In Conversation with a Mentor | Interview with Bimalendu B Nath

In Conversation with a Mentor (ICM) Episode 4 | S1

The guest of this episode of In Conversation with a Mentor’ is Bimalendu B. Nath, an Emeritus Professor of Savitribai Phule Pune University, and the Vice President of the Association of Teachers in Biological Sciences, Mumbai. Bimal has been teaching Genetics, Evolution, and Biodiversity for nearly three decades and is actively involved in science outreach programmes. In this episode, he talks about his journey as an educator and throws light on some of the current challenges of higher education in biology in India.

Podcast Duration: 17 min 46 sec

Note to listeners: This recording was done over a zoom meeting call due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This has resulted in a slightly diminished audio quality with some mild disturbances in the recording, compared to a studio-quality recording.

[00:01] — Intro 

You’re listening to IndiaBiospeaks, your one-stop resource for science, news, and careers.

[00:11] — Vijeta Raghuram

Hello and welcome back toIn Conversation with a Mentor’, a series of conversations with some pathbreaking mentors across the life science community. I am Vijeta Raghuram, the Program Manager — Education at IndiaBioScience, and the guest of this episode is Bimalendu B Nath, an emeritus professor of Savitribai Phule Pune University. Bimal has been teaching genetics, evolution, and biodiversity for nearly three decades, and is actively involved in science outreach programmes. He is currently the Vice President of the Association of Teachers in biological sciences and is working along with his colleagues to create a platform to motivate biology educators. His passion and active involvement in science pedagogy for the school and undergraduate students is well reflected in his writings in scientific periodicals, journals, and magazines. Hello, Bimal, and welcome to In Conversation with a Mentor’.

[01:09] — Bimalendu B Nath 

Hello. At the outset, thanks IndiaBioScience for inviting me to this podcast. It’s a privilege.

[segue music]

[1:23] — Vijeta Raghuram

Bimal, you are a researcher, educator, author, and administrator, which role is closest to your heart and why?

[01:33] — Bimalendu B Nath 

I enjoy each of these facets of my profession. But I’m very passionate about teaching. And research does not interfere with my teachings. Of course, there is a lot of administrative work to do. But finally, at the end of the day, it’s the teaching and interaction with the students that make me feel happy and I get job satisfaction. My students often say that I was born to be a teacher and a mentor. Perhaps that’s the reason why I enjoy my role as a teacher and a mentor more than anything else.

[segue music]

[02:12] — Vijeta Raghuram

Tell us the story behind your career journey. What made you choose this path? And were there moments in your life that you would call turning points?

[02:23] — Bimalendu B Nath 

Quite often, one can get motivation from bad things that happen in life. I was born in Meghalaya and I grew up in Assam. My father had a transferable permit job and so I studied at many schools in different places in Assam and Meghalaya. And in my school days, bad and unpleasant experiences motivated me to make a difference as a teacher, which I am now. And I wanted to change the culture of the learning environment. And when I got my job at Pune university, in 1992, I made sure that my students would never feel the way I suffered in my school. Now, to answer your query or the turning point in my life, I’d rather say that there was not a single turning point and no two directions. My life was never the same. I always faced an uncertain future. There were too many hurdles. So instead of a single turning point, I experienced many twists and turns. 

In this context, I would love to mention six mentors who influenced me to shape my future professional life. My association with my BSc. teacher, Mr. Mohan Lal Zaigatar in the college Silchar, Assam affiliated with Guwahati university was phenomenal. You know, he helped me to discover life in life sciences. It was really phenomenal for me because I used to find those school board textbooks lifeless, although they were textbooks for life science or biology. So he brought life to my life science, you know, the personal curriculum. Later on, I moved to the Visva-Bharati Central University, Santiniketan, West Bengal, to complete my master’s in life sciences. And I met professor Samir Bhattacharya. He triggered my interest in biochemical pathways and he was instrumental for me to choose my specializations in environmental physiology and biochemistry. And then I worked as an MSc dissertation student under Professor Shelley Bhattacharya and then professor Achith Bharamdas. So Professor Das introduced a book to me, which I would like to mention. The title of the book is strategies of biochemical adaptation by Peter W. Hochachka and George N. Somero. Until today, I can tell you what is written on any of the pages, you can ask. The influence of this book went far beyond my doctoral and postdoctoral tenure and made me what I am today, a researcher in stress biology. When I met Professor Subhash Chandra Lakhotia and decided to work under him for my Ph.D. at Banaras University, the influence of Hochachka’s book helped me to rationalize the philosophy of my doctoral work, we call it Ph.D., a doctorate in philosophy in some subjects, and my postdoctoral mentor or professor Devi Prasad Varma played a key role to enjoy science in real sense. So, Professor Samir Bhattacharya, Professor Lakhotia, and Varma turned me onto a different level of intellectual path. So the book by Hochachka and Somero and my mentors had a profound influence on my career.

[segue music]

[05:58] — Vijeta Raghuram

Bimal, you have had a long and ongoing stint in the education sector. What is your philosophy of education?

[06:06 ] — Bimalendu B Nath 

As a teacher, I must provide my students with a positive learning environment where they feel loved, and wanted. And teachers should know that each student has different learning strengths with different learning needs. As for me, I have never discriminated one student against the other. That was the bad experience I mentioned in one of the questions you asked. And so I have never discriminated against any student with other students sitting in the classroom because all students can learn and succeed, which I believe, but not at the same level, on the same day. And also not in the same way. This is one thing you know, it’s my personal philosophy of teaching. Slow learning, I must tell my teacher called it slow learning, is not a learning disability. One should understand. We always look for bright students, oh, this student is very bright, we glorify, and then we create a kind of social discrimination in the classroom. And then many students suffer from inferiority complexes. I never do that. I don’t believe in applying the Darwinian principle in the teaching-learning process. I don’t want to create a classroom environment where you know, there is a struggle for existence in the Darwinian sense. Yes, I must as a teacher prepare the students to compete in the future, but I must understand the heterogeneity of the student population and deal with them very sensitively. Okay. So I must deal with different cohorts of students differently. I must understand, that as a teacher, I have a job of harnessing the potential of bright talented students. True. But I have a challenging job also for slow learners. And I love to teach the so-called backbenchers. Teaching slow learners is challenging, but I can tell you, it is incredibly rewarding if one succeeds.

[08:05] — Vijeta Raghuram

Bimal, what is the biggest challenge that you have faced so far as an educator?

[08:11] — Bimalendu B Nath 

Let me share my experience as an educator in biology, you know, I restrict myself to biology. Yeah, I’ve encountered students who are at the tertiary level of the education system, which includes undergraduate and postgraduate students. And many students opt biology by default. And not by choice, mostly because they fail to go to other branches due to relatively higher cutoff, which is demanded for the qualifying marks. So the many students you know, they end up in biology, and they find this biology a boring subject and end up mugging up. So I teach undergraduate students who are enrolled for five year integrated course, it also masters students in geology biotechnology. So, every year I struggle to give some of these students who had chosen biology by default, not by choice, so that you know, they gain a greater appreciation, because I alone cannot change the textbooks. And this and also the curricula, if you look at some of these textbooks for biology, at the secondary level of education, I feel helpless, because it is only loaded with information, there is nothing to understand. The conceptualization is missing. There is no clue, the student starts self study without a teacher. So they end up finding these books very monotonous.

[segue music]

[09:48] — Vijeta Raghuram

And now the pandemic has brought in new challenges, you know, overnight, the education shifted to online mode. So how are educators and students coping with these sudden changes that have been brought by the pandemic?

[10:00] — Bimalendu B Nath 

This has been an unprecedented situation. Routine classroom-based teaching-learning has been suspended due to prolonged lockdown and other restrictions in order to check the spread of the Coronavirus, COVID-19. So, it has been a real challenge for all of us to shift from offline classroom to online mode and even conduct exams. So, in this context, biology as a discipline poses a number of challenges, which I feel are not generally encountered to that extent by the teachers of non-biology disciplines. For example, we’re here to find out how to execute online laboratory-based exercises in biology especially for real-time observation of living entities, like we have model organisms and microscopic observation, real-time microscopic observation of changes in the cells, microbes, and other physiological things, which we conduct in the laboratory-based exercises which we call practicals. And another challenge is the biology teaching, life sciences in general, there are many field-based studies. So field-based studies, and ecological surveys, are very difficult to do online. I have no clue, but maybe there are many suggestions coming up. But we are yet to find out about online learning for the laboratory and field-based exercises. So this is one of the challenges yet to be met and answered.

[11:38] — Vijeta Raghuram

So how do you mentor students and help them maintain a positive mindset in the face of all of these challenges and goals of education?

[11:48] — Bimalendu B Nath 

My primary objective is to create an ambiance and positive learning environment. Teachers are influential in students’ lives. So it becomes a rewarding profession when we take them along the way in the educational journey.

[segue music]

[12:11] — Vijeta Raghuram

Could you suggest a few actions that educators and administrators could take to address these challenges?

[12:21] — Bimalendu B Nath 

Let me answer your question in two parts. And I’ll restrict myself to biology students in particular, and for biology educators. First of all, we need to revamp our classroom teaching methodology. The dumping of information and memory-based data can be minimized. It’s important because, without information, you cannot synthesize knowledge. So this is important, but we should minimize it and there should be a proper balance. And at the undergraduate level, I’m mostly referring to the undergraduate level. So we need to devote more time to helping the students to build up their mental bank, you know, to appreciate the complexity of the biological phenomenon. visualization is another way of making the dynamic nature of the living world and living processes interesting. We generally say, seeing is believing. And so, visual learning and visual aids are very, very important for the teachers to include in their teaching. 

Now, the second part of the solution is related to the student community in the COVID-19 pandemic. In this scenario, the students across the states, over India, the situation is the same in other countries, too. They’re suffering from something called COVID fatigue and there is serious concern about their mental health. So their attention span has reduced, which I have realized during my online lectures and when I meet them, so we as teachers need to be creative and incorporate breaks and some type of recreation. I’m saying that, like what I have done in one of the teachings, the long teaching I said, Okay, next let us watch a video, which will explain what I explained so far. You will see the things in educational videos. So just relax and see and then I come back to these types of breaks in online teaching. Maybe, you know, the warranted now. Otherwise, there will be serious, you know, the fallout of the COVID fatigue.

[segue music]

[14:43] — Vijeta Raghuram

You are the Vice President of the Association of Teachers and Biological Sciences. Can you please tell us about the purpose and the work done by this association?

[14:54] — Bimalendu B Nath 

Yeah, I’m a founder member of the Association of Teachers in Biological Sciences. Our aim is to Create a platform for teachers in biological sciences to contribute to biological education. So ATBS, that’s the Association of Teachers in Biological Sciences, along with Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Mumbai, we organize exposure camps for biology teachers, conferences, and many other resource camps. ATBS publishes an email newsletter, Biome, which is the biology education messenger Biome, and I’m one of the editors. At Biome we try to motivate biology educators in India, the newsletter is available online, and anybody can get access to it. So I hope this small effort by ATBS will create awareness about the challenging needs of biology education right now.

[segue music]

[16:02] — Vijeta Raghuram

Bimal, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your journey, your work, and your thoughts with us. You raise some very pertinent and yet somewhat less addressed and less appreciated issues with the current higher education system. And we hope that your thoughts and experiences will inspire educators as well as administrators to view the process of teaching, learning, and mentoring in a fresh light. Thank you.

[16:31] — Bimalendu B Nath 

Thank you IndiaBioScience once again for giving me this platform and forum to express my thoughts.

[16:41] — Vijeta Raghuram

Thank you all for listening to IndiaBiospeaks In Conversation with a Mentor’. We look forward to receiving your comments and feedback.

[16:52] — Outro 

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