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Charting India’s scientific future: The need for undergraduate research experience

Ragothaman M. Yennamalli

The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 proposes actively seeding research in universities and colleges for a multidisciplinary ecosystem. In this article, Ragothaman M Yennamalli a faculty at the Department of Bioinformatics, SASTRA Deemed to be University, details the possibilities and significance of including research experience in undergraduate studies.

Ragothaman URE
Source: Unsplash

The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 acknowledges that our educational ecosystem is fragmented. Among other changes, it proposes actively seeding research in universities and colleges for a multidisciplinary ecosystem. This article explores the possibilities and significance of including research experience in undergraduate studies, particularly in India.

Why is undergraduate research experience important in the Indian context?

India is on the cusp of many scientific achievements, especially following Chandrayaan‑3’s successful soft launch. This has brought attention to many indigenous research startups that became integral to its success (see here, here, and here).

There’s a misconception that research happens only in academia. The awareness that research, in academia or in industry, can be a fulfilling career choice is needed. As pointed out above, indigenous research outside academia has led to translational outcomes and there is a demand for students trained in these skills. 

A research-inclusive curriculum will strengthen the future of India’s research workforce, and even benefit students who may not pursue research in the future. Many studies conducted outside India have shown that undergraduate research increases grades, skill development, and uptick in confidence. Hence, students need to invest time in their chosen research topic, deeply understand the issue, form research questions, and rely on trustworthy data analysis. Learning writing and research skills early on can help them become productive researchers later on.

Working with other undergraduates improves the undergraduate research experience. Working together as a team is common in research, and collaborations can enhance students’ leadership abilities, teamwork, communication skills, and research proficiency. 

Where do we stand now?

As per the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2020 – 2021 released by the Ministry of Education, India has ~44000 colleges and the number of undergraduates enrolled is over 4 Crores (or ~28417 undergraduates per million population). On the other hand, as per UNESCO’s data from 2018 (the latest data available for India), India has only ~253 full-time equivalent (FTE) researchers per million population. In comparison, China recorded 1307 and the USA 4821 FTE researchers per million in the same year. South Korea topped the chart with 7980 FTE researchers per million that year. Needless to say, the undergraduate’s enthusiasm for research is still largely untapped. 

How can Indian students get adequate exposure to research? 

Course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE) is a solution that encourages students to take up research. CUREs are pedagogical methods that allow students to define a research problem, develop and test hypotheses, and discover something new. As described in this article, CUREs are the mini-scientist experiences propelling students towards investigative tendencies through engagement in iterative work”. This model has a positive effect on student learning. 

Most students in India attend university-affiliated colleges, where the research component is minimal. Hence, the CURE is a good roadmap to follow, and there has been momentum in implementing CURE-based curricula in many institutions, including private institutions.

In some settings, due to infrastructural or funding constraints, CUREs may not be feasible for a student. To overcome this, the current undergraduate curriculum allows students to take up research for a period of one or more semesters, which is either conducted in the student’s own institution or elsewhere. In this case, the undergraduate research experience is a one-to-one relationship between the guiding mentor and the student. A student’s perspective on the transformative nature of research, along with the challenges faced, can be read here.

The pandemic, and the subsequent closure of educational institutions and research labs, encouraged many to conduct research computationally and in home labs. Research ideation or hypothesis generation was an alternative way to include a research component in the curriculum. These models can be integrated into the post-pandemic curriculum, potentially in a hybrid format with both computational and experimental approaches. 

Recently, for students in tier‑2 cities, where avenues for research are particularly sparse, a research institution is marked as a mentor for multiple mentee colleges nearby, where research exposure is provided to undergraduates. This network can be expanded with more institutions becoming mentors and initiating research dialogues between scientists, educators and undergraduates. 

Private philanthropy could help colleges to kickstart research and identify sustainable private funding. Starting early is another solution, where half-semester or one-semester courses contain aspects of research. 

Teachers in colleges play an important role in exposing students to research, and many institutions are focusing on training educators. I was part of a group at Rice University that taught BIOC115 — Freshman Seminar in Local Biology Research, a one-credit course. We met weekly with a small group (20 students maximum) of first-year undergraduates. Using a discussion/​roundtable format we picked one published paper by a local researcher and we went about dissecting the paper and discussed the various aspects of research work. The course culminated in a lab visit where the students, now familiar with the work, interacted with the scientist in-depth.

Catch them early

Exposure to research could even begin at the school level to help children understand the process of science early on. In middle school, I participated in the Children’s Science Congress, where many teams, guided by their teachers, showcased impressive research work at state and national levels. My presentation covered my research on vermiculture pits and the generation of biocompost from school lunch waste. Planning the dimensions of the pit, executing on a daily basis, collecting the data, preparing the presentation (there was no PPT then), and writing the report exposed me to the meticulous rigour required, and this inspired me to take up research as a career. 

Publication of a student’s work is a more tangible outcome. Numerous micro publications and journals accept high-school and undergraduate research work, publishing them after rigorous peer-review. I peer-reviewed for one such journal called The Journal of Emerging Investigators. We assessed the results presented and kept in mind the limitations of how much additional work can be performed. Then, there are other rare examples, such as the research on Blackawton bees by a group of 8‑year-olds, published in Biology Letters.)

To conclude, undergraduate research has both tangible and intangible benefits for students and India. A student-centric framework to facilitate undergraduate research will help tap into the potential of research in India. Also, the framework should be tailored to Indian needs, Indian students, and Indian setup, and not a cookie-cutter approach from the West.