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Talk with teachers: Developing academic depth beyond the curriculum

Vijeta Raghuram

N. Latha is a scientist and an award-winning educator in the area of bioinformatics & computational biology at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi. The bioinformatics training facility that she has set up and been coordinating in her college has benefitted not only students but also several school and college teachers. Her work has won her many laurels, including the Excellence Award for Teacher in Service by the University of Delhi in 2019 and, more recently, the INSA Teachers Award 2020. In this interview, she shares with IndiaBioscience her reflections on education in the 21st century and the importance of conducting undergraduate research.

N Latha
N Latha 

Congratulations on winning the INSA Teachers Award 2020! What does this award mean to you and your college?

    Thank you! I am honoured to receive the prestigious INSA Teachers Award for the year 2020. There is nothing more gratifying than recognition for a job well done. I feel very proud to be able to set an example that hard work and being passionate about what you do leads to success. I express my sincere gratitude to Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi for continuous support in my journey of teaching and research. 

    Tell us about your professional journey. What were the challenges you faced during this journey? 

      I had the opportunity to study in India’s finest institutions – Miranda House, University of Delhi for an undergraduate degree in Chemistry, University of Delhi South Campus for a post-graduate program in Biochemistry and IIT Delhi for a doctoral degree in Bioinformatics & Computational Biology. My teachers have been great pillars for all the foundation and training that helped me reach this far. 

      I have faced several challenges on my way, but each one of them has only strengthened me and made me a better person. A lot of hard work, motivation, self-learning and patience have helped me along the way. 

      My teaching career at Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi started immediately after my post-graduation in 1990. I realized from day one that teaching is not a one-size-fits-all’ experience. In my journey of teaching, the challenges have included improving teaching methodologies to cater to a diverse set of students, adapting to new changes in the curricular framework and facilitating students to the learning process, while also managing all the paperwork, meetings, semester planning, evaluation and assessments. Every batch of students and every academic year present a new challenge. The process of engaging young minds has been a continuous learning experience for me.

      Next, after completion of my PhD at IIT Delhi in 2005, the biggest challenge was to set up a Bioinformatics Facility for training and research in an undergraduate college. Generating interest among the undergraduate students in bioinformatics through short-term research projects and certificate courses was the next focus. Research started gaining momentum through collaborative projects at both the national & international levels. All along, to be able to carry out quality research in an undergraduate college has been quite a challenge. 

      How to be a better teacher? How to balance teaching and research in the college? How to achieve a healthy equilibrium between my professional and personal life? These are some of the everyday challenges I face.

      The 21st-century classroom has its own set of demands, and educators need to be open to providing a learner-centric environment focussing on life and employability skills.

      In your 30 years of teaching experience, how have the role and the challenges of educators evolved over time?

      Higher education in India has witnessed many changes in the last 30 years. In the initial years of my service as a teacher, curriculum planning and execution, teaching-learning and evaluation were the major focus areas. Though there has been an almost unanimous agreement among the educators on the curricular aspects, different pedagogical styles have arisen that have been used extensively. 

      In light of technological advances, the educational environment has witnessed a change in the entire teaching-learning process. Learning is not just confined to the traditional classroom experience and instruction does not primarily consist of lecturing through textbooks; it’s available in bits and bytes. 

      At the same time, students are more matured and technically well-advanced than in previous times. With increasing batch strength, we come across students from diverse learning abilities and from different socio-economic backgrounds. It is challenging to work on the average student to instil in them the confidence to do better. Today’s youth are a bundle of energy. It is important that we channelize their energy in the right direction and make them aware of who they are and what they are capable of.

      The 21st-century classroom has its own set of demands, and educators need to be open to providing a learner-centric environment focussing on life and employability skills. 

      Supervision of undergraduate research is not seen as integral to academic practice but as an extra, which adds to the academic workload.

      There is a lot of emphasis on incorporating research at the undergraduate level. Tell us a bit about the research projects in your lab and how your undergraduate students have benefitted from them.

        Biologists have been concerned about the quality of education imparted at the foundational level. Conventionally, teaching-learning practices in biology at the undergraduate level have involved delivering content from textbooks, aided with experimental skills. Over the years, developing academic depth in the chosen discipline beyond the curriculum has become essential. Research has thus become an integral part of undergraduate programs in several universities/​colleges across the country. The research component allows a broader educational experience that helps students clarify their interests, and plan their next steps after graduation. 

        I have mentored several undergraduate projects in the area of bioinformatics & computational biology that have helped my students pursue their higher education. Most of the projects have involved the application of bioinformatics to understand disease biology and in silico approaches for drug designing. The emphasis has always been on emerging diseases that ranged from tuberculosis, HIV, malaria to dengue infection. Recently, students have also investigated computational screening of phytochemicals derived from Indian medicinal plants to identify potential antivirals for SARS-CoV‑2 infection. 

        Another interdisciplinary project with undergraduate students was a Delhi University Innovation Project’ that involved studying how the brain processes music. We examined the effects of music (Indian ragas) on brain anatomy and structure using neuroimaging techniques. Through this project, the students (both from science & non-science backgrounds) appreciated the therapeutic effects of music on neurological and psychological mechanisms underlying stress management. 

        Understanding basic concepts, reading scientific articles, learning technical language and terminology, and understanding a hypothesis-driven scientific process have helped students build on a research foundation and develop independent critical thinking and improved communication skills.

        What are the challenges of doing research at the undergraduate level? How can these challenges be overcome?

          Time, funding and resources have been the biggest challenges in conducting undergraduate research programmes. Supervision of undergraduate research is not seen as integral to academic practice but as an extra, which adds to the academic workload. However, schemes like the Star College Scheme by DBT have immensely benefitted many colleges (including ours) across the country with funding to promote innovation and research at the undergraduate level. Our College has also initiated an undergraduate programme – SRI Venkateswara Internship Program for promotion of Research and Academics” (SRIVIPRA) – that offers research internship activities during summer under the mentorship of faculty from all disciplines. In this programme, multidisciplinary projects have proved to extend the classic skill set associated with different disciplines to build cooperation and collaboration between academic units.

          Networking of educators will definitely help in providing a learning workspace for collective professional growth.

          Besides teaching regular courses, you also conduct many workshops on bioinformatics for school and college teachers. What is the primary goal behind these workshops? 

            I have found that organizing workshops has not only helped many faculty members but also contributed to my own personal growth. Despite the central place held by bioinformatics in modern biology, it has been integrated very recently at the undergraduate level. The purpose of organizing these workshops is to promote the teaching of biology through bioinformatics. Most of them are focussed on imparting basic foundations in bioinformatics with hands-on training sessions on databases and online software/​tools. These programs have empowered teachers to successfully adopt innovations in bioinformatics into the curriculum and have helped them design short-term undergraduate research projects. The workshops have provided a platform for faculty to interact with experts from both academia and industry.

            Speaking of interactions and collaborations, can building a network of educators in the country help the educators?

              Yes! Networking of educators will definitely help in providing a learning workspace for collective professional growth. Traditional faculty development includes workshops and seminars often driven by short-term goals. Learning doesn’t take place just in training programs but should be part of everyday activity. Networking with peers offers new spaces in which one may learn to grow with a diverse set of educators. Educators can help each other for knowledge exchange and share useful pedagogical methods to promote innovative solutions to teaching-learning practices. Further, recent technological advancements have allowed them a means to expand their web of connections beyond the conventional meetings or forums and to aggregate vast quantities of professional knowledge at any time and from anywhere. 

              Before we conclude, any advice for new educators?

                Great teachers are not born; they are made over time. Nonetheless, I can certainly give new educators a few more words of practical advice based on my own experiences in UG teaching. Work hard and be passionate about teaching or research. Classroom planning, discipline and effective time management are important challenges in teaching. Adapt positively to the rapidly changing times of higher education!!