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Wish To See Students With Passion Joining Research

JN Moorthy, Director, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Thiruvananthapuram, on his vision for research in the country

Of the seven IISERs in the country, IISER TVM was established in in 2008. The institute offers integrated BS-MS programme, MSc programme, integrated PhD Programme and PhD programme, wherein students are exposed to research work unlike in the university system. Prof JN Moorthy, who took reigns as Director in 2019 and oversees academic expansion, describes the aptitude and skilling needed for research, developments in the field, new initiatives and the focus areas for 2023. Excerpts: 

What is the focus of IISER with respect to work done in past few years and also the plans for 2023 and moving forward?

The main framework is to impart education, with research integrated. The education that you get in IISERs is very different that you get in sciences in the university system, where students of undergrad programmes seldom get to engage in research problems. But IISERs they are exposed to research environment, work with research scholars. 

Till the institute had its campus built and moved to its present location, it had four disciplines – physics, chemistry, mathematics and biology. 

NEP came into picture in 2020 and we initiated an integrated science discourse. And launched in June 2020 Integrated and Interdisciplinary (i2) Sciences. So our institute is already aligned with NEP. We worked a lot to have a curriculum that’s different from regular BS-MS programme. It allows students to be rooted in a particular discipline, and at the same time explore other things too, for which a student might have passion.   

We started a new discipline called Data Sciences, and a five-year BS-MS in Data Sciences. In 2021, we started two-year MS programmes in Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Biology.  

We have created two new centres – High Performance Computing Facility for all kinds of computational research. The other is Centre for Advanced Materials Research, with international engagement. Students here get guided by a faculty from the campus and a scientist from abroad, and with the possibility for the student to go abroad. And we have submitted a proposal to the ministry for a new discipline called Earth, environment and Sustainability Sciences and will soon be opening this course. 

So, stepping into 2023, we have to successfully manoeuvre these new courses the way wanted these to progress. And we would like to see our graduates emerge the way we envisioned. We want to showcase to the country that our education is state-of-the-art. So we want to focus on ensuring that the programmes that we have launched are successful. 

Which are the fields that hold promise, and where a lot of work is being done?

You can look at the major issues that humankind is fraught with in general. There is a war in Ukraine leading to energy crisis. There is big reliance on non-renewable resources which are fast getting depleted. So the focus is on alternative energy sources. 

The next area is digital sophistication. When I started as a PhD scholar there was only a computer of 256 mb. Now, even a kid has a phone of 120 GB. And still people are not happy. Resolution and bandwidth matter a lot. So AI is becoming the way in every aspect of life. 

And, when it comes to sustenance, in the field of Biology, we have just gone through the terrible pandemic and we have to worry about infectious diseases and the drug resistance that the virus develops. 

When it comes to research, what is the promise that the education ecosystem of the country holds? 

I am a practising scientist and I can tell you, the research in higher education institutes is pretty good, especially in institutes of national importance. In the last 20 years or so, the research institutes have improved greatly. There is considerable flow of funds to these institutions. The scientists hired are on par with their global counterparts. But this is limited to institutes of national importance or laboratories set up centrally, by CSIR, DBT institutions and the like. But there are other universities and their affiliated colleges where you see the sciences and research slowly on decline. 

On the question of global rankings, and the emphasis on research in these rankings, and of citations as a key criteria in research impact, what is your view on that? 

Even our government has put up a framework to rank institutes. No system can be foolproof but they are a guide as to which institute is doing well and which institute is lagging in a specific area. One would like to know where good quality scientific research is happening. How would one know? A major parameter to gauge that would be what is available in the public forum. Publications are a means to that; some earth-shattering work will be looked by many. Which is where the citations come in, as a research with large number of citations is perceived to be good work. From that point of view, global rankings have to be taken seriously. 

How do you think will the NEP help encourage the research ecosystem?

A key emphasis area of NEP is interdisciplinary work and the second is flexibility in education. They can take up any courses that they want. This multidisciplinary approach ensures that the graduates are not narrow-minded specialists. They emerge with core strengths but with exposure to other disciplines. If you talk about Biology and Physics, ie Biophysics, or Chemistry and Biology, ie Chemical Biology, that is where the excitement is. And the graduates of today are well-rounded and capable of taking up challenges of today.

STEM education at school level is being much talked about. What is its status? 

In some states it’s good. But in others, it’s completely book-based. I don’t think we have evolved and lagging in hands-on experience. In the West, it’s not so much the material, but how you open up the minds is what matters. So, what can we do? The answer is that the children need to be exposed, through visits to institutes where research is being done, or visits to the industry. SO they have to observe the application of what they have studied. We now have Atal Tinkering labs where students can enjoy working on what they have learnt. 

One detrimental factor is admission to higher education institutes. From the age of 13-14, when they are in VIIIth or IXth standard, they start preparing for IITs. Education is more about cracking the competitive exams which hijacks any possibility for innovation. 

Can you tell us a bit about good practices that research institutes need to adopt?

One of the serious problems that the world is facing is plagiarism. It comes from a very early age and prevents us from seeing any creativity students might have.

Moreover, when it comes to a research set-up, replicating anything becomes a crime. But students don’t even realise the gravity of the situation. Which is why a training is required, right at the commencement of a course. Many institutes are already doing it now. They have course work on ethics, to inform them to what extent is taking matter acceptable. 

The other aspect is that harassment cases have gone unnoticed in the past. But these are being reported now, which is good. Gender neutrality and safety at work place is being encouraged in many good institutes. 

In 2023 what would you like to see happening in the field of research?

The students who embrace research have completed Masters’ programme, at the age of 22-23. In that age group, someone who took up Engineering or vocational education would be earning money. A PhD student would spend another five years or so in research, till about 28. Research is a demanding area. In my institute, I would like to see that only those who have passion for research should come. If not, then don’t come for petty money in the form of fellowship. That kills the work culture. 

If you have passion, you are inquisitive, you can contribute to the institute and its quality goes up. The research community has to be conscious of the time. And one has to ask, have I acquired the skills that have made me competent enough in the job market to be selected. Everyone must ask that. 

Do you have a personal philosophy on education?

It’s very simple. If you want to pursue Science, is it a subject that resonates with your heart? You join a degree course that spans a period of 5 years. Take the example of Chemistry, which again has so many sub-subjects. You need to make out where is your passion. My advice to all students is to explore and make informed decisions. But if you have not been exposed, or not allowed yourself the opportunity, and a subject turns out to be one you don’t like at all, you will have no option as you would have surpassed the age. If you don’t like what you do, you will not be successful.  



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