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Talk with teachers: I am glad that I was mentored, not supervised’

Aditi Jain

PK Burma is a Professor at the Department of Genetics, Delhi University. He is a plant geneticist with a passion for teaching. He reminisces about his academic mentors and shares his views on professional networking for teachers.

Burma interacting with school science teachers
Burma interacting with school science teachers  (Photo: Kamal Soni)

Please tell us a bit about your journey so far in academia. Were you always interested in teaching?

I was unwillingly exposed to science in my childhood, as both my parents were researchers. I drifted into academia; as an undergraduate, I wanted to be a politician and an administrator! 

I studied Zoology at the Banaras Hindu University and had excellent teachers with tremendous patience to mentor students like me. My first foray into research was a small project with SC Lakhotia (with whom I did my PhD) studying a locus encoding non-coding RNA in Drosophila melanogaster.

My postdoctoral experience with Samir Brahmachari was also exciting. He mentored me for an interview for a lectureship position at the Department of Genetics, University of Delhi (DU). At DU, Deepak Pental convinced me to work on plant biology; we developed transgenics that we hope to see being farmed in the near future. 

I owe it to my teachers for kindling in me a love for science. Mentorship has played a significant role in helping me reach this stage of my academic journey. I am glad that I was mentored and not supervised’. I feel that academic mentorship is fading away.

To me, teaching is a work of heart’. I discovered this love around examination time, I understood the topic better once I taught it to my friends. This is true today – I achieved clarity in genetic concepts once I started teaching students. The joy of teaching is best achieved when an alumnus remembers my classes.

Do you introduce elements of your research in teaching?

To me, education is an amalgamation of learning, teaching, and research. What I teach in the classroom finds its way into research. My first-hand experience with research supplements my teaching. 

I share my mistakes that arise due to the vagaries of the system under study – it is important for students to know that mistakes are acceptable. I teach a course on Regulation of Gene Expression’ and my work on plant transgene expression gets plugged into teaching. 

During my PhD, in addition to conducting experiments, I learnt to fabricate apparatus, repair appliances, handle finances, and run projects on a shoestring budget. Today I realize that we received holistic training that has enabled me to impart this philosophy.

Which pedagogical tools have worked best for you in classrooms? Have you tried non-conventional approaches to teaching? 

I mostly use the blackboard, supported by a few video slides (if needed). We have a small class and I vary my approach depending on the educational background of the students. 

I love discussing classic papers of Mendel or Jacob and Monod to inspire students. My intent is to inspire students to read and forage on their own. An unconventional mode of teaching is compiled in the book Great Scientists Speak Again’ by Richard M Eakin. To attract students, Eakin used to dress up like scientists and enact his experiments in class. A flair for drama always helps!

For practical sessions, I try to design experiments that ask students to reason out explanations based on their observations. A few times they have suggested explanations that forced me to think in a new direction. 

Over the years I have stopped students from writing the typical practical record book/​copy’. I feel the norm of writing practical notebooks is the biggest example of plagiarism as most students copy exercises from the seniors. 

What are your views on undergraduate research? What are the pros and cons of such an approach?

Are we really equipped to carry out research in most of our colleges (except in a few elite institutes)? Routine lab practicals are not conducted optimally because of student overload and decimating infrastructure. Proper library facilities, access to journals, and residential campuses are a must for implementing research in undergraduate courses.

The first step should be to improve the current design of experiments for fostering student engagement and inculcating the spirit of questioning.

Our knowledge in the field of biology has increased rapidly. Which relevant courses do you think can be added to the curriculum?

With the development of knowledge, the curriculum needs to be updated on a regular basis. However, it is equally important to focus on building basic concepts. 

Courses should continue teaching organismal biology. Through the teaching of phylogenetics, evolutionary biology should be introduced. Biostatistics too needs to be comprehensively taught. In today’s age of data, it is important to make students understand its importance.

A course on writing skills is a must. History of science’ that discusses the evolution of a scientific field can also be experimented with.

Do you think professional networking is important in teaching as it is in research? How can one benefit from such networking?

It is very important to share one’s teaching experience with others. The first step could be that teachers attend each other’s classes and have constructive discussions on the teaching methodology. Just like research, teaching skills’ need to be nurtured. 

We do have a few networking platforms – an orientation program and two refresher courses. This is an opportunity for teachers across the country to network, these opportunities should be strengthened in a meaningful way.

How would you feel about sharing your teaching experiences as a mentor during teacher conferences? Do you know of any conferences for teachers of STEM in India? Do you think having these conferences is a good idea? 

I would love to do it, though I am not aware of any conferences for STEM teachers.

It is important that these forums be used to discuss new topics that could be taught, approaching the same in an interesting way and nurturing experimental skills. These forums can help teachers in pedagogy innovation.

All these have to be conducted keeping in mind the ground reality of our colleges and post-graduate departments. All such conferences or discussion meetings should be meaningful, not another box to be ticked in an academic year.

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