Patience & Integrity Are Important Qualities

Bindu Ajit, Programme Dean and SS Easwaran, Academic Dean, Biocon Academy, on the vision with which Biocon Academy was started and the acumen required for scientific research and industrial applications

What have been some of the most significant shifts in the last few years in both research and development and teaching and learning? And how has Covid pushed the boundaries?

SS Easwaran: In the R&D space, the time required to do research is shrinking due to the adaptation of newer technologies. Earlier, we were doing everything manually – i.e., in-vitro studies. A lot of the research has moved to in-silico studies using bio-informatic tools, among others.

With technological advances, we have the possibility to use artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and deep learning (DL). We are utilising natural language processing and natural image processing for coming up with promising drug targets. So, the overall time taken by a scientist to do repetitive jobs is getting reduced. They now have the option and capability to focus on the innovative areas of research as the recurring work could be done by machines.

Bindu Ajit: The change can be summarised in two words – ‘adaptation’ (of technology) and ‘innovation’. Earlier, the teaching-learning process happened in chalk-and-blackboard mode. How are you going to keep students involved? How to make learning more interactive when the teacher is not physically present in class? These were huge challenges in India. The Covid pandemic spurred the move to online platforms such as Zoom, Webex, Teams, etc.

At Biocon Academy, we have been using the Zoom platform for the last 10 years, much before the pandemic hit us. Our students were used to it since our education partners operate from different parts of the world. The big challenge during Covid was conducting experiential learning, which students used to receive at Biocon’s facilities from scientists working there. To get over this challenge during the pandemic, we started using laptops and mobile cameras to demonstrate experiments to them.

Moving forward, with Covid behind us, what will be the long-term lessons and what will be some of those learnings that will stay in this field?

SS Easwaran: We cannot keep depending on the structure-based discovery as it’s going to take a lot of time. We must move from structure- to evidence-based discovery using AI-ML-DL tools.

To cite an example, during Covid, Artificial Intelligence platform has suggested a series of molecules that could be used against the virus. However, we took time to accept it and validate it. So, moving forward, what Covid has taught us is to depend on and believe in the technology that we have developed.

What is the kind of infrastructure that exists in the country for research and development in sciences as of date? And how are organisations like Biocon Academy contributing to this infrastructure?

SS Easwaran: There is a very big transformation that is happening in terms of R&D infrastructure in the country. My observation is that in the past research was confined to research institutions, large universities, government-run research institutions or the R&D departments of various organisations. Now, we are in a very exciting and interesting stage, wherein the research facilities are accessible, thanks to the growth of incubation centres and innovation centres. These are promoting a startup ecosystem. The Government is really spending a lot of time and money on these centres and providing a lot of resources to those who are putting impetus on converting their innovative ideas into a product or service.

For example, we have a Bangalore Innovation Centre closer to our premises, which supports 40 startups incubate their ideas.

What is the kind of interdisciplinary work happening in this field?

SS Easwaran: When it comes to interdisciplinary work, the real issue is the data. Be it research on the environment front or whether it is food technology; the challenge is to find out how to extrapolate the data being generated in one discipline to another.

To give an example, blockchain has been a very significant technology with applications in the commercial space, especially the banking sector. But today we have the ability to utilise at least the basic principles of blockchain, that is open ledger policy, in our field. As we are moving towards an open medicine policy, we can track how many medicines have been used in which area and for what purpose. This is how data can be used effectively to impact lives.

What is the vision with which the Biocon Academy was started and what are the focus areas?

Bindu Ajit: The main aim of establishing the academy was to bridge the gap that exists between academia and industry. Kiran (Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Founder and Executive Chairperson, Biocon), a role model in the area of biotechnology, realised that there was a gap between what academic institutes were teaching and what the industry requirements were.

At Biocon Academy, we offer five world class certificate programmes designed to bridge this gap. Our education partners provide students with application-oriented training.

We give our students hands-on training, wherein the students visit certain companies and gain work experience. Then we have functional visits, wherein the students get to see how scientists are doing their experiments in Biocon’s labs and learn from them. In addition, we train the students on soft skills. We cover all the areas to make them industry ready. About 45 companies visit the campus for placements.

What would you say about the larger picture of industry academia collaboration in the country?

Bindu Ajit: Over the years, one can see a lot of changes in colleges. With NEP 2020 (National Education Policy), academic institutions have got a greater degree of autonomy to introduce new courses which are more application oriented. They are inviting industry experts as board members to design the curriculum. They are inviting guest lecturers from the industry. I think they are also investing a lot of money on their labs and equipment and technology such as AR-VR.

Academia now understands that they must have a strong connection with industry. Industry also knows that if it doesn’t support academia, it is not going to get the right resources. There is an understanding and there is a movement towards bridging that gap.

SS Easwaran: As per one of the Central Govt scheme (through the Department of Biotechnology) six eligible students are offered pad internship for six months. The possibility of that being converted to employability is very high. There is also the National Apprentice Promotion Scheme which is very effective. There are state-wise initiatives too such as Karnataka Govt scheme for biotechnology – Biotech Finishing School, wherein they have identified 12 universities in the state to run the programme. Industry experts go to these universities to train students.

What is the kind of acumen that a youngster who is keen to enter this field must possess? And how would you describe the STEM education as it exists at the school level that feeds students into higher education?

SS Easwaran: One thing that we need to tell school students is that there are a lot of other avenues for science-led careers besides medicine or engineering, like for example, biotechnology. They need to understand that whatever they are studying at a basic STEM level has applications across a range of disciplines. Once they realise this, they will be ready to pursue opportunities across a wide number of fields. This mindset change is currently limited to students hailing from urban centres.

With reference to acumen, it is also important for students to understand if they deserve what they desire. They must understand that their qualification may not be equivalent to the skill that the industry is looking for. For example, they need to know the difference between experimental-based learning and process-based learning. Most students are unable to extrapolate findings for larger applications. That is where Biocon Academy is also playing a role in bridging the skill gap.

Bindu Ajit: Around 950 students have graduated from our academy. During the initial stages of the programme, we noticed that their confidence levels were low, and their English proficiency was below the desired level, leading to hesitation in speaking and asking questions. Their presentation skills required improvement too. To address this, we came up with a system that rewards students with marks for asking questions.

Patience and integrity are of utmost importance in the pharmaceutical industry. A casual attitude to work is unacceptable. In this field, even a minor mistake can cost you your job, given the critical nature of the work where people's lives are at stake, including those of your own family members. Therefore, integrity plays an important role in the pharmaceuticals sector, and we organise guest lectures to help students understand and appreciate the significance of this principle.

What have been some key career avenues that have opened up for the pass-outs?

Bindu Ajit: Most of our students get placed in the Quality department, R&D department and the Production department. Other than this, we have seen students pursuing careers in marketing and communication roles within pharmaceutical companies or opting for higher studies.

What inspired both of you to take up this field? And what is the biggest reward of being in this field?

Bindu Ajit: I have been in the field of education for around 30 years now. So, starting from schools, colleges, international schools, an IT company, banks, to Biocon Academy, the verticals have changed, but the common factor has been education. This is the last leg of my career and I feel extremely privileged to be here, heading this academy. The most satisfying aspect is that we are helping these students land their first jobs. So, I have one-on-one sessions with each student in every batch wherein I counsel them. The transformation that they show after four months and the job roles that they get selected for at the end of it is the most satisfying aspect of my job.

SS Easwaran: I started my career in industrial microbiology, moved to support filtration, purification chromatography, then method & process development then to production training and regulatory services and now academia. I find that many students are not clear about what they are in for in the field of biotechnology. I guide them in their career journey by telling them what skills they need to learn and what the industry expects of them. This job allows me to prepare them for their future and that is the aspect that I find most satisfying.

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