Emerging trends in the life sciences’: An event to make biology and biologists more accessible to UG students and educators

Vijeta Raghuram, Priya R & Suma S

On 4 Nov 2022, IndiaBioscience and NMKRV College for Women, Bengaluru co-organised a one-day seminar for undergraduate and post-graduate students and faculty, featuring talks on the upcoming areas of biology by scientists in the city. In this article, Vijeta Raghuram, Program Manager-Education, IndiaBioscience, Priya R, a faculty at the Department of Biotechnology of the College, and Suma S, a student of the College share highlights of the event and why such events are essential for undergraduate students and educators.

Emerging trends in the life sciences
Emerging trends in the life sciences 

IndiaBioscience, with its various verticals and projects, aims to strengthen the life science community in India. Among them is the Education’ vertical, which aspires to enhance undergraduate biology education in India by encouraging networking among educators, promoting research at the undergraduate level, and bridging the gap between scientists and educators (and their students). It also strives to enhance the scientific temperament of students and educators, and deepen their interest in the life sciences. With these goals in mind, IndiaBioscience joined hands with the life sciences and chemistry departments of the NMKRV College for Women, Bengaluru, one of the most renowned colleges in the city, to organise a one-day seminar for undergraduate and postgraduate students and faculty. The NAAC-accredited autonomous college, which has won the College with potential for Excellence’ award by UGC in 2010 and several national grants to build its research capacity, endeavours to provide a balanced, comprehensive education to its students.

Titled Emerging Trends in the Life Sciences’, the event took place on 4 November 2022 in the Shashwati Auditorium of the College. The auditorium was filled to its capacity with 280 highly motivated students and faculty from in and around Bengaluru. The event featured talks by leading and upcoming scientists working in the areas of biochemistry, gene editing, microbial ecology, neurochemistry and sustainability. The speakers thrilled the audience with the biological mysteries they are trying to solve while educating them about the emerging areas of research in their fields. Here are the highlights of the event.

Reflections on Chemistry and Biology in the Age of the Coronavirus — P. Balaram.

P. Balaram speaking at the event. Source: NMKRV College for Women
P. Balaram speaking at the event. Source: NMKRV College for Women

If there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us about science, it is the indispensability of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to solving a problem. In his keynote talk, P. Balram, the former director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru brought forth the connections between chemistry and biology, the often convoluted nature of scientific discoveries, and how new technologies aid them. He also spoke about his own literature research during the lockdowns’ on the early history of the coronaviruses, which led him to its lesser-known discoverer Dorothy Hamre. 

Hamre was a virologist and infectious disease researcher at the University of Chicago’s Department of Medicine, who first isolated a strain of the coronavirus. Her contributions, though uncelebrated, form the pillars of what we understand about coronaviruses today. As popular biology textbooks severely lack in examples of woman scientists, the mention of Dorothy Hamre to a room full of students (most of whom were women, as the host was a women’s college) held particular significance.

Genetic Engineering in the CRISPR/​Cas era — Shruthi S Vembar

Shruthi S. Vembar speaking at the event. Source: NMKRV College for Women
Shruthi S. Vembar speaking at the event. Source: NMKRV College for Women

Gene editing is an inseparable part of a biotechnology course and is often a topic of great excitement and debate. It is even more so in the wake of the CRISPR/​Cas technology, a versatile technology with many applications, enabling precise editing in virtually any organism. Shruthi S. Vembar, an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology, Bengaluru, uses CRISPR/​Cas technologies to develop genetic screens to identify new targets for anti-malarial drug development. She spoke about how CRISPR/​Cas has revolutionised the field of genetic engineering, while also throwing light on the ethical considerations and the need for policy changes in order to fit new technologies in health, food, and environment. With the technology becoming omnipresent in biological research and applications, the talk primed the students, who are likely to use the technology themselves in the future, for deeper explorations into the topic. 

Making and breaking microbial partnerships – Deepa Agashe

Deepa Agashe speaking at the event. Source: NMKRV College for Women
Deepa Agashe speaking at the event. Source: NMKRV College for Women

Most of the biological world is invisible to the naked eye. Though we acknowledge its presence only in glaring circumstances, this microscopic world is packed with action and drama that constantly influences all the living beings on Earth. Deepa Agashe, an Associate Professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru gave a glimpse into this world through the symbiotic relationships between microorganisms and butterflies, dragonflies, flour beetle, Squid and Vibrio. She highlighted how a few partners can turn from free living into facultative and, subsequently, obligate types of symbionts. 

Agashe’s talk gave the audience an essence of the complexity and dynamicity of relationships with microorganisms. With the increasing dangers of superbugs” and anti-microbial resistance, particularly in India, raising awareness among the youth about the complexities of microbial relationships, including our own relationship with them, is essential to dispel the popular simplistic notion that microbes are either friends or foe”.

Chemistry of molecules behind neurological disorders – Aravind Penmatsa

Aravind Penmatsa speaking at the event. Source: NMKRV College for Women
Aravind Penmatsa speaking at the event. Source: NMKRV College for Women

From the invisible world of microorganisms, the audience was then taken to another mysterious world – the workings of our own brain. The orchestra of biochemical reactions in our brain determine our thoughts, sensations, actions, and perception of the world around us. But what happens when these reactions go awry? Aravind Penmatsa, an Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru spoke about the structure, functions and disorders related to small chemicals found in the brain, called neurotransmitters, and how their well-choreographed release, action and blockage is important for our well-being. He also spoke about therapeutic and addictive drugs. 

His talk and his interaction with the audience afterwards also brought out matters of mental health, depression, and how to be resilient in the face of the many stresses in life. Encouraging open conversations about mental health – commonly deemed a taboo topic – has been one of the goals of IndiaBioscience, especially with the decline in mental health among students. So, it was heartening to see the students in the audience asking questions about mental health freely. 

Scientific social responsibility, stakeholder partnership and citizen participation in conservation of lakes – Annapurna S. Kamath

Annapurna S. Kamath speaking at the event. Source: NMKRV College for Women
Annapurna S. Kamath speaking at the event. Source: NMKRV College for Women

From the invisible and mysterious worlds of microorganisms and then our brain, the audience finally returned to familiar environs – the city of Bengaluru. In her valedictory lecture, Annapurna S. Kamath, Founder Trustee, JaLa Poshan Trust (JaLa stands for Jakkur Lake), Bengaluru shared her experience in rejuvenation and maintenance of the Jakkur lake since 2015. By restoring the lake they found an ecological enrichment that includes 3000+ trees, 200+ bird species. The restoration involved the 4R’s system (reduce, reuse, recycle and rot), urban conservation, and livelihood opportunities, like cattle grazing and fishing. It also saw the joint participation of government bodies, scientists and citizens at various stages. 

Kamath emphasised the need for conservation, community participation and awareness in the public for restoring lakes in a sustainable manner. Her talk resonated with the 76th session of the UN General Assembly (Dec 2021), which proclaimed 2022 as the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development and invited all stakeholders, including academia, to observe and raise awareness of the importance of basic sciences for sustainable development. The Jakkur Lake has been recognised as a model lake by Jal Shakthi Abhiyan. The JaLa Poshan Trust has received many awards and recognition by government, non- government and private organisation for this project. 

Going forward

It is quite common (and natural!) for energetic undergraduate students to grow restless when made to stay in one room for an entire day, or to feel shy or intimidated in presence of eminent scientists. The fact that the students stayed enthusiastic and interacted with the speakers freely, limited only by time, was a testament to the success of the event. Thanks to the speakers who communicated their work in a manner that was exciting, approachable, and relevant to the audience! The attendees also offered suggestions (through a feedback form shared with them after the event) for topics that could be covered in the future, such as stem cells, bioinformatics, entrepreneurship in life sciences, and more. Additionally, in the Indian scenario where interaction between scientists and undergraduate students and educators is limited, the event did well to reduce this gap.

Perhaps a future event with more time for interaction between the scientists and the attending students and faculty could be even more fruitful. Events like this also offer the opportunity for networking among educators, raising the possibilities of interesting collaborations and new pedagogical approaches. Indeed, making scientific knowledge accessible, building a network of life science educators, and promoting collaborations between scientists and educators would all contribute towards enhancing the quality of undergraduate education in the country and strengthening its life science ecosystem.