Debating India

SPECIAL FEATURES: EDUCATIONAL EXCELLENCE IN SOUTH TAMIL NADU

Biotechnology and a pioneer

Friday 2 July 2004, by SUBRAMANIAN*T.S.

THE Madurai Kamaraj University (MKU), Madurai, can rightly be called the pioneer in biotechnology education in the country. It was the first to introduce a postgraduate course in the subject, in 1985, almost immediately after the National Biotechnology Board (NBTB) introduced biotechnology as a focus area of support. Five universities began formal postgraduate courses in biotechnology in 1985 under the NBTB-University Grants Commission programme of manpower development in the field.

Today, 104 colleges offer biotechnology at the B.E./B.Tech level. In Tamil Nadu alone, 36 colleges offer B.E. or B.Tech. in the subject. Dr. K. Dharmalingam, Senior Professor and Head of the Department of Genetic Engineering, School of Biotechnology, MKU, attributes the current craze for studying biotechnology to the popularisation of the course in the wake of the industries’ interest in the subject. He recalled how the M.Sc. course in Biotechnology met with strong protest in the 1980s, mainly from those not involved in teaching programmes. "Today, biotechnology is included even at the Plus 2 level," he pointed out.

Self-financing engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu are competing with one another to introduce B.Tech in Industrial Biotechnology. Not to be left behind, arts and science colleges offer B.Sc. in Biotechnology although the Department of Biotechnology is against teaching biotechnology at the undergraduate level.

While "logically there is nothing wrong" in offering B.Tech or B.E. in Biotechnology, Dr. Dharmalingam said, the MKU discouraged colleges affiliated to it from starting B.Sc. in Biotechnology. Advancing reasons for this, he said: "It is an inter-disciplinary course where you need experts in chemistry, statistics, mathematics, microbiology, botany and zoology." It would be difficult to find experts to teach the subject at the undergraduate level as "biotechnology requires a level of knowledge at the master’s level, not at the undergraduate level," he said. Besides, it would be difficult to design a curriculum at the undergraduate level. An "ideal" solution could lie in a dual-degree course that lasted four years, he said. For instance, a student could do B.Sc. in Microbiology for three years and do an advanced course in biotechnology in the fourth year. "That is what we are considering," he said.

The Mother Teresa Women’s University, Kodaikanal, has already started experimenting with this double-degree programme. Its Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Anandhavalli Mahadevan, said the university would offer a "conceptual degree" at the end of three years of study and a vocational degree at the end of the fourth year. For instance, a student completing B.A. in Geography could study Tourism in the fourth year; a student completing B.Sc. in Botany or Zoology could study Biotechnology in the fourth year; and those who studied B.A. English Literature could do Visual Communication or Mass Communication in the fourth year. The Sri Kaliswari College located near Sivakasi would start an M.Sc. programme in Biotechnology this academic year. A.P. Selvarajan, correspondent and secretary of the college, said: "We have invested Rs.1 crore to start this course. But we know the returns will be low." This forward-looking college is putting up a herbal garden for initiating research in biotechnology. Selvarajan said a separate garden was under development for the Energy Plantation Programme, approved by the Department of Biotechnology, run through the MKU’s Department of Plant Sciences.

S. Sampath, adviser to the Sri Kaliswari College, said the college had acquired 40 acres (16 hectares) near Kariapatti. It was developing a bio-energy plantation on eight acres, and on another eight acres it was growing endangered plants

The Alagappa University, Karaikudi, established a Department of Biotechnology two years ago. Dr. T. Kanniappan, Vice-Chancellor, said he would take steps to strengthen the department, especially by enabling it to take up work in rural biotechnology. According to Dr. R. Dhandapani, Registrar, 60 per cent of the first batch of M.Sc students, who would pass out this year, had already received placement.

T.S.Subramanian

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