Columns Indian Scenario

Collaborative Undergraduate Biology Research (CUBE)

Athulaprabha Murthi

The main aim of CUBE was to change our brain! long term memory happens because of synaptic change and new structure’s are formed! so thats true in this couple of weeks of CUBE, we moved out with a different structure of brain than what we had earlier when we entered!” — Mayur Gaekward,

Mayur Gaekwad was transformed in just 5 weeks of a workshop- Collaborative Undergraduate Biology Education (CUBE) held at Homi Bhabha Research Center for Science Education (HBCSE) from late May to the end of June. What exactly is CUBE? It is the brainchild of M.C. Arunan, a visiting fellow at HBCSE and G. Nagarjuna, a faculty at the center with the aim of re-energizing students within biology. They aim to do this, by introducing undergraduate students to research, asking simple questions using simple tools. More than actually getting publishable data, the aim is to piqué the curiosity among students to ask questions, train them to analytically seeks answers through experimentation, interpret results and finally experience the joy of one’s own endeavor. A CUBE team will consist of students from different colleges, thereby instilling collaboration at an early state. Many undergraduate colleges in remote areas of India do not have the space or resources to do research or for that matter even experiments within the syllabus. In such cases, collaboration with other institutions or colleges comes to rescue. Arunan dreams of building a network of all the 26000 colleges in India and enabling them to work together in a collaborative environment to enhance the experience of science students.

Being a staunch supporter for undergraduate research, Arunan has been working the past few years, building and accessing simple model systems that can be maintained and used by students – Drosophila, Snails, Earthworms – studying olfaction in Drosophila, regeneration of segments in earthworms and memory in snails are some of the projects that interests students. G. Nagarjuna, brings in a different aspect into the collaborative picture – he studies education or rather science education. How does one study that? With hordes of studies being conducted world over, it is now a field of its own. The aim will be to assess instruction methods that work to excite students. Nagarjuna is also initiating undergraduate teachers and students into Citizen Research Projects. The latest addition is behvaiorwatch@home (http://​metas​tu​dio​.org/​g​r​o​u​p​s​/​b​w​h​/wiki ). This was used to develop Crow as a Model system during CUBE Summer 2012, to promote cataloguing with a view to generate a taxonomy of motor behavior, e.g. locomotor patterns.

June 29th to July 1st, a symposium of sorts was held at the HBCSE, where the students who participated in the workshop presented research proposals for to an audience of undergraduate teachers from across India. These were mostly second year undergraduate students. 5 weeks as you can imagine is not sufficient for doing meaningful research but what the workshop did manage is to awaken the curiosity of the students, talking to them, it was impossible to miss the excitement they felt about their work. As one of the students put it to me

The CUBE program, I thought would be full of experiments like we do in our college. But when I saw the lab at the Homi Bhabha Center, it was something very different!! How so simple can a lab be? That was my first question when i saw CUBE lab. NO fancy stuff in the lab but, then, there were high level talks and discussions while using simple stuff that we were using !”

Apart from giving the students a chance to present their work, this 3‑day symposium further explored the methods of teaching, e.g. is research the only way to spread the enthusiasm of science among students? I am myself not certain of the answer. Each student is different some learn by experimentation, some by instruction, some by videos or role play, how do we cater to the needs of each student, how to convey key concepts in science to these different students. It is very clear that the teachers understand this as well and they are trying various methods to teach and enthuse students, some teachers use research, some visual aids, some skits/​theatre and some like Raju Menon who teaches Human Physiology to Medical Students at Manipal Medical College use role play (http://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​7​u​h​T​2​i​p​Q​p​K​s​&​f​e​a​t​u​r​e​=plcp or http://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​8​x​x​e​2​W​W​W​o​Y​I​&​f​e​a​t​u​r​e​=plcp). He has proven that such interactions with the student actually enables them to understand the relevant diseases/​symptoms better as well as relate those symptoms to physiological defects that result in them

(Advan in Physiol Edu 32:329 – 331, 2008. doi:10.1152/advan.90105.2008).

Himanshu Joshi, an MTech student at Center for Converging Technologies in Jaipur, talked about a student lead effort to create the Drosophila Resource Center (DRC). This complete student-only team, manages DRC with the help of some mentors like Arunan. The Center was started by enthusiastic students like Himanshu, who got fly strains from NCBS and decided to use them to study olfaction and larval learning & memory. Though the batch of students, that began the studies graduated, they continue to be closely involved in mentoring their juniors at the DRC. Most communication is via email, but they have videos to guide the students for simple tasks such as autoclaving, or maintenance of cultures (http://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​h​M​M​s​K​O​BTvhY). The students have also acquired a grant from the Department of Science and Technology (DST) to support them in their endeavors.

One point that came out clearly in this symposium was the fact, that it is not the research, role play, visual aid or any other method of teaching that can by itself excite the student, it is but a tool. The main drive is the interaction with the teacher, that bridging of the gap between the instructor and the student, which eventually manages to bring them out of their shell to display their talents and finally enables them to reach their full potential.

Linking colleges across India through collaborative undergraduate biology research will be enthusing lakhs of students and enabling them to achieve their dreams whatever they might be.