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IISERs: The Great Indian Scientific Dream


Let's start with the following exchange from the immensely popular TV series "The Big Bang Theory":


Raj: The university president is headed this way.

President (to Sheldon Cooper): Dr. Cooper, the Physics department chair tells me you are refusing to take your vacation.

Sheldon: I don't need a vacation.

President: You are obligated to take one.

Sheldon: But, if I don't come in to work, what am I supposed to do with myself?

President: Read, rest, travel.

(After the president leaves)

Sheldon: It's like I am living in a dictatorship! "You must take a vacation, must have fun, must enjoy life."

Howard: I don't think you have a good handle on dictatorships.



So, why didn't Dr. Cooper want to take a vacation? Because he was a scientist working on extremely exciting, cutting edge research problems at Caltech.

Incidentally, last year, a BS-MS student from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Pune, Akash G (recipient of the President's Gold Medal) was offered a fellowship at Caltech for a PhD in Neuroscience. He eventually chose to join Cornell University in keeping with his research interests. As far as Sheldon Cooper's own field, Theoretical Physics is concerned, IISERs now have an established track record of sending students working in this field to some of the most reputed universities all over the world. For example, in the last few years, IISER students have received admission offers from universities like Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Brown, University of California Los Angeles and San Diego, Rutgers, Oxford and Cambridge. Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics have an equally formidable reputation in this regard [1]. Geological Sciences, a fully functional department at IISER Kolkata, has also trained several students to pursue research training and careers.

It has now been almost 9 years since IISERs were first established in 2006 and have become part of the gathering storm of scientific excellence in India. IISERs currently have five fully functional centers across the country: located at Pune, Kolkata, Bhopal, Mohali and Thiruvananthapuram. In the coming academic year, a new center will start at Tirupati, which will be mentored by IISER Pune for a couple of years.

A decade ago, the scientific leaders of our country came together to address a very important issue: in a country of 1 billion people, we had NO institutes where young students could go for high quality science education at the undergraduate level. One thing was absolutely clear: students needed to learn science in an atmosphere where exciting research was being conducted simultaneously. In fact, it was considered essential that there must be a new system where the students themselves would participate in research. Moreover, an interdisciplinary system of learning was sought in which students would get a firm foundation in all the sciences before choosing to specialize in one – a far cry from a typical university education, where students pick a major in the first year of college and treat the remaining subjects as “subsidiaries” which are studied to merely pass exams.

“iisers”

This is how the concept of IISER was born: a concept, which would break down artificial barriers between research and undergraduate teaching, as well as barriers between major scientific disciplines. Once the broad objectives were clear, things moved very quickly. In 2005, the Ministry of Human Resource Development approved the recommendations of Professor CNR Rao-led- Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister to start IISERs. Campus allocation, infrastructural and financial planning, curriculum designing, and streamlining of the admission procedure was done within months so that two of the planned IISERs were able to commence their academic sessions as early as August 2006 with 44 students at IISER Pune and 38 at Kolkata. Each of these institutes started with a single classroom, two or three labs, and a lot of energy. The other IISERs started operating in the next couple of years.

Once the basic groundwork was done, the next challenge was to attract energetic and first-rate researchers, who also had a passion for teaching. Young scientists, fresh from their PhDs and postdocs, were attracted to launch their scientific careers at the IISERs with the help of liberal start-up research grants, generous lab spaces and smooth administrative processes. Many joined for the sheer excitement of experiencing a high level of autonomy very early in their research careers at a place that really wanted them! Once IISERs had a team of faculty with a passionate belief in the IISER dream, there was no turning back.

Within a few years, high quality publications were coming out of these institutes and the first batch of MS students was ready to graduate in 2011. About 80% of these students decided to pursue a PhD, while the remaining 20% moved into industry (for example, companies like Shell India Ltd) or joined well-known management institutes. Among the PhD aspirants, more than half chose to go abroad (to universities including Cornell, Michigan at Ann Arbor, Columbia, Duke, Oxford, Goettingen). Those who stayed in India, joined research institutes like the Indian Institute of Science (Bengaluru) and Institute of Mathematical Sciences (Chennai) [2].

Thanks to the vision of the founders, feedback from our alumni as well as an ever-growing pool of faculty to represent diverse specialties, the Integrated BS-MS programme at IISERs has evolved over the years into a rigorous, internationally competitive and challenging programme, which trains students very effectively to pursue research-related careers in academia as well as industry.

In a break from the traditional mold of undergraduate education in India, IISER students are not required to choose a major at the beginning of their course of study. For the first two years, students pursue courses in all the sciences. This enables them, in their third year, to settle on a subject they wish to specialize in. Students now make a mature and informed choice about their future study, as opposed to a choice based on fear or peer pressure. However, they also have the freedom to continue studying other topics of their interest in the third and fourth year. By the end of the fourth year, students have built very strong foundations in their subjects of interest and have also taken advanced reading courses in specific research topics, that is, they have learnt enough about some scientific area to understand research papers and follow the latest progress in that field. In the fifth year, students are required to take up a research project under the supervision of a faculty member. These projects typically tie into the research programmes of the faculty and a sizeable number of them lead to publications in peer-reviewed journals. Therefore, by the time students finish this programme, they have the knowledge, skills and the necessary preparation to embark upon a research career in the basic sciences. The seamless integration of specialized research training with a broad, interdisciplinary knowledge of science is one of the things that makes the IISER system unique in India.

And that’s why IISER students often get to do what Sheldon did:


Leonard: Sheldon, everybody takes vacations.

Sheldon: One time they tried to make Richard Feynman take a vacation. But, he chose instead to expand his mind and learn something new. He went to work in his friend’s biology lab.


For those wondering how the conversation unfolded, here’s what Sheldon said next to his engineer friend Howard:

Sheldon (to Howard): Richard Feynman was a famous American physicist, part of the Manhattan project.

Howard: Sheldon, everyone in science knows who Richard Feynman is.

Sheldon: Now you do too.




[1] Precise details can be found on the following link: http://www.quora.com/What-are-some-examples-of-graduates-of-the-BS-MS-program-at-IISER-Pune-who-were-accepted-into-top-US-universities-for-their-PhD

[2] Detailed information about the alumni from each batch can be found on the respective institute webpages – while checking out IISER Kolkata’s alumni page, do also check out the nice track record of Geological Sciences, starting 2012!


* Abhishek Banerjee, Assistant Professor in Mathematics at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru

* Kaneenika Sinha, Assistant Professor in Mathematics at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune


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Abhishek Banerjee and Kaneenika Sinha

Assistant Professor in Mathematics
at IISc-Bengaluru and IISER-Pune respectively

 


   
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