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

Subhash Lakhotia, Banaras Hindu University


This blog picks up some threads from my earlier blogs: “Are we teaching biology well?” (http://www.indiabioscience.org/node/160) and “Advantages of working with organisms other than the model systems” (http://www.indiabioscience.org/node/189).

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, http://www.indiabioscience.org/node/35). 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 “3’ UTR 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”, http://www.indiabioscience.org/node/189), 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” at http://www.indiabioscience.org/node/170). 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.

Dear Prof,                    A very aptly written and

Dear Prof,

                   A very aptly written and anguished post by yourself. I would like to point out, that while I wholeheartedly agree with you that most bioinformaticians and biotechnologists do not have the requisite background knowledge about basic sciences, your assertion which hints that biotechnology courses & bioinformatics courses are not needed, is utterly flawed IMHO.  I digress with you wholeheartedly when you say that India's pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry are in shambles because of lack of quality biotechnologists. I would attribute it solely to the Financial costs involved, rather than a lack of knowhow. Look at how some of the newer startups like biotechs poster child biocon & panacea are doing.

Even i am exasperated when students come up to me and tell me " I want to cure cancer" or "I want to study western blotting". They need to learn to differentiate between a technique, and using the technique to explore the greater biological question at hand. Where I think you are absolutely right is that the focus on basic sciences has been lost. This does not mean an outright withdrawal of biotech or other molecular biology courses from the curriculum. There needs to be a healthy balance between basic sciences and molecular science, which compliments each other. Students should be given an option to choose what course they pursue. I do not think that there is a single college out there which is running biotechnology courses,  and excluding zoology courses or botany courses from their curriculum. Ultimately I think the blame squarely lies on educationists and professors, who have "glamourized" biotechnology and bioinformatics wihle shortshrifting "humbler" courses like botany and zoology.  Like the saying goes, nobody is born a racist, the same adage should apply to biology: nobody is born a molecular biologist!

Dear Prof Lakhotia                      It is very much

Dear Prof Lakhotia

                     It is very much inspiring to read this article and will definitely motivate to those who are not inside the system and general people to criticise the young scientists of India. Why did not you comment about the Indian system of education that make very good "copy-cat" instead of making a good discoverer? I think because you are part of that system to generate those copycats. Have the indian scientists ever think of giving back to the society? Or just try to answer some basic biology questions and fail to compete to do that to the scientists from the developed countries due to lack of infrastructure. And finally they end up to publish in some indian journal that do not have any impact factors and the work do not get cited. Is it not wastage of taxpayer's money of a developing country where 50% people do not have food security? I am also a scientist and I can not remember that any new drug has been developed in India. They are all busy to make generic forms. And if you are already an established, then talking about solving the mystery of human development and open a new institute with the taxpayers money. Finally 99.9% work you publish some trash journals and if this is not publishable in international journals, then go for indian journals. I am aware of many scientists in India who starts to send their articles to Nature or Science and finally ends up publishing in Current Science.

"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.".................Are you ready to fund if someone goes with a new idea that is not yet published? Are you ready to provide enough money to explore new area to a young investigator who have not published in those area? He could publish only in the area that he worked with. Why do not then established investigators try new area when they get fund and build some institute. It would be better to comment on the feasibility and practicality before advising anything.

 "Even after varying period of post-doctoral experience, many of them remain at the “3’ UTR 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”!"..............PROVIDE FUND, NOT ADVISE FOR THE NEW TRY. INSTEAD OF SPENDING TAXPAYERS MONEY TO BUILD UP NEW INSTITUTES TO FULFILL THE DREAM AND DESIRE TO REMAIN ON POWER OF THE OLD POWER HUNGRY SO-CALLED INDIAN SCIENTISTS, GENERATE INFRASTRUCTURE TO THE ALREADY PRESENT INSTITUTES AND PROVIDE FUNDS TO THE YOUN INVESTIGATORS TO START RESEARCH ON THE NEW AREA BEFORE EVEN A SINGLE PUBLICATION IN THAT AREA. 

Once you can do that, then you should tell those sentences.

I am keepinf my anonymous because I am also in the system and if he knows about me, I will have trouble to get funds in future. He is also the "OLD POwER HUNGRY SO-CALLED INDIAN SCIENTISTS".

Thank you

 

I am dismayed at the tone of the response of this anonymous

I am dismayed at the tone of the response of this anonymous responder. Instead of discussing the theme of my blog, he/she has chosen to write rather offensively without much substance. I would not wish to respond to such unjustifiably anguished responses. 

Very useful information. I was very pleased. Thanks boyacı

Very useful information. I was very pleased. Thanks

dear dr. lakhotia... u r true in saying but does u really

dear dr. lakhotia...

u r true in saying but does u really follow what u write for others to do... in some publication u emphasizes that people should submit his/her manuscript in india journal.. but may i ask that why u didnt publish your work in india journal.... dont be saint first u follow and then say other to follow.... speeches are here free..... every one is trying to become BABA..... Its seems u too.........

I missed seeing your comment earlier and therefore, this

I missed seeing your comment earlier and therefore, this belated response. I do not wish to be defensive but if you were to look at my list of publications at my webpage at www.bhu.ac.in or at the Indian Academy of Science, you would perhaps agree that I have, since the beginning of my independent career in early 1970s, regularly published in peer-reviewed journals from India as well, maintaining a near 50:50 ratio between journals published from within India and those published outside. I have not really suffered because of the so-called "low impact factor" of many journals where I have published our lab's research findings.

Dear Prof Lakhotia I agree wholeheartedly with you on "The

Dear Prof Lakhotia

I agree wholeheartedly with you on "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...." That is happening in a lot of places now, not just India. The curriculum is moving towards the job-oriented fields because the students are in a rush to get degrees that lead to jobs quickly and Universities all over are responding to that demand.
Yes, we need to teach the basics....but after that we also need to do some thinking around the brands and road maps we have established for the younger lot.
I have traveled this whole path from Botany(Hons), M.Sc(Genetics)and then finally to Biotechnology......reasons? If I wanted to conduct research in Taxonomy or Plant Anatomy....there is no Department of Botany to fund it, but if you put the tag word biotechnology in there, Indian Govt has created a Department of Biotechnology to fund it.
Let us create research and career opportunities for students before we ask them to go down that lane.

Dear Dr. Lakhotiya, Could this problem at the

Dear Dr. Lakhotiya,

Could this problem at the undergrad/masters level be coupled with what skill set/problem reads as 'employable' when starting out?

I agree Subhash. Nice blog. There will be a demand and

I agree Subhash. Nice blog. There will be a demand and shift towards exploring biodiversity soon. I can feel it. We have not quite hit the tipping point, because we need to wean our large community away from model organism, and the ease with which we can get results. There is a risk but reward in tackling new organisms. This is also an opportunity for India, since one could imagine "nucleating" sites of a few labs in India that want to tackle a new organism.

Dear Dr. Lakhotia, I am so happy to read somebody writing a

Dear Dr. Lakhotia,
I am so happy to read somebody writing a critique of this "DNA-reductionist" obsession amongst students (and teaching courses) in India. This is especially relevant since you have long experience in Indian scientific education as well as research.
I have wondered if possibly conducting large number of rigorous biological camps in all those things other than the "biotechnology" would possibly help alleviate this. The camps could be targeted to both the taught as well as the teachers.
Indeed after 1.5 years of interviewing students for various Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral programmes, I am surprised at the narrow range of topics they think they are "excited" by. And the apparent proliferation of Biotechnology and Bioinformatics courses is astounding and frightening at the same time.
Regards,
Chaitanya

It will indeed be good if the MSc students can read the

It will indeed be good if the MSc students can read the "gossip columns". However, I thiunk it is the teaching and methods of teaching (see Shashidhar's blog on this site) that would really make the students curious of organisms as they are out in nature and the innumerable opportunities that they provide for us to ask novel and interesting questions.

Prof. Lakhotia, I agree! I have often told the MSc students

Prof. Lakhotia,
I agree! I have often told the MSc students at IITB that they should aspire to work on interesting questions and approach the problem in many ways, which might include molecular biology, biophysics, biochemistry, bioinformatics, population biology, evolutionary biolgy, developmental biology... fortunately for us the list is huge. I also tell them that when one is starting out it's OK to not know what a cool question might be. So I suggest that they read the 'News & Views' kind of sections of Science and Nature journals (I call this the gossip columns). This way they can rather quickly get an idea of what interests them and the interesting unanswered questions in biology.
Swati Patankar

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