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Opportunities for Nurturing Excellence in Teaching Training and Leadership in Biotechnology

Dr. Suman Govil

By 2020, India is expected to be the youngest country in world as youth below 35 years of age are estimated to be 65% of population. This can be primary driver behind our positive growth scenario, however, if we do not take steps to provide access to higher education to the unreached and empower our people with skills to meet challenge of shortage of skilled manpower, it could boomerang on us and be highly detrimental. We face enormous challenges as only 10% youth have access of higher education, our training infrastructure is inadequate, fragmented and often obsolete, curriculum revision is not carried out as frequently as it should be, 30 to 40% of faculty positions in most of educational institutions are vacant, opportunities for training and retraining of trainers are limited, majority of students do not get adequate hands-on training and practical training in industry and are oblivious of industry’s expectations and requirements. This calls for urgent radical reforms to substantially improve quality of education and skill development including pro-active participation of industries and their associations in curriculum revision, preparation and updating of teaching material, practical training to students etc.
I wish to elaborate successful case study of integrated human resource development programme of Department of Biotechnology which is a highly dynamic programme and has continuously evolved based on feedback from different stakeholders such as present and past students, faculty, experts from academic and from research institutions and industries.
The integrated human resource development programme of Department of Biotechnology was initiated as early as 1985 to cater to the needs of R&D, teaching and industries in biotechnology. Student centric programmes such as of DBT scholarships in biology for 10+2 students, star college scheme to brand and nurture excellence in undergraduate science education by providing practical training and minor research exposure to students, quality practical training and dissertation to post graduate students in M.Sc./M.Tech. teaching programmes bridging skill gaps of undergraduate/ postgraduate students by 6 months training in industries and fellowships for doctoral and post doctoral research are being successfully implemented. Opportunities for training and retraining of undergraduate, postgraduate teachers and research scientists by providing forum for interaction by organising seminars/symposia and presentation of scientific results, short term training courses in advanced techniques, associateships for training in leading national and overseas laboratories are available in plenty. Support to different science departments in undergraduate colleges under Star College scheme has inculcated inter-disciplinary culture by holding joint practicals, projects and workshops. Workshops for laboratory staff on preparation of reagents, handling of pathogenic organisms, collection of samples, maintenance of laboratory equipments, safety precautions etc. have been an added bonus. The colleges are also organising a large number of outreach activities for students and teachers from neighbouring schools and colleges in important and socially relevant scientific issues.
Outcome of major HR initiatives of DBT is outlined below :
1. Catch them young : To attract best brains pursue basic sciences, DBT initiated DBT scholarships in biology in 1989 for top 20 students in biology in 10+2 examination conducted by CBSE. This scheme has been expanded to cover State Boards from 2006-07, number of scholarships has been increased to 100 per year and the amount of scholarship has also been enhanced to Rs.20,000/-. Although, numbers are small, DBT scholarships have managed to attract best brains to pursue career in life sciences.
2. Attracting and Nurturing best brains: Over last several years, it has been increasingly felt that best brains are not joining science courses and are instead opting for professional courses in engineering, medicine, management etc. Long gestation periods in science courses, lack of employment opportunities, teaching of science only theoretically (due to shortage of laboratory equipments and costly chemicals) also act as deterrents. DBT conceived star college scheme to provide holistic development of all science departments in selected undergraduate colleges by strengthening laboratory infrastructure, providing opportunities for interaction with participating departments in the college and visits to nearby research institutions and industries. Emphasis of the programme is on practical training and minor research exposure to undergraduate students is provided to inculcate interest in science. Initially, colleges are supported under strengthening component and based on review of progress after completion of 3 years, colleges can be accorded star status, support can be continued for another tenure under strengthening component or discontinued. So far, 431 proposals have been received, 250 colleges have been supported, support to 48 colleges proposals has been discontinued after one round of support. Star status is accorded very selectively and only 20 colleges have been given Star status. Due to provision of multiple copies of routine equipment and costly consumables, colleges are able to provide practical training to all students and minor research projects such as flora and fauna of campus, testing of quality of water, milk products, blood group testing etc. are conducted by undergraduate students. In last 8-9 years, the scheme has led to silent revolution which is evident from more number of applicants as compared to sanctioned seats, increase in cut off percentage at the time of admission, decrease in drop out rates, better results in UG and higher admission in PG science courses. All the colleges have also shown improved NAAC rankings and have received extramural support from DST, UGC etc. 3 tier teacher’s training programmes are being organised in collaboration with British Council and IISER, Pune and after two tier training in basic and advanced research based learning, our teachers would conduct regional workshops for teachers from other colleges. A large number of reading material in form of laboratory manuals, SOPs, innovative practicals conducted by participating colleges have been generated which have been evaluated by two expert committees and information is being compiled in uniform format for use by all. This small investment made by DBT has paid huge dividends and has led to attracting and retaining students to pursue science courses.
3. Post graduate Teaching programme in Biotechnology : India is one of the first few countries in the world to initiate PG teaching programme in biotechnology as early as 1985-86. Based on the need for specialised manpower, regional aspirations, the teaching programmes have been expanded to over 70 universities covering different specialisations such as general, agricultural, medical, pharma, environmental, marine, industrial, bio-resource, veterinary, food, bioprocess engineering. The Department is providing liberal grants for purchase of equipment required for routine class room practicals, annual grant for consumables, fellowship, travel, books and journals, equipment maintenance, contingency and training. In-house dissertation has been made mandatory and thesis grant of Rs.50,000/- per student is provided to ensure good quality research training. Students are selected on the basis of all India entrance test conducted by Jawahar Lal Nehru University, Joint Entrance Exam and JAM conducted by IIT or university examination. All students are provided studentships. These programmes have also served a catalytic role and several universities have initiated teaching programmes on their own. The Department is carrying out formulation of model course curricula and revision at frequent intervals to ensure inclusion of latest advancements and deletion of obsolete topics. Online system for feedback by students has been developed to ensure anonymous feedback from students for improvement in the programme. First placement of students on completion of the programme is tracked and universities have also established placement cells to help students in finding placements by organising campus interviews. Students have also brought out good publications from their dissertations.
4. Bridging Skill gaps : To enhance employability and to bridge skill gap between students produced by the universities and requirements of the industries, Department initiated Biotech Industrial Training Programme in 1993-94 to provide industrial training for 6 months. This programme is mutually beneficial and is highly popular with students as it gives them first hand experience of industry environment and expectations as well as an opportunity for industries to select their prospective manpower. Every year, around 700 to 800 students are offered training by over 150 companies and 25 to 30% students find jobs in trainer industry or other industry in the same field.
5. Opportunities for research : The Department is providing fellowships for pursuing doctoral research in leading universities and research institutions in the country. Students are selected on the basis of an online biotechnology eligibility test (BET) conducted all over the country. Students for post doctoral fellowship are selected on the basis of presentation of proposed research work before an expert committee. This programme encourages students to join an institute other than from where they have completed their Ph.D. Students who have availed this fellowship have risen to leadership positions in universities and research institutions in the country.
6. Popularisation activities : The Department is providing support for holding national and international seminars and symposia, organising popular lectures by eminent scientists, travel support to students and researchers for participation in international conferences as well as organising exhibitions to showcase products, processes and technologies. These activities provide opportunities to young students and researchers for interaction with leading national and international experts which helps in shaping their future career.
Systematic and concerted efforts made by the Department of Biotechnology as well as other funding agencies such as DST, UGC have encouraged students to pursue career in basic sciences and provide the required trained manpower for teaching, research, production and manufacturing in biotechnology. Opportunities for biotechnology students exist in agri-based industries involved in production of transgenic plants, seed industries, tissue culture units, agri-chemicals such as biofertilisers, Biopesticides etc., environmental amelioration, pharma industries for diagnostics, vaccine, new drug molecules, clinical research organisations for clinical trials, bioinformatics industry etc. Tremendous opportunities exist in research and development, production and manufacturing, quality control analysis, consultancy for technology transfer and management, preparation of techno-economic feasibility reports as well as regulatory affairs such as toxicology, environment health and safety, bio-safety. With India becoming signatory to GATT, sudden spurt in filing of patents as well as dispute settlement has been witnessed, resulting in immense opportunities for patent attorneys and examiners. In addition, to industry, opportunities for science management, teaching and research in existing public and private sector universities, IITs, IISERs, NIPERs and AIIMS have multi fold increase in recent years.
Proactive efforts by Government jointly with industries to address the gap in skill sets of students are bound to enhance employability of students and improve job scenario.
(The author is Adviser, Deptt. of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science & Technology, Govt. of India.)
Views expressed are personal.
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