Need to correct the foundations of biotech education!

Classrooms today are designed in such a way that they only teach a student to look into their immediate future, up until their next exam or entrances, writes Adarsh Raj

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Author Image_Adarsh RajAbout Author: Adarsh Raj is an undergraduate student of biotechnology, based in Chandigarh. He is also the Editor of Print Editions for the PU Mirror-Panjab University’s independent student-run newspaper. He was the national winner of ‘Voice for BT’, a public speaking competition organized by Novozymes in 2016, presenting his talks on ‘Biofuels’ and ‘Mitigating food and nutritional challenges via Biotech’.

I am a firm believer in the reasoning that a true biotechnologist in India is born when a child is spellbound after reading about basic food and fibre production in his class sixth NCERT science textbook, when he watches a superhero flick and for a second supposes that it might not be impossible after all, and when he believes that after all this time, the next step in human evolution and the secret of immortality is not in the hands of a higher magical being, but within our nucleic acid combinations.

The point being, biotechnology, in its essence, is almost a mystical subject, literally providing its master the power to control and manipulate the brainchild of this Universe – Life itself. It is an all-encompassing alchemy of science and art taking shelter in an ever raging war between ethics, breakthroughs and the greater good. Fearing this immense power and the risks arising from such an uncontrolled potential, we ourselves have put justifiable restrictions and regulations to its use.

Acceptance of this realization is the greatest challenge for the youth about to pursue biotechnology. The realization that it is not just another bifurcation of a biological stream, but a highly specialized science which decides what and how the future eats, wears, cleans, breathes, lives, heals, fuels, and most importantly, survives.

“The key lies in proper orientation and guidance, and most importantly, factually leading the students to believe that, biotechnology is, indeed the future, the boom is a real thing and the $100 billion dream is not impossible”

Understanding the challenges at the micro level

To delve further into what challenges us, we need to analyze from point one – when a biotech undergrad enters college.

A dream most of the new students are fed is that, there is an imminent boom coming up in the biotech sector. That how biotech will be a major player in the economy in the years to come and how there is major scope in this field. What normally happens is that amidst intensive classes and lab work, not to mention the disheartened seniors in the course, an unsuspecting student is later led to believe that he has been duped, and shown false dreams about this stream. A student stops seeing the true potential in it, and fails to look beyond obtaining a Master’s and a PhD and settling thereafter, not to forget about the innumerable who simply change their streams.

Overcoming this misunderstanding on the ground level is the biggest challenge the Indian biotech sector faces right now.

A booming industry is the most humble compliment this sector can be given, since it aims to achieve a market size of $100 Billion by 2025. Scaling up at 20 percent annually, the rate is expected to reach phenomenal levels given the intellectual potential yet waiting to be exploited properly.

This is something not being taught in biotechnology classrooms, thus indirectly blocking this boom from attaining its true levels. How does one expect students to achieve a dream that they don’t themselves believe in? That is where the problem lies, the very foundation.

Students of biotechnology in all leading Indian institutions are being prepared to contribute to research, produce results, gain patents and doctorates, continue the cycle of education and become lecturers. Classrooms today are designed in such a way that they only teach a student to look into their immediate future – up until their next exam or entrances. They teach to enter (an institution) and settle (as a researcher if the student holds science in high values).

The sad part being to this would not be enough to supplement a market boom.

What after you pass an exam, what after you get an admission, what after you are eligible to begin your research, what after you are ready with your results/product?  How will you market it, how will you generate investments to scale up its production, how will you create a brand name, how will you go global, how will you prepare the infrastructure for what’s to come next?

Biotechnology being all about the future, how do you expect to contribute to an unexploited, booming industry when you are never taught to look beyond yourself, into the future?

Time to go to the roots cause of the issue

As long as a biotechnology classroom sticks to its conventional book-to-lab practice, and does not teach its students about sustainable entrepreneurship, they’ll never be more than an unprepared and helpless scientist once they step foot outside their institutions. They will be armed with their patents and products, but with no knowledge of what next, how to go big with it. They’ll be the masters of their own inventions, but slaves to those who know how to make it reach the masses. A greater good can only be achieved if a product reaches those truly in need of it, efficiently. There is no use or honor in creating a life-saving product which is functional only on papers. They will be like a loaded gun, with no trigger.

Course curriculums should teach a biotechnology student to always look forward to being self-sufficient, have a plan to not just produce, but to produce and pack and present to the table of the needy. Teachers should be all encompassing units, not just scribes who translate words into monotonous lab practices, that is they should encourage a student to look beyond the next exams, to how a particular chapter holds potential to save mankind decades into the future.

The key lies in proper orientation and guidance, and most importantly, factually leading the students to believe that, biotechnology is, indeed the future, the boom is a real thing and the $100 billion dream is not impossible.

After all, it is the third largest market in Asia-Pacific region and makes up for two per cent of global market share, despite still being a sunrise sector in India. Unlike the newfound trending craze of online and virtual technologies, Biotechnology might have a comparatively longer incubation period, but high return values during invention harvesting. India is the largest producer of Recombinant Hepatitis-B vaccine. Bharat Biotech became the global leaders to develop and file the first patent for vaccines for the epidemic outbreak of Zika virus. The fuel scene is expecting a major revamp, thanks to Biofuel innovations. Sea6 Technologies is the leading Indian player, fulfilling biomass demand by using oceanic marine flora (seaweeds) to compensate for the insufficient land biomass for Biofuel production. With animal testing being banned in Europe, other countries are expected to follow lead, thus paving way for lab-grown tissues and their complementing technologies to be employed for testing purposes.

The point being, there is no dearth of talent, or opportunities in a country like ours. The challenge remains at channelizing the same at the foundation level, to supplement the bigger picture in the years to come. The sector would be run successfully in the coming times by budding researchers who have been led to believe in this dream. The future is at our doorsteps, we just have to be ready and prepared to receive it.