I've loved biology since I was a child. I needed no prodding to learn about the life cycles of animals and plants, about the microscopic cities of organelles within a cell. But in other realms of science and mathematics, fiction enticed me to explore areas I wouldn't have.
Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods encouraged me to understand the enzyme effects and protein changes found in cheese making (and then go make some myself). Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time had me questioning the existence of a tesseract and what, exactly, was the fourth dimension. In Sterling North's memoir, Rascal, the chilling scenes of Spanish influenza striking down a small town always stayed in my memory. It put faces to a disease that I ended up studying in medical school.
Today's young adult literature is replete with science fiction, its ranks swelled by the influx of dystopian literature in recent years. For young adults (and any adult, for that matter) who might be reluctant to explore the realms of science, consider these the gateway books that might lead, at minimum, to hard-core Wikipedia searches and at best, a career choice within the sciences.
The science of life on a spaceship: Across the Universe by Beth Revis. There are troubling consequences to a strong dystopian power and the effects of societal control and mass genetic manipulation in Revis's book. Readers will consider the physics of space travel and the environmental issues that might concern a spaceship, all within the confines of a gripping YA thriller. It also has a shiver-worthy cryopreservation scene that opens up the book.
If genes and people were like Legos...or how to make people out of parts: The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson. This is one of those beautifully written books of self-discovery, all the while asking the question of exactly how one might recreate a person. It's not possible to replicate memory and a physical body right now, and Pearson's take on it is thoroughly within the realm of fiction. Why isn't it possible yet? When will it be? How close have we gotten, really, to remaking people all over again when we've lost them?
A tongue-in cheek, not-boring lesson on fertility problems in society and how it can go really, really wrong: Bumped by Megan McCafferty. This book is both funny and frightening. It'll make you wonder how rampant infertility could twist a society and affect the power of fertile women within it. (For the metaphorical mother of infertility speculative fiction, also check out The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.) In order to understand how infertility can become rampant, you'd have to understand how it works beyond what you learned in grade school sex ed. Cue Human Reproduction 101!
Be fascinated by eco-disasters. Then be scared of them. Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. The moon is knocked a little too close to the earth one day. The disastrous effect on the weather and society, and then the diseases that end up ravaging the pockets of society are so real and scientifically valid, your cells will shiver from fear.
Explore the pharmacology of dystopian societies. The Giver by Lois Lowry. This classic dystopian story has within it mass population behavioral control--a theme that is echoed in countless dystopians that followed it. I was fascinated by the pharmaceuticals that kept the citizens in the story calm. Were they benzodiazepines? Hormonal receptor blockers? What? Take a walk through some basic pharmacology and then wonder: If you had to control people by keeping them calm and docile, what would you use? Or even better--how would you design that fictional drug?
How to make a perfect person. Origin by Jessica Khoury. Pia is perfect. She was created as such by her scientist family, but beware the consequences and the motives of the powers that be. A provoking take on genetic manipulation and a coming of age story that will make readers think not only about the how of genetic manipulation, but the why.
A book that will make you want to hack stuff. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. Hackers are heroes in this thriller that brings you into the point of view of a very talented hacker. You'll wish you were more computer literate after this one, and if you're already savvy, you'll be analyzing the methods Doctorow utilizes in the book. Either way, it gets your neurons fired up.
Social media after death? What if I'm not ready to log in yet? The Memory of After by Lenore Appelhans. Sharing and viewing others' memories exists in Level 2, a netherworld between earth and the afterlife. But the basis of memory sharing could lead to a further exploration of what memory actually is and why the amygdala has that crazy name. And more importantly, whether we can someday really download someone else's prom night because ours was just meh.
Humans and plants? Sure. Sign me up for that non-existent Human Botany course The Gardener by S. A. Bodeen. What if humans could be more like plants, and produce their own food? What about the skin surface area to sunlight ratio? Would we need to eat dirt, too? Besides the dystopian elements, lots of fodder for the scientific mind.
Body Switching Debacles. Starters by Lissa Price. In this novel, desperate teens are "rented" by seniors who pay to live in a younger body. It doesn't take more than a quick Google search to see that remotely controlling other people is no longer pure fiction. Starters touches on one of the more exciting yet frightening possibilities in the future of neuroscience.