent Tucson-based Schaffner Press.
The story is set apart by Torti's ability to humanize scientists, says editor and publisher Tim Schaffner, comparing it to work of genre-spanning best-selling writers such as Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Pachett or Richard Powers.
Beyond the lab coats, Torti creates scientist characters "with beating hearts and full passions and regrets and emotions," he says. "The themes within the scientific research reach far into the characters' stories, which become a theme within the novel, in a literary sense, as metaphors."
"Cages" is the story of a biologist, David, who is investigating the neuroscience of why birds sing and stutter, while Anton, an Italian post-doc researcher in his lab, is obsessed with understanding the roots of memory. Their debates about research are complicated by the moral and ethical questions posed by Rebecca, an adrift young photographer who is so drawn to birds she talks her way into a job cleaning cages.
Beyond their scientific differences, David and Anton are each haunted by ongoing internal conversations with significant others. David attempts to explain himself in imaginary conversations with his estranged wife, while Anton, who has plunged into an affair with Rebecca, writes lengthy letters to his distant mother.
"We're always communicating with people, but they're not always the people we're talking to in our daily lives," Torti says. "And those other people end up infusing what's happening in real time."
The novel grew out of "Experimenting With Birds," a short story that Torti published after volunteering as a post-doc in Goller's lab. She says she's fascinated by how the internal lives of scientists consciously and unconsciously inform their work.
"Cages" is a gown-versus-town novel, revolving around a university lab, its plot richly influenced by Salt Lake City's high desert and nearby mountain landscapes. The story integrates layers upon layers of themes, from scientific ambition to personal relationships to the ethics of bird research.
Betsy Burton, owner of The King's English Bookshop, says she can't stop thinking about the story, thanks to the way the lyrical descriptions and cutting-edge science form a petri dish to consider "wonderfully drawn characters." " 'Cages' is deeply engaging, rich in metaphor, and brimming with questions that get to the heart of human love and human loneliness," Burton writes in the store's newsletter.
The novel underscores Torti's interdisciplinary interests, as she pursued her path in and outside academia. Her first novel, 2005's "The Scorpion's Tail," won the Miguel Mármol Award for best debut fiction by an American of Latino/a descent. The story was drawn from the complexity of her experience conducting field work in southern Mexico in the mid-1990s during the Zapatista uprising.
After finishing her degree, as a new mother Torti couldn't see herself continuing to do tropical field work so far away from her Utah home, so she set aside academic research for a time. Instead, she worked as a conservationist at Red Butte Garden and continued to teach biology courses. She focused on learning the craft of creative writing while taking workshops and leading the Writers @ Work summer program.
After running the U.'s field station at Rio Mesa, she was tapped five years ago to head the Honors College, which she considers her dream job.
Torti says her aim in scholarly and literary work is to use the sciences and humanities to question one another. That's evident in a side project, her work helping to create Mapping Meaning, a multidisciplinary collective, with Caballero, a visual artist. The project was sparked by an arresting 1918 U.S. Bureau of Reclamation photograph depicting an all-female survey crew in Idaho. So far, the group has found little historical information explaining the crew's assignment.
One of the most interesting translations in her writing, Torti says, is helping scientists appreciate her work as fiction, not factual transcriptions from lab observations.
She describes Goller, with whom she teaches a science and storytelling honors class, as a writing collaborator in the way their ongoing conversations over the years have inspired, and also grounded, her fiction. "He's smart enough to know that he's not one of the characters," she says.
In responding to the novel, Goller repeats a joke from a colleague who chose to research orientation behavior in birds because the scientist himself was so often lost.
"The novel opened my eyes to how complicated communication can be between humans yet we are trying to figure it out in birds (without having the brain adapted to their vocal communication signals)," Goller wrote in an email from Moab where he is conducting field research. "We are so focused on the scientific study of behavioral and neural mechanisms in birds that we often forget how these aspects apply to our professional and personal lives."
Sylvia Torti, a tropical biologist and dean of the University of Utah Honors College, will introduce her second novel at a reading hosted by The King's English Bookshop.
When • Thursday, May 25, 7 p.m.
Where • The Mill at Tracy Aviary, 589 E. 1300 South, Salt Lake City
Admission • Free for the event
Also • The event will include "Lab Birds," a one-night-only sound and visual art installation created by Torti in collaboration with artists Krista Caballero and Frank Ekeberg.
More • Torti is also the associate director of the multidisciplinary collective Mapping Meaning. For information, visit mappingmeaning.org.
More readings • Torti will also read from her novel on Aug. 2 at the Moab Library and at the Salt Lake City Main Library on Oct. 11.