Columns Opinion

Over-emphasis on the so-called Molecular Biology” has stunted Biology

Subhash Chandra Lakhotia

This blog picks up some threads from my earlier blogs: Are we teaching biology well?” and Advantages of working with organisms other than the model systems”.

When I ask an aspirant for Ph.D., holding a Master’s degree in any branch of life sciences, about what he/​she would like to undertake research on, the answer given by a large majority of them is molecular biology” or biotechnology”. Discussions with many colleagues across the country reveals that evoking such simple and short answers, which the young aspirant believes is a smart” answer, is not my unique experience. This makes me wonder if molecular biology is a research topic or a set of methods of study or a distinct discipline in biology? While answers to this would vary with individual perceptions, it is clear that young students develop great fascination for the so-called molecular biology”, often perceived by teachers and taught alike as a synonym of modern biology”. A slight prodding of the young doctoral study aspirant reveals, that all that they know about molecular biology” is a set of names of currently fashionable techniques, without either knowing their theoretical bases or their applications. With such preparation, I would not blame the students if they have no question/​s in their mind to pursue for the Ph.D. research.

A clean slate” would be better to start research with than a wrongly imprinted” one! But wrongly imprinted/​primed minds seem to be produced in increasingly larger proportion by our academic institutions. Why have we come to this state of affairs? Besides the overflow of new information and poor teaching, the undue emphasis on molecular biology and concomitant undermining or simple ridicule of basic biology (including biodiversity) seems to be another important factor for the present mess. The absence of informed and inspiring teachers, highly compartmentalized and fragmented course contents is compounded by an utter lack of any meaningful laboratory work in the classical” as well as modern” teaching programs. Graduates with degrees in the so-called modern biology” subjects (biotechnology, molecular biology, genomics, genetics, bioinformatics, nanobiotechnology and the like) often have little exposure to biodiversity or basic cell biology, physiology, genetics, developmental biology, evolution etc. On the other hand, majority of the traditional” departments, in the run to modernize themselves, have not only lost their standing in biodiversity and other basic studies but have also failed to develop any meaningful expertise in molecular biology. Their products thus also remain ignorant of biology. Knowledge of molecular biology techniques is essential today, but cannot be the end in itself.

The introduction of teaching programmes in Biotechnology, initially at the Master’s level and later at Bachelor’s or even school levels, dramatically changed life sciences teaching and research in the country. I have earlier discussed the negative impact of teaching programmes in Biotechnology and related specialized subjects (Are biotechnology degree courses relevant? Current Science 94: 1244 – 1245; Hype and the reality of biotechnology). It is significant to note that countries which are really leading in Biotechnology, do not offer such specialized teaching programs as we do in India. Yet, the state of local biotechnology industry is not laudable.

The consequences of little understanding of biology is reflected in the general complain that the quality of products coming out of universities in recent years is deteriorating voiced by research institutions in the country, despite the fact that these research labs attract better of the young Ph. D. aspirants. Most of the young Ph.D.s, including those graduated from the well-established research institutions, are often not able to frame original questions for future research beyond their immediate area of the previous research. Even after varying period of post-doctoral experience, many of them remain at the 3UTR of the problem”, a phrase that I commonly use to describe research programs that are essentially an extension of earlier work, and for which the young PI had approval” of the earlier boss”!

The limited comprehension of basic biology and biodiversity does not encourage the young PIs to move beyond the model system” that he/​she became familiar with during doctoral and/​or post-doctoral research. As I mentioned earlier (“Advantages of working with organisms other than the model systems”), it would indeed be a great advantage to young PIs in India to exploit the enormous biodiversity that the sub-continent offers. The young PIs can, with some extra and sincere effort, indeed prepare themselves to move out of the model systems and exploit the advantages of the available biodiversity. A greater challenge, however, is to improve our teaching programmes. We desperately need more broad-based and balanced teaching programmes on one hand and inspiring and knowledgeable teachers on the other.

Despite the enormity presented by the very large student population, the reforms must start sooner than later. It will indeed be in the self-interest of established scientists/​researchers to take to teaching as well so that their knowledge/​understanding may really help younger minds to get excited (see Swati Patnikar’s Scientist and Teacher”). We need to let the young minds feel the excitement of knowing the diverse living systems in nature and thereby, make them curious about the very different solutions that have evolved in different organisms for common ends/​environmental conditions. Molecular understandings of these unusual life styles, adaptations and the underlying evolutionary processes will not only be exciting to decipher, but may also offer unanticipated scope for applied studies. Judicious applications of molecular biological and genomic approaches to such biological/​natural history studies would indeed be exciting and pioneering. Every issue of Current Biology, Bioessays, Journal of Experimental Biology and other similar journals provide remarkable examples of the unlimited scope for going out in nature and finding new questions which can be pursued at great depths because of the powerful molecular biological approaches possible. However, to achieve and sustain this, we need to provide a more holistic training to students at Bachelor’s and Master’s levels, not only in the broad field of biology but other natural sciences as well. Then only real inter- or trans-disciplinary research collaborations will be effective. Young minds, even those with inherent intelligence and drive, would remain substantially under-productive unless their curiosity is timely stimulated and excited. We must not let our very rich and capable human resource languish for want of better preparedness on part of teachers and teaching institutions. Obviously, to generate academic leaders in the next generation, we need inspiring and creative teachers in the present generation.