Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Work Culture at DBS, TIFR: A student's view

I'm being presumptious when I say that all my contemporary students in DBS will agree with this, but a fair fraction does, and that makes these views non-trivial. Feedback hunters... listen up!

TIFR and NCBS arguably offer the best exposure to biological research to their students, the country can afford. The GoI is generous in funding researchers at all stages and levels of their career in these sister concerns. This translates to top notch facilities and hands on experience to all students during the course of their training. The scientific prowess (publication ability) of scientists at these establishments is unquestionable. Their publication profiles are good and the last review of the department conducted by a panel of internationally "BIG" biologists was favourable. Publications are after all the only legitimate yardstick of research output from a lab. The department is scientifically active with regular journal clubs, weekly departmental work presentations (given by student and research fellows) and Annual Work Presentation by the PIs themselves. I'm sure this is what meets the eye of an outside observer. Ah! What a pretty picture?!

It is the dream of most Indian science students to make it to the clique of haloed institutions of which TIFR is a part. It is a very valid aspiration. Not many places have the excellent facilties and money to offer. But let us look at the mechanics of the Department of Biological Sciences(DBS)'s functioning at the student level a little more closely. The faculty of any place on earth will be hard pressed to find a student body more devoted to their work than that at TIFR. Students don't show stress while work long hours. The average time a student spends working in the lab is 12 hours. The lab is not a second home. It is home itself. The student community is sometimes family, complete with its black sheep, scape goats and villainous characters. It is the loose bonding with peers that keeps the suicide rate to zero.

Emotions and physical sensations that render a life human, are sacrificed at the altar of the Data God. Seriously, those are perfectly respectable and the minimum expected work ethics. But(!) His high priests and priestesses play the intermediaries between the student and the eclectic word of the Lord. It must be followed at any cost. Work is done religiously. Why so? Besides self satisfaction, a mention in the Priests' good books goes a long way. They send you to higher abodes where the Data God is more beneficent, or to holes from where it is difficult to emerge. Sacrifices have to be offered to keep the Priests happy. Gruesome ones too... hang on for them.

Health ceases to be a concern. Students lose weight as if it were a lizard licking at your neck. Backaches, calf muscle aches, migranes due to hours of continuous poring over microscopes to meet sadistic deadlines are no surprise. Clinical instances of depression have been reported. Of course most of the psychological stress goes unreported. There is a small number of labs where guidence and mentorship are generously given. Considering that there are nine functional labs at the moment, you do the arithmetic. There are labs where there is no attention from the PI, because there is no PI. There are labs where the PI is permanently busy and therefore inaccessible. Then there is the category of sadistic, blood sucking, slave drivers running labs of zombies striving to get a breath. One subcategory roughs you up for the wild. You feel empowered at the end of the gruelling torture, maybe even thankful for it. The other subcategory is unspeakable in its selfishness and ruthless impalement of students. The will to do science is systematically asphyxiated as a by product of selfish ambition. Nothing seems to stand in the way of it. Data God's stochastic frown on a student could even ruin her/his career in science. There has been talk chucking people because of clinical conditions they might be in. The responsibilty that comes with becoming a "guide" is passe. You take students as "labour" (a doctrine being sold to a faculty member of a different department by one member of the DBS faculty). If students have problems performing, "underperformers" can always moved out of sight and thence, out of mind at any point.

I opine that a student's situation is akin to a mountaineer on a thin ridge high on the wall of a plummetting cliff of advancement, overlooking a stagnated valley, supported by the safety threads of friends, data and luck, trudging along in thin air ever conscious of the treacherous next step. Not all students will agree with this. Wait till their eyes open!

But nonetheless this place has dished out some sharp, honed minds. Like the logic gaging scientific activity through publications, the accomplishments of the alumni of TIFR speak for the system. Certain aspects of the system yet need attention and improvement. Maybe the readers have something to say!