Teach and Learn

Journal Club

Teach and Learn

I teach a course on Spatio-temporal regulation of biological phenomena for first year Ph.D students at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology.

Some of the areas that interest me and have become the subject of this course are:

> Circadian Rhythms

> Network Motifs

> Alan Turing's model and animal skin patterns.

I will also use this site to periodically post some views on pedagogy, some observations, random thoughts and problems (with and without solutions). These views are entirely personal; neither CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology nor my lab members necessarily share these views.

An interesting experiment in pedagogy/ Writing a one figure paper: This year, with first year Ph.D students and some second year Masters students I attempted to conduct a class / workshop on writing scientific manuscripts (applies equally well to any other form for dissemination of scientific information). I identified one figure, central to a controversial topic published in a leading journal, with a theme that does not require much specialist knowledge of a field. One such example is the paper in NEJM reporting an apparent correlation between chocolate consumption and number of Nobel laureates of a country. The students look at the figure and write a mock manuscript around it. Many students came up with caveats and strong justifications in their manuscripts.

On Libraries

I have always been attracted to libraries. An abiding image from the movie, "My Fair Lady" is that of the handsome professor, perched on a ladder searching for books. Since then the image of a reading room lined from floor to the ceiling by open bookshelves has remained a dream. With the trend of digital reading getting more and more firmly entrenched, both economics and mobility favouring it, it is clear that this dream will remain a mirage. Our new institute has a little area demarcated as the library. I am reconciled to the inevitable encroachments as labs grow. So here is a bittersweet recollection of the different libraries I have seen so far.

Our school had a large, well stocked library. However, it also had designated library periods with the entertainment in these weekly sessions provided by a temperamental librarian. She took her responsibility very seriously, reprimanding and sometimes hitting students who dared to whisper to each other. She did nothing to encourage reading. We also saw very few teachers frequent the library. The books, well maintained and elegant in their jackets wore a forlorn look. After school, I went to college at the Dept. of Microbiology, Ramnarain Ruia College, Mumbai. Here I saw libraries of two different kinds within 100ft of each other. The Ruia College Librarian was a well-read, scholarly lady who encouraged us to sit in the library and read, as we discovered too late, in the last year of college. The first two years passed by while we were busy hagglin gin fish market style with the library peons, who dispensed their weekly gifts with great reluctance. We jostled with each other at the counter, addressing them with mock respect as "Mama"- uncle in Marathi- the local language. But the departmental library was a different case altogether. This library was called the book bank. It had been built by the students contributing books every year as they completed their course. Occasionally, you would see the sign of a famous alumnus or tricks and shortcuts scribbled on the margin, in Harry Potter style...

There were weekly sessions of "book issue", managed by student representatives, where we argued, justified and defended for access to books. There was a collective sense of pride and ownership and most importantly, this book bank made sure that I did not have to find money for buying any textbooks.

At IISc the library was a quiet beautiful place with an enchanting view of a tree lined path. There was a sense of timelessness and typically one went to look up something and ended up spending the whole day browsing through books. Another departmental library worth mentioning is that of Centre for Ecological Sciences. Although we were just taking couple of courses there, the authorities of this well-stocked library were generous enough to gently egg us on to explore the world of books. Prof. Raghavendra Gadagkar not only introduced us to some excellent scientific writing by gifting us a book each, chosen to match the interests of each student, but also had a wonderful personal collection of reprints and books- meticulously kept and generously shared.

For many years I did not like the libraries at the places I worked in -although I slowly built up a personal collection of books. Then I saw a very special library at the Centre for Bioinformatics, Kerala University. This modest library had two surprising and prominently displayed rules. Any member who did not issue a book for a whole semester would be fined. Each book had a paper flap attached to the inside back cover. I was used to seeing a list of names and dates- a record of the hands the book had been in. This flap was different- each person who issued the book had to leave comments about the book. With the imposition of fines on non-readers- this library had managed to turn conventional student wisdom on its head. The message was clear - please come and partake in this feast; you will not be penalized for taking more. The second rule was effectively a way of guiding a reader's choice, much like the quotes from reviews on the back covers do- but with one difference. In place of the New York Times editor was a familiar name and behind that a person who was academically, culturally a colleague and contemporary.

As we put together a modern library the advent of digital technology cannot be ignored. But more importantly, we must capture the spirit of generous sharing of knowledge, the pleasure of intellectual comments and the sense of collective ownership that is the essence of a good library.