R. Geeta is a retired professor from the Department of Botany, University of Delhi, Delhi. In this interview, she talks about her journey in academia and her opinions on pedagogical tools and teacher networks.
Please tell us a bit about your journey so far in academia.
I taught Botany at Miranda House (University of Delhi) for a short while after completing my Masters in Botany from the University of Delhi. During this time, I wrote the Agricultural Research Service exam (ARS), got selected and then spent around 11 years in Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) doing mariculture and environmental monitoring. Although I learnt a great deal about the system there, somehow, it was not working for me. So, I started applying to universities abroad for PhD.
I got admission to the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department at the University of Arizona, where I did my PhD on monocot phylogenetics and evolution. After my PhD, I got a Katherine Esau Postdoctoral Fellowship to do research in Evolutionary Developmental Biology at the University of California, Davis.
In 1997, I was offered a job at Stony Brook University where I taught general biology and plant diversity to undergraduates, and phylogenetics and related subjects to post-graduate students. After spending around 12 years in Stony Brook, I shifted to my alma mater- Department of Botany, University of Delhi in 2009. I taught evolutionary biology and phylogenetic biology to post-graduate students here as well.
What prompted you to shift to your Alma mater (University of Delhi) from Stony Brook University?
It was more that I had never intended to stay that long in the US. After I finished my PhD and during my post-doc, I looked for jobs both in India and the US, but there were few openings here. So, when I got good offers in the US, I stayed there. Overall, it was an exciting 20 years and I grew a lot as a scientist and a teacher. However, then I found that research money was drying up in general, and shifting towards “Big Science” i.e. large collaborative projects, something I did not find comfortable. I seriously started thinking about coming back to India. I informed my friends of my intention and visited India several times in those years. So, when my good friend Shanti Balakrishnan told me about the job at the University of Delhi, I jumped at it (not without misgivings), and never regretted the decision.
Based on your experience, what pedagogical tools do you think work best in classrooms? Do you find any differences in pedagogical tools used by teachers in India and the US?
I think it has to be a mixture of lectures, reading, discussion, practicals, and projects.
The Botany Department has a strong tradition of laboratory component in every course, and I must have internalized this approach. At Stony Brook, I crafted an undergraduate course on Plant Diversity and consciously devised different activities to entice students into the study of plants. I required students to do two short plant projects. The first was one where students would grow a plant, look after it, monitor it and then write a report on it. The second was on secondary metabolites where they would research in the library and on the internet, make posters and present their findings. Students researched about morphine, marijuana, etc., because they are attracted to things like that! I had to then reorient them to thinking about why it was important for the plants to produce them and not how we use these metabolites. The attempt was to make them think in a broader biological context.
I had post-graduate students do similar projects in the Botany Department at the University of Delhi. I saw that students found those activities exciting. However, I think that everything cannot be taught through engagement or what is called active learning, it definitely has to be combined with the classical lecture mode. This is because different students have different ways of learning.
On the difference between the methodology used by teachers in the US and India, one cannot generalize things. There are some teachers in the US who would try to make their lectures more fun and engaging and you find such teachers in India as well. It also depends on the number of students in a class. If there are around 200 or more students in the class, it is difficult to teach in activity mode whereas if the number is low, a teacher can more easily resort to such tools.
Our knowledge in the field of biology is increasing at a rapid pace. Which courses do you think one can add to our curriculum to make biological programs more exciting and relevant?
That must be a loaded question! Evolutionary biology, of course! It is the most neglected area. Well, I’m not suggesting a full program, although that’s not a bad idea either. What I would want is introducing evolutionary biology as a unit or course at the undergraduate level in botany and zoology.
At the undergraduate level, evolutionary biology is limited to a few topics such as Darwinism, Lamarckism, genetic drift and Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, which students are unable to connect. The main reason I feel that evolutionary biology should be taught to everyone and in a proper manner is that, literally, things make no sense “except in the light of evolution”. With the present explosion of genomic data, students are doing large genome comparisons and will do a better job of interpreting results if they have knowledge of evolutionary principles underlying this variation.
Do you think networking is important in teaching as it is in research? How can one benefit from such networking?
I think that “good” teachers independently come to the same or similar approaches as those promoted by researchers of pedagogy; several of us definitely benefit from learning about these techniques from other teachers. A faculty often has to teach multiple subjects in which they do not specialize. In such cases, teacher networking groups where teachers can exchange ideas can be beneficial. I think we should have some starting conferences which can then expand into discussion groups.