"We are a pure science research institute that focuses on biological sciences but we are also probably the only institute that recognises the need to diversify. We have students from engineering and technology backgrounds taking up Ph.D courses with us," says Dr. Mukund Thattai, Professor (Computational cell biology) capturing the essence of the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, an offshoot of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR).
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"The exam is balanced. It’s not just knowledge-based but tests students on their logical thinking and problem solving skills. This increases the scope for students from disciplines other than the pure sciences to compete," reveals Thattai.
Out of all the students that appear for the exam to get into TIFR, about 9000 students apply to NCBS alone. 200-250 applications are selected for the next round which comprises a three day intensive interview with the researchers at NCBS. About 35 students are taken into the institute and with a 30 member faculty. it makes for a good research partnership.
Students are exposed to all areas of research on a rotational basis in the first six months. The faculty also help students ramp up by supporting them with study sessions on basics of pure science subjects, so that they are able to cope with the rotation classes. After which the students get to choose the research area and begin work on their thesis. After 1.5 years they appear before a Thesis Committee to present their subjects and scope and need to proceed ahead. Most students complete their research in five and half years. "What we are really looking for are students with an open mind that are ready to experiment" says Dr. Thattai.
NCBS also hosts innovative annual events such as Hackteria – an intensive two-week transdisciplinary collaboration amongst international and local artists, hackers, activists, scientists, and even artists and designers.
The Institute recognises the current lack of visibility of research being done in such institutes among undergrads and that such visibility could help them make their next big career move. Thus Thattai points out, "We also have summer programs to encourage undergraduate students to intern with us. This could jump-start their research careers"
Research at NCBS
An autonomous institute has come up in the vicinity of the NCBS campus: The Stem Cell Institute. Stem cell is a new field that is gathering momentum in the field of research. "The interaction between faculty at the Stem Cell Institute and NCBS is a further boost to our research studies," says Thattai about all that is happening in the campus.
He also refers to the new dimensions to science brought in by Dr. Annamma Spudich, Scholar in Residence at NCBS, along with Dr. Indhudharan Menon, Professor at NCBS, by capturing the history and tradition of scientific research.
"Asia in the making of Europe," a book by Prof. Donald F. Lach, is one that Dr. Annamma Spudich refers to as she talks about the Indian ethnobotanical knowledge that made India the nexus of world trade during the colonial period. India being blessed with tropical climate was home to rich flora and fauna. Thus biological sciences were not only documented in our ancient scriptures, there is also extensive documentation by Dutch and Portugal scientists and travellers starting early 16th century.
Dr. Spudich says "NCBS has tremendous intellectual breadth and its now home to me". She has made a shift from her research career in the field of experimental sciences at Stanford University and is now dedicated to what’s closer to her heart, "History of Indian healing traditions". Her work was exhibited at the Cantor Arts Centre, Stanford University in 2003 and also at NCBS in 2008. The exhibition stimulated scholarly and popular interest and was acquired by the Department of Forests and Environment, Govt. of India. It is on view as a permanent exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Mysore. The catalog of the exhibition is available from the NCBS library. (www.ncbs.res.in).
Dr. Thattai himself acknowledges, "20 years ago publishing a research paper in India was difficult, now we have so many well recognised institutes in India that publishing papers from India is as easy now. In fact our standards are equivalent to good institutes abroad and there is also good money for researchers in the field; the only area in which we are falling short is the number of students in India, and especially in Bangalore, who come forward to take up pure sciences as a career."
NCBS also has an M.Sc. programme in Wildlife – in partnership with WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and CWS (Centre for Wildlife Studies). The course is announced once in every two years. "Almost every university in the US has courses in wildlife and conservation but not a single one in India offers them." is Dr. Ajith Kumar’s (Professor and Course Director, Wildlife Conservation Society) concern. The intake of this programme is 15 students (every two years). "This is a passion driven course and people find their way to us" says Kumar, when asked why the course is not advertised more.
This is proved correct from what Bhanu Sridharan (MSc in Wildlife, 2010-2012) has to share: In 2009, Bhanu walked into the NCBS campus to find out more about the controversial road that was to be laid right through the pristine campus of GKVK (Gandhi Krishi Vigyan Kendra) where NCBS is also located. As her interactions with professors and students at NCBS increased, she was convinced that her bonding with the institute was destined to extend beyond just one story. She eventually enrolled fo
r the Wildlife course. Now, even after she has passed out, NCBS remains her work space "I still work from NCBS; they are informal that way. So alumni can come back, use the libraries or work spaces around here and work," she says.
The Masters programme in wildlife is a fully funded course with a fellowship or stipend every month and the course also covers accommodation and food. They have a separate entrance exam that you have to watch out for on their website. "Most of our students who pass out opt for Ph.D or get involved in organisations working on conservation of wildlife in India and abroad." They have many dissertations and papers to their credit.
Bhanu also expresses her deep gratitude for Ullas Karanth and WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). Karanth is the one who started the course, raised the funds for it and contacted NCBS. He started out as an engineer and is now amongst some of the well known wildlife conservationists in India and abroad.
Life at NCBS
It is not just unique programmes or innovative research that makes NCBS an exciting place to be in, you are made to feel at ease and the campus is actually so much fun.
"The facilities in NCBS are fantastic. As part of my M.Sc. I did a scuba diving course, " says Bhanu enthisiastically, adding "I also used to be very uninterested in sports, but now I am trying to learn to play squash at the sports complex." She is also taking lessons in a new dance form called zumba, which is being taught on campus by a researcher from Germany.
Inclusivity is another aspect that distinguishes this Institute. As Bhanu explains, "NCBS is open to students from varied backgrounds, as in my case itself – I hold a Bachelors degree in communication studies and getting a fully-funded seat abroad in Wildlife studies would have been difficult. But NCBS gave me that opportunity."⊕