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DBT’s Star lights up holistic science!

What happens when someone approaches a University lab for lyophilizing the serum samples? Questions, of course, are asked: why do you need it, what is your experiment on and, in any case, who are you? Eyebrows hit the ceiling at the Madras Veterinary College when I said I was a physicist but I do need to lyophilize serum. That was in 2005. They were distinctly uncomfortable at first, what with a physicist talking about IR, HPLC, blood and all that. However, when I explained my path of research, they relented and let me have the stuff!
Strictly speaking, my research work was on spectroscopy. However, I had been using it as a tool to analyze pharma compounds, blood, jaundice blood, etc., and I have used lyophiliser, deep freezer, HPLC, UV, etc. … for my research.

Nevertheless, that had perhaps become possible because I had never seen the sciences as doors with specific keys in the hands of specialized persons: physicists, chemists, microbiologists and so forth. For me science was knowledge, and that idea had perhaps come to me from the mentoring by my senior colleagues and research guide. I have been working since 1996, at DG Vaishnav College, where in our department; our senior professors had the culture of “talking science”. They have always insisted on it discuss science, could be some incidents, history, geography or technology related to a topic whenever possible. They taught me, “While teaching about a compound pendulum, instead of doing the big derivations first, start with the history of why it is important, its significance, where such experiments on time measurement were carried out, the need and make the students get interested in the topic, and then start derivations. That will make sense”. With that kind of environment, I believed in talking science and taking science to my students.DBT-Intr disc Project work

My articles and stories on evolution of various scientific facts/inventions/technology in Tamil were well received, by my own students and in everyplace, I visited from since I have been a science communicator from 2009. When I started getting more invitations to schools and colleges, I evolved my method of “talking science, not lecturing”. This helped me stand out everywhere and students could connect with science instantaneously.
Bio-Bang!DBT-A-Raman lecture (2)
All the above said happened before 2013, and my colleagues too got inspired and started science communication through magazines and the All India Radio. Moreover, while 13 may be an unlucky number for the superstitious, for us 2013 was a super breaking point, when we managed to cross the Rubicon!

This is when we received The Department of Biotechnology STAR College Support scheme for our college, DG Vaishnav College, erstwhile Madras, now Chennai. I would liken it to a groping pupil walking on a path she had chosen suddenly finding the right mentor. For under the DBT Star College Support Scheme, science is looked as a single entity, without turf markings. Rather DBT asked us to approach science as one entity.

For a physicist, even appearing for the interview for the scheme was a mighty challenge. But the “talk science, take science” approach egged me on to a holistic path. In addition, once we got the Star support funding, there was applause: biotech funding for a physicist’s presentation! This ideology: “Science appeals to everyone, after all science means knowledge” fetched this for our college!

Devising various programmes, to suit other departments has to be well monitored. Our team knew that asking a Department to devise a workshop and handover money would not fetch success. So, if our DBT hands-on scheme has to reach the students, its design must be apt and make them long for more. That happened. A small spark of non-conventional approach soon lit up a prairie fire in the campus.

Nearly 300 science videos (of Arvind Gupta) were dubbed (into Tamil) by our students after a small workshop I conducted in batches, and the expenditure would have been hardly a few hundred rupees. But the permission from the authorities/heads to involve students (volunteers) from different subjects and departments was much easier now, as we could say it is a “DBT activity”! The outcome after using these videos in schools has been awesome. Moreover, the good feeling among students has become infectious.

This was a strategy we adopted to bring in all the teachers into our fold under DBT STAR, through the “bottom-up” approach. When undergrads learnt to curate various objects with help from professional curators from the famous Madras Museum, we knew this would be sought after programme, and it is. The thrill, the satisfaction, the self gratification students got after a hands-on training by professionals at TN Agriculture University Centre, Chennai on roof gardening, bouquet making was enormous. This was an opportunity to help them understand the existence of such institutions, their work, government support to grow skills in youngsters and the need to explore beyond conventional classrooms. Imagine the feeling Physics students get when they undergo training in microbiology and biochemistry techniques, and Botany students learning to detect radiation with GM counter or looking through telescope, or Chemistry students curating manuscripts and idols from historic period, and they all together learn ecology at a marshland, which is absent in a conventional classroom. With students who are more interested in tinkering, teams evolved to try experiments in school science and we reach out to schools. More students opted postgraduation in their fields or teacher training than earlier days, as they were better informed about the CAS labs and other labs, opportunities and ways to tap them. Now students are even involved in creating resource videos on simple experiments for their regular lab classes. Students on their part have learnt to communicate through college magazine, interactions, and classroom conversations now about other disciplines too.
By 2014, RMSA started a pilot project for 100 Government Schools in Tamil Nadu to give hands-on skills under STEM. Many of the teachers might have graduated in B.Sc. Physics/Chemistry/Biology/Zoology but they were motivated. They learnt to see the entire progress as “Science”, breaking the barriers. Many of the teachers turned into mentors, an idea which definitely the DBT Star Programme gave us. I deeply owe DBT Star Support Scheme for the inner strength it sowed for making this culmination possible. This has given the children, an opportunity to feel science. This has also helped Kinetic learners to learn, which is non-existing in usual school method. With the success of the pilot project 2015 2016, MHRD has decided this project to be implemented in all the Government Schools throughout Tamil Nadu through RMSA and the positive results are cascading.

Again, in our College, when faculty accompany students and undergo training in many places, they identify themselves along with students, as a learner, which is unusual and builds education system itself. Teachers become lifelong learners, which the healthiest practice. As every teacher plays a part of coordinating different programmes, their capabilities, challenges come to the fore. Faculty learn to handle their challenges and groom themselves to cater better. Everyone plays a role. As well no one can sit quite, when so much is happening around in the department unlike pre-DBT times! New ideas, new people, new institutes, new resources, new methodologies are welcome because we need to accomplish the task. They are no more critically looked upon. This becomes an HR building by itself.

I would rather say, DBT gave us more strength and helped us look at science as a single entity connected with many sub-modules, not to assume any of those modules as “masters”. However, for this programme, we would not have been able to put our heads together or inspire students to learn other related disciplines. Any student who takes up B.Sc. mostly comes there because someone had said something good about it, or he assumes so. They have really not explored themselves, or never asked: “Why this? Why not that course?” So, all of us must be given space to explore other courses of studies as well.

In a purely academic sense, scientists are ‘polygamous’ creatures, always curious about ‘the other’. Nevertheless, breaking traditional straightjackets and exploring those other disciplines would not even have been a dream in colleges if the brain behind the STAR Scheme had not opened up that path. My heartfelt thanks to the DBT Think Tank behind the Star College scheme!

BY Dr D Uthra
The author is Head, Department of Physics, Overall Coordinator, DBT STAR College Support Scheme, Dwaraka Doss Goverdhan Doss Vaishnav College, Chennai