Columns Opinion

University-Institute Interactions: How will it Improve Undergraduate Biology Training in India?

Arunan M C

There are a few successful individual initiatives in University-Institute interactions in the past, some of them sustained since the eighties. Even as there is scope for institutionalizing these efforts further by involving more such city colleges in the ambit, the reproducibility of this engaging interaction involving research institutes and colleges in other centers in the country, is not in any serious doubt. Rather, it is highly called for, since potential scientists should be tapped at an early age onwards, from the academic hinterlands spread across the country. The Get Involved in Biology Series(GIBS) and the Wikilabs, initiated at the Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education, TIFR, Mumbai, recently, as well as programs like the Season Watch (NCBS, Bengaluru) are expected to functionally network students, teachers and researchers across the country through engaging in collaborative research in undergraduate biology. Harnessing the potential of the rich biodiversity, by developing newer model systems that are cost-effective and at the same time powerful enough to address even highly sophisticated questions is one of the other objectives.

What are some successful examples? Should they/​could they be promoted through specific efforts?
Life science program of the Sophia College (affiliated to Mumbai University) and the DBS (formerly the Molecular Biology Unit) of the TIFR, Mumbai: From the keen interest taken by Obaid Siddiqi in the eighties to the current support of youngsters like Vidita Vaidya, Shubha Tole, Krishanu Ray and up to most of the lately recruited faculty at the TIFR, there is sustained interactive programs between these two centers. (K. Vijayraghavan, currently Director, NCBS may recall, the first fly experiment we had conducted at the Sophia College was by using the temperature sensitive paralytic mutants from his lab at the TIFR, when he was a graduate student). Today, if the Life science Department of the Sophia College for Women is known as one of the few centers in the country for teaching Neuroscience through hands-on research, it is because of this synergy. Many more programs including collaborative research programs are planned between these two centers, till date.

As lately as in 2007, the late Veronica Rodrigues wanted a sustained undergraduate research program in Drosophila Functional Genomics involving massive number of students from first year BSc to the final year Master’s program and college teachers. Students called the program Drosofun!
More than 30 students worked together to screen these RNAi fly lines for behavioral defects including that in learning; it could not, however, be continued after two months, as Veronica had to shift to Begaluru, due to illness.
These person-centered initiatives could be institutionalized by involving more such teachers (& students) of other city colleges too, in programs like what Veronica had in mind. Veronica and some of us were inspired by Utpal Bannerjee’s (UCLA) forays into undergraduate research programs in the US and also by the HHMI initiatives.

How can one harness the collective intellectual resources and facilities in India to provide high quality education in the life sciences for college students?

Potential scientists should be spawned in schools and colleges/​universities; not at doctoral level programs.”(Annals of Neurosciences, 17 (4):152 – 153, 2010) »

20,000 colleges and about 1.5 million undergraduate biology students in India give the impression that we have lost out even before we ever started to address the issue. However, some of us feel that these numbers and the problems associated with them will be amenable, if we take a different approach than the conventional one. Interestingly, this number is going to be nearly doubled by 2017 when the next five- year plan concludes, according to one projection by the government. (This is because India is planning to catch up with the enrollment numbers what China has today in higher education — 20% of the age group, by then).

What is the way out? In tapping the 50,000 odd college biology teachers, most of who are teaching at the undergraduate level across the country! That is, if we don’t make it as part of the problem; but it is counted as an asset like how teachers in Sophia college in the eighties of the last century and the undergraduate students in Jaipur are counted as an asset, today. (Jaipur students along with a few junior faculties have their on-line mentors in Mumbai and Bengaluru, to start undergraduate research using fruit fly as the model system. These students in Jaipur are pursuing undergraduate research to understand the biological basis of behavior, including the cognitive behavior. For the first time, in Jaipur and its neighborhood, one can avail flies through this resource center, run exclusively by undergraduate students. They proudly call their center, the Drosophila Resource Center or DRC, Jaipur!)

In the era of the Internet (though it will yet take time to reach penetration in all colleges in the country, it will reach fast if we make it as part of a national plan), functional networking of 20,000 colleges can be done through launching a Biology Network with real nodal centers, about 500 of them, in the whole country. These nodal centers are notionally catering to 100 teachers each, though its real role is to sort out logistical problems expectedly encountered by them in their place of activity/​research. (One major issue will, perhaps, be to trouble-shoot the Internet access facility bottle-necks. A few others will be to sort out organizational behavior issues between the college Principal/​Management and the teachers /​students. Enrolling more teachers in the catchment area through inspiring programs will be another job requirement of the persons at the nodal center). Dr M.K. Bhan of the Department of Biotechnology, New Delhi had stated recently about plans to identify 500 colleges for a similar purpose.

Exciting undergraduate research questions in biology in a country as rich and diverse in biodiversity as India will be for the asking. Several initiatives like MigrantWatch/​SeasonWatch (NCBS, Bengaluru) are harbingers of more deep and penetrating questions that can be addressed at least partly at the level of mofussil colleges, with the help of resources available at the Biology Network. Extending these programs or part of such studies through the network is also going to be a natural process, then. Get Involved in Biology Series (GIBS) is a series of research programs initiated recently for which GIBS Awards will be earmarked to promote undergraduate and school biology research. Several other incentives too could be formulated, like giving out participation certificates as is being done in the latest program under the GIBS‑I, the Brain & Behavior Public Awareness Program. 

A program called Wikilabs has been initiated recently, at the Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education, TIFR, Mumbai, India. This is intended to collaboratively conduct research by collecting data, and also collectively analyze, discuss and publish papers in any area of scholarship. As a beginning, students and teachers from school onwards are encouraged to collect data on (a) animals that have multiple locomotor ability e.g. backwards as well as forward movement (b) common birds that can walk as well as hop and (c) one tree each in the neighborhood to clock its leaf-shedding, sprouting and flowering, round the year (e.g. the Gulmohur tree in my neighborhood is sprouting leaves; how about yours?”), to be posted on a site developed at http://​wiki​.metas​tu​dio​.org for that purpose, under the Get Involved in Biology Series (GIBS). This is closely aligned with the SeasonWatch program initiated recently by the NCBS, Bengaluru. Several active participants will be given GIBS Wikilabs Collaborative Research (WCR) Fellowship in the first week of October each year, coinciding with the announcement of the Nobel prizes.

We seek collaboration of all like-minded individuals and groups to the Get Involved in Biology Series (GIBS).