Columns Indian Scenario

Teaching and Research initiative in India

Satyajit Mayor

As it appeared in the ASCB newsletter

Science education and research in India is experiencing a huge fillip. In addition to cutting edge and exciting research in existing institutes (see for example: The biological sciences in India: aiming high for the future.Vale RD, Dell K.J Cell Biol. 2009. 184:342 – 53), a number of new and exciting educational initiatives have been set into motion in the past four years. This is not only transforming the opportunities for talented young students of science, but also providing an incentive for researchers to return to India at this time. However, the scale of the operation poses many challenges. This is mainly in light of a lack of adequately trained teachers and researchers in the cutting edge areas of science in India today. This is particularly acute for Biology, where the number of top quality practicing scientists in the whole country of India just about approach that in a medium sized university system in the US.

In this regard, some of us (members of the IAC) felt that the membership of the ASCB provides a wonderful opportunity to draw on a pool of talented and inspiring teachers and researchers to help bridge this gap in India, in somespecific areas where a set of identified institutes have expressed a need. To initiate this engagement, we contacted a few colleagues in three institutes to ask their views about what they would envisage for such a program. At the outset, I must add that this initiative has received very positive replies and reflects huge enthusiasm to engage with ASCB researchers.

In the initial phase of this engagement, the National Centre for Biological Sciences will serve as a nodal agency to coordinate the arrangements in India. In addition to spending some time at any one or more of the institutes listed below, we hope that ASCB members will be able to visit NCBS during their stay in India and engage with researchers and students and also give research seminar(s).

A number of Biology coordinators at the newly founded Indian Institutes for Science Education and Research, abbreviated, as almost everything is in India, as the IISERs (see below for an explanation of IISER) and the newly formed Stem Cell Biology Institute called inSTEMhave expressed an interest in having members of the ASCB visit India for a few months at a time and possibly teach a course at an institution in India. I think these institutions present an excellent opportunity for ASCB members to engage with an international effort in India. Teaching an excellent freshman course could be very valuable at some places while more advanced courses including hands on workshops at others. The presence of these researchers on campus interacting with the students over a period of a few months would leave an even more lasting impression. Workshops are also an important activity that will bring to bear the considerable human resource base of the ASCB to this exciting experiment in Research and Educationin India.

Satyajit Mayor (NCBS) and Jim Spudich(Stanford), both ASCBIAC members, HemaSomanathan and MK Mathew (for IISER, Trivandrum), L. Shashidhara (for IISER, Poona), and JyotsnaDhawan (for inSTEM, Bangalore) have agreed to act as the initial coordinators:
Interested participants may write to Satyajit Mayor or Jim Spudichwho will in turn direct your enquiries to the coordinators below.

Background on some ofthe institutes and their individual requirements:
The Indian Institutes for Science Education and Research (IISER) at Trivandrum and Poona are two of five such institutes set up by the Government of India over the past 4 years. The others are in Mohali, Bhopal and Kolkata. These institutes admit students after high school for an Integrated Masters programme — ie the students graduate with Masters degrees in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry or Biology. The first 2 years of the programme are common for all incoming students. They choose their majors in their 3rd year and graduate in 5.

The IISERs are not exclusively undergraduate teaching institutions as they also have vigorous research programmes and will (at steady state) be admitting graduate students in significant numbers — perhaps half as many as their undergraduate intake. They also plan to have their undergraduates undertake a year-long research project during their 5th year.

The initial batches of students admitted were drawn in large part from applicants to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and had ranked among the top in their entrance exam. It is proposed to widen the intake stream. The students are, in general, very bright. However, many of them have limited exposure to or affinity for Biology. It would be extremely valuable to expose these students to very well taught Biology courses and to people who could enthuse them about Biology. That way, the IISERs aim to have many graduating students trained in different disciplines, who have an affinity for Biology. The faculty at the IISERs, have been chosen for research that is intrinsically interdisciplinary and goes beyond the boundaries of conventional thinking, in addition to their obvious research accomplishments, promise and teaching proficiency. One of the great strengths of IISERs is their interdisciplinarity. While purity of individual disciplines are maintained, IISERs have physicists/​chemists/​biologists and mathematicians working shoulder to shoulder, without any departmental (or compartmental) structure. At IISERs, the ambience is very academic, energy levels are high and there has been great enthusiasm amongst the faculty and students to carry out high quality research.

At IISER, Trivandrum, Kerala (http://​iis​ertvm​.ac​.in/):
Biology at IISER, Trivandrum (TVM) is anchored by a very small team of biologists, working in very different areas of biology, headed by Prof. HemaSomanathan (hsomanathan@​iisertvm.​ac.​in).

Hema indicates that at IISER, TVM there is a requirement for a lecture and discussion based course with some hands-on workshops, that are feasible with the limited infrastructure currently available in this newly set up institute. Students opting for this course will be familiar with basic concepts in cell biology at undergraduate/​early graduate level. Facilities available to aid teaching such a course (or will be shortly available) include fluorescence and phase contrast microscopes, stereomicroscopes, AFM, flow cytometers and tissue culture facilities. The course may be taught in modules by ASCB resource persons, each spending 2 – 3 weeks, if that is feasible, teaching and guiding hands-on practical sessions.

Suggested course modules may cover topics such as chromatin biology, cytoskeleton and motors, intracellular trafficking, cell signaling, adhesion and motility.
The class will consist of a few biology major and minor students, and a few PhD students. The total class strength will not exceed 10.

IISER, Trivandrum will be delighted to take care of local hospitality and domestic air travel to TVM for the lecturer(s).

At IISER, Poona, Maharashtra(http://​www​.iis​er​pune​.ac​.in):
The IISER at Poona is more advanced in its Biology program, headed by Professor L. Shashidhara, and is interested in hosting intensive workshops on specific topics in Cell and Molecular Biology. In addition to the first proposal, others could also include Tissue and Developmental aspects as well as the Ecological Sciences. At the Poona IISER, it should be possible to coordinate a select set of ASCB members to form a core of a teaching and research intensive workshop on a regular basis.
Shashi says that a course on Fundamentals of cellular mechanics: A workshop for Integrated MS and PhD students, would be very valuable at this stage.
Venue: IISER Poona
Contact: L. Shashidhara (ls.​shashidhara@​iiserpune.​ac.​in)
Duration: 2 weeks
Time: Anytime between December to March.
Mode: 2 lectures a day. Hands-on workshop. Available facility: confocal (LSM710), Live cell imaging with TIRF, multi-frequency and sub-ångström AFMs designed for cellular mechanics work (being built in-house), a specially designed module mounted on confocal for measuring mechanical tension (being built in-house).
In-house faculty: would include biologists, biophysicists, physicists, mathematicians etc.
The cell’s inherent mechanical properties and its ability to interpret and respond to mechanical stimuli are increasingly being recognized to play a crucial role in the proper function of cells. Deregulation of cellular mechanics is also implicated in a number of pathologies, like the loss of tensional homeostasis in cancer. Therapeutic strategies, like the burgeoning field of tissue engineering, also rest on the foundation of cellular mechanics.

Deformation of the cell’s load-bearing structures and mechano-responsive biochemical signaling constitute the two major components of the cell’s response to physical forces. The cell also has intrinsic force generation abilities spanning several spatio-temporal scales, including those involved in cell migration, molecular motors and micromechanics of chromatin. The last few years have seen tremendous progress in these areas, particularly with the development of a number of highly sensitive and quantitative tools to study cellular responses to time-varying forces. Theoretical approaches, like the tensegrity model, have been developed and are increasingly guiding experiments or aiding their interpretation.

We propose a workshop where the basic concepts, recent advances, technological innovations and theoretical approaches will be introduced and developed by leading researchers in the area of cell mechanics. IISER Poona, with its emphasis on interdisciplinary research and outreach spanning research scientists to undergraduates is well poised to host this event.