Columns Education

Four Generations’ of scientists discuss undergraduate research in India

Smita Zinjarde, Karishma Kaushik, Snehal Kadam & Rupanwita Majumder

The need for exposing undergraduate students to research and providing them with training in research-oriented scientific thought has been felt for quite some time in India. In this article, four generations of Indian scientists come together to discuss the present status of the undergraduate research ecosystem in India, the changes that have taken place over the last few decades, and the road ahead. 

‘Four Generations’ of scientists discuss undergraduate research in India
‘Four Generations’ of scientists discuss undergraduate research in India 

Across the country, there is a growing momentum to transform the undergraduate research ecosystem to introduce undergraduate students to scientific enquiry, engage them in discovery-based science, and provide them with a comprehensive understanding of research opportunities. These changes include highlighting the need for course-based undergraduate research experiences, developing concrete and practical initiatives to bolster research at the college level, and introducing scientific writing and literature review as part of classroom teaching. So, where does the scientific and medical undergraduate research ecosystem in India stand today? What have been the tangible changes and gains? What should we identify as future priority areas?

In this article, four generations of scientists in India sit down for a round-table discussion and attempt to answer these questions and offer perspectives for the future. They come from varied educational backgrounds and have pursued (or are pursuing) their undergraduate degrees at different time periods with varied focus areas across basic science, medicine and biotechnology.

Smita S Zinjarde (SSZ), PhD, is Director, Institute of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology (IBB) and Head, Department of Microbiology, Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU) (Formerly University of Pune). She did her BSc followed by a Masters’ in microbiology. A microbial biotechnologist with a career that has spanned over thirty years of research and teaching, she currently directs an Integrated Masters’ program at IBB. 

Karishma S Kaushik (KSK) is a physician-scientist who, after her MBBS and MD, earned a PhD in a basic science research group. She currently leads an interdisciplinary research group at IBB, SPPU which studies infection microenvironments, and engages undergraduate students with independent research projects. 

Snehal Kadam (SK) has a dual five-year BS-MS from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune. She currently works as a research assistant with Karishma S Kaushik. As part of her work, she actively guides undergraduate students in the group with their research projects. 

Rupanwita Majumdar (RM) is a second-year student in the five-year Integrated Masters’ program at IBB, SPPU. She is looking forward to an undergraduate research experience to understand what science in the laboratory is like.

The Conversation

SSZ: I did my undergraduate degree in microbiology back in the late eighties. At the time, as much as we would have liked, we did not have a research project at the bachelor’s level in the curriculum, although we did have one at the Masters’ level. What was the research ecosystem like during your undergraduate studies?

SK: In my BS-MS dual degree program from 2013 – 2018, the curriculum in the advanced years (3rd and 4th years) did allow students to formally take up research projects in areas of interest. These projects could also be credited and in biology, were evaluated in part, by a poster presentation. This approach allowed me to participate actively in departmental research and honed my research presentation skills. 

During this period, I was given a substantial amount of freedom to work in the laboratory, design experiments and execute them. I consider this opportunity to have played a major role in helping me understand what original, scientific research in the laboratory is like. The institute encouraged undergraduate participation in various scientific competitions, conferences and internships over the world. This led me to an internship in my 3rd year at the National University of Singapore, where I eventually did my master’s thesis.

However, given that I was at a predominantly research-focused institute, I wonder what the undergraduate research ecosystem is like at public universities and teaching institutes. Maybe Rupanwita can shed more light. 

RM: Being a second-year student, I have not been a part of any research project so far. While I have been seeking opportunities for hands-on research internships, these opportunities require a commitment of at least two months, which often is not possible due to overlaps with the coursework. At IBB, SPPU, I will get this opportunity during the third-year project that is a part of the curriculum. This will be a one-year in-house research experience with regular evaluations, a final presentation and thesis submission. This is something I am looking forward to. Moreover, I am also excited about the final semester research project, for which I have the flexibility to work in a research laboratory of my choice in India or abroad.

KSK: This is heartening to see, Snehal and Rupanwita. With my background in the medical sciences, I bring a different angle to this. In my experience, as a medical student from 1999 – 2005, there were no provisions for research in the medical curriculum. Looking back, this was a huge lacuna in the education system, given the critical role that translational research plays in healthcare. 

The primary focus of medical education will always be to train treating physicians. However, for medical advances, the system needs to build a resource of physician-scientists. Given that India has no formal MD-PhD dual degree programs, this complete lack of exposure to the basic sciences and research in medical education is limiting. I gained exposure to scientific research and laboratory skills during my MD in Clinical Microbiology, and that set me on the path to becoming a physician-scientist. 

The undergraduate research ecosystem in India has improved since the late eighties, allowing more students to participate in research projects as part of the curriculum. However, medical education is still trailing behind when it comes to providing basic research opportunities to physicians in training.

SSZ: Since we had no formal research project in the Bachelors’ program, laboratory practical sessions were my first exposure to hands-on experiments. Do you think they contributed significantly to your understanding of science? 

SK: Practical sessions were my first hands-on experience in the laboratory as well and they taught me to troubleshoot failed experiments. However, practicals often do not recapitulate all aspects of scientific research, get restricted to defined protocols, and could involve large numbers of students. Despite this, in my undergraduate training, some practical sessions were adaptive. I still remember our first biology practical, where we were asked to disassemble a microscope and put it back together again. This simple yet innovative task sparked a curiosity in the class, and maybe we could include more such discovery-based, open-ended experiments for practical classes.

I would think your practicals are also a fun, learning experience, Rupanwita?

RM: Yes, definitely. Till the second year, practical sessions are the only way we can perform hands-on experiments. I think that practicals are essential for students to learn basic experimental techniques and get well-versed in equipment handling. However, I would like to see them provide students with more individual exposure, in addition to group-based learning activities.

KSK: In medical college, laboratory practical sessions were detailed and informative, but often focused on replicating previously known results or experiments. While this was important to understand concepts, they should be extended further to include at least some component of discovery-based research. This would, albeit in a limited way, expose medical students to research tools such as designing experimental protocols, troubleshooting, analysing results and referring to original scientific literature. 

Detailed and informative practical sessions are essential for students to learn basic experimental techniques and understand concepts; however, they need to be extended to include discovery-based research components and provide more individual exposure.

SSZ: It seems apparent from our discussion, that integrated courses offer research exposure to students at the undergraduate level, unlike previous conventional courses. In your opinion, what aspects can be further improved to leverage this advantage?

SK: For undergraduates, not only is learning hands-on research skills important, but it is also critical to develop scientific thinking to ask and answer scientific questions. For this, the curriculum could in some way enable undergraduates to follow a process where they play a role in framing a research question, understanding scientific literature related to the question, and finally designing experiments to answer the question. This would give students a more realistic glimpse of the research world. Would you agree, Rupanwita?

RM: I agree with you, Snehal. Based on feedback from my seniors, I feel that we undergraduates do not have an understanding of how research projects really work – for example, the timelines involved and the pros and cons of a certain model system or area of work. This would be very useful in helping us chart our career paths and decide our future research interests. 

KSK: Given the complete lack of research exposure in the medical curriculum, we need to start with including a research component. Certain subjects lend themselves well for exposure to basic, applied or translational research, such as microbiology, immunology, pharmacology, pathology, biochemistry, and physiology. Creating a place in the curriculum to include a short-term research project in any of these areas could provide valuable exposure. This would train medical students to understand and probe a biological concept in detail, identify missing links and develop strategies to effectively fill such gaps. Further, doing this in collaboration with a basic research institute or university would provide exposure to original scientific research and enable cross-pollination of ideas.

The undergraduate research ecosystem can be further improved by introducing processes to help students develop scientific thinking in addition to learning hands-on research skills, and allowing medical students to perform short-term research projects in collaboration with basic research institutes or universities to probe biological concepts in detail. 

Concluding insights and ways forward

SSZ: It is very encouraging to see this progress in the undergraduate research ecosystem. The recent trend towards integrated and dual degree programs provides the opportunity to integrate research projects at an earlier stage in the curriculum. In our experience at IBB, SPPU, this not only provides students with hands-on laboratory skills and exposure to experimental science, but it has also resulted in several undergraduate students finishing their degree with authorship on an original research publication. This certainly distinguishes them when they are applying for future academic programs and opportunities. While research integration at an early level certainly helps students on the academic career path, do you all think further curriculum changes need to include exposure to non-traditional (non-academic) research opportunities? What are other priority areas going forward?

SK: To support students choosing non-academic research paths, such as in industry and biotech entrepreneurship, undergraduate participation in industry-driven conferences, exposure to biotechnology start-ups and entrepreneurship grants, and possibly even a brief research stint in the industry would be the possible next steps. 

RM: I agree that it is important to further leverage the flexibility and time that integrated and dual programs offer to maximize students’ exposure and experience. A practical way forward could be to have active organizations like placement cells that connect students to such projects in their local ecosystems, both in industry and academia, thereby helping create a network across the undergraduate community in India.

KSK: While it may take a while to formally incorporate research opportunities in medicine, I have noticed a change in the mindset of medical students. Since my return to India, several young medical and dental students have approached me seeking research internships, to discuss research career opportunities, and understand the career path of a physician-scientist or physician-researcher. Recognising this, it is an appropriate time to revisit the basic medical education curriculum and proactively create scope for research opportunities via small-scale projects, and internships and stints at research institutes and biotech start-ups. 

Integrate research projects at an earlier stage in the curriculum, increase undergraduate exposure to non-academic research paths, create active organizations to connect undergraduate students to the local research ecosystem, and create scope for research opportunities in the basic medical education curriculum.

In conclusion, it is evident that the undergraduate research ecosystem in India has undergone major transformations through the years, and has notably, recognized the importance of incorporating scientific research into teaching practices. However, for these changes to become an integral part of the education system, it would be critical to mandate an original research experience across all undergraduate courses. In traditional three-year courses, this could be done by introducing a short in-house thesis towards the end of the course. For colleges and universities with limited laboratory facilities, a tie-up or collaborative effort at the institute level with other well-equipped universities can help bridge the gap.