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Feb 25, 2013

Undergraduate science education in India-a faculty member's experience

Editors Note: Dr. Louise Temple, professor of integrated science and technology, had the opportunity to teach her viral discovery course in India in February 2012. The viral discovery course at JMU is a year-long course filled primarily by freshmen interested in getting their college careers off to a flying start with some real research. Dr. Temple, an avid advocate of undergraduate research, taught the course at Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram University of Science and Technology in two weeks. Here is her account of the eye-opening experience.


Dr. Louise Temple wears a colorful lay as she shakes hands with a representative of the university in India.
Dr. Louise Temple receives a warm welcome at Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram University of Science & Technology.

Exotic India—the rumor is that when Westerners travel there, they either love it or hate it.  In spite of the poverty, odors, pollution and gender discrimination, I found on my first trip that I fall squarely in the first category.  The reason?  The people.  Not that they are homogeneous:  far from it.  But their warmth and hospitality extends across their own ethnic and religious lines, and guests in that country can depend on being treated like royalty.  So, besides enjoying the cultural experience and loving the people (and the food), why would a science educator want to ply her trade in India? 

At first I had only family interests, but I was drawn to educational issues when I learned that undergraduate science students don’t get to DO anything in the lab—and since lab and research experiences for undergraduates is my passion, naturally I would take umbrage with such a system.  As I began to meet and communicate with Indian educators, I found that my assumptions were true, but I was in for a few surprises as well, which I think could inform our U.S. form of science education.  On an NSF-sponsored exploratory trip in 2010, Dr. Brad Striebig (engineering) and I visited five universities where we had made viable contacts.  We explored all kinds of potential programs, collaborations and exchanges and left with a commitment to follow up as well as we could.  Subsequently, we have submitted several unsuccessful proposals of various kinds, and those attempts are ongoing.  However, two proposals were successful.  The first is my being chosen to be on a Fulbright Specialist panel, specifically for education projects, and I am awaiting a successful invitation from one of my Indian colleagues to travel again to further these relationships.  Secondly, American Society for Microbiology India-U.S. funds were awarded for me to teach a course at the university of one of our most viable contacts from the first trip:  Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram University of Science and Technology (DCRUST, for short).  This trip took place in February 2012, during an educational leave granted to me by JMU.

Dr. J.S. Rana, Dean of the Biotechnology School, has been hoping to increase the research efforts of his faculty in this relatively new school.  The challenge is not what you might expect­—facilities, funding—but instead it is more cultural.  First of all, undergraduates truly do not get involved in research.  Then in the graduate programs, research opportunities for those students are not easy to attain, and often students have to travel to major institutions for a one- or two-year research experience, so most of their graduate training is more intellectual or computer based than real hands-on work.  Thus, these very fine, intelligent, hardworking faculty members really have never experienced how to run a successful research program.  My model of simple, inexpensive research is the discovery and analysis of virus bacteria that reside in the soil.  This is an experience we offer to freshmen here at JMU, and some 70 other schools in our country are doing similar work.  Dr. Rana was familiar with my work, and thus he envisioned that having his faculty and students actively participate in this work would illustrate how research can be done right there in their facilities with their level of expertise. 

So, the workshop was born.  I crammed a year’s worth of work into a two week schedule, worked with one particular faculty member in advance, and by the time I arrived, most supplies and equipment were available, and computers were loaded with the necessary bioinformatic software.  Dr. Rana had advertised the workshop, so we had 34 participants from the region, of which—at my insistence—six were undergraduates.  The others were a mix of graduate students at different levels and faculty members.  To say that we worked hard would be an understatement.  My biggest mistake was not taking an experienced undergraduate or two from JMU with me to help out, since I was literally the only expert.  But the participants’ enthusiasm, energy and intellectual preparation made up lack of more leadership.  We alternated between wet lab work (getting the viruses from the soil and purifying, for example) and the bioinformatics (analyzing the genome of a virus isolated at JMU but never studied).  We would have worked 10 hours a day, but the obligatory tea break (everybody stops) and a good number of celebratory meetings, lunches and social occasions demanded that we not just keep right on working.  At the end, I was exhausted, but certainly exhilarated.  I also brought home a number of new viruses that we are continuing to work on here at JMU.

So, what did I learn? 

  • I could be a vegetarian if I had a good Indian cook
  • You should visit India in January or February—the weather is exceedingly nice
  • Undergraduate science students—in fact, the graduate students as well—are hungry for experiences like the one I provided
  • Their faculty are interested in providing such experiences for their students and have a challenge ahead in trying to change the system
  • There are good reasons to continue collaborating with science educators in India—let me elaborate on this one:

As a science educator, I’ve always wished that there were obvious reasons for me to recommend study abroad for my students.  Of course, recommending this for cultural exposure is obvious—but why should they study science abroad, especially the kind of science that I do, which doesn’t require obtaining samples from exotic places and can be done in any well-equipped lab.  My visits to Indian institutions have shed some light on this.  In general, it is very educational and broadening to experience similar work in different cultures, and this is as good a reason as any to develop these relationships and encourage students to go to India to do science.  But I also was extremely impressed with what excellent science is done in circumstances where we Westerners would either not attempt it and would assume it simply couldn’t be done.  I came away with the strong sense that our students would benefit greatly from seeing and experiencing this themselves.  They would then understand that good science is more about the scientists themselves than about their trappings.  A student spending time doing research with Indian faculty and students would get more than a cultural experience.

A couple of other things really struck me from this experience.  First, I was treated with respect as I have never been before, at least not from groups of people.  An American coming to this regional institution was fairly unheard of, and I was touted as “the most respected scientist from Virginia” in the publications.  Students are extremely respectful of their teachers and practice such things as rising when the professor enters the room or requesting permission to enter if they are late.  On the other hand, they are not stand-offish, but instead crowded around me and hung on every word when we were in the lab and wanted to engage me in conversation about everything—scientific and cultural.  The formal respect paired with the intimacy was endearing, really.  Secondly, I had assumed that because the students did not have the lab/research experience that they would not become engaged in theoretical questions, which of course I love to pose, but in this I was mistaken.  They were excited to engage in such conversations, even in the classroom where (of course) I had to call on each one as they raised their hands.  In spite of their lack of personal experience with the scientific process, their depth of knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, a hallmark of the Indian system, gave them the foundation to think deeply about scientific processes.  Could we figure out how to harness some of this for our U.S. system, where many students don’t seem to remember fundamentals from one semester to the next?  I’m thinking about this question.

I am still in touch with several students from the workshop who are doing viral discovery work in some form or another.  One is looking in Ganga water for viruses—it is supposed to have amazing healing qualities.  I am also supporting further applications for funding being submitted by two of the faculty there and looking for other opportunities to go back, to send students there, and to get Indian students and faculty over to JMU.  We all have a lot to learn and these experiences will be mutually beneficial.


Posted Feb. 25, 2013