What makes Biotechnology different from other disciplines?
One of the unique qualities of Biotechnology, when compared with other disciplines is its vastness and the magnitude of integration present. Biotechnology is a consortium of Cellular Biology, dealing with the basic structural unit of our life, the cell, Molecular Biology, shedding light on the DNA at a molecular level, Immunology, the science of immunity and protection to the human body, Genetic Engineering, illuminating the path of inheritance, among others.
With this integration, one can only try to imagine the permutations and combinations by which sub-areas in the above can be put to use in research. Along with this wide range of research possibilities, Biotechnology is a field where no skill, no matter how basic, can be taken for granted. Even the simplest of skills must be adeptly applied at the right time to yield substantial results.
An amalgamation of the above features under optimized conditions can give rise to a product which would not only fetch the researcher fame, but also give the society a novel, yet conventionally accepted outcome. The joy one receives as a result of the above cannot be matched even by 'A city full of robots'.
The course requires a basic knowledge of Biology, which lightly equates to choosing this discipline in your Higher Secondary. Nevertheless, now-a-days, students from other science courses, without Biology as one of the disciplines, are also admitted. The Center for Biotechnology, Anna University, established over two decades ago, is one of the premier institutes offering a research-oriented course in Industrial Biotechnology. Admission into the center used to work through a separate entrance examination and candidates all over the country competed for the same. Currently, admissions to the center happen through the single-window counseling system as per Anna University guidelines.
The other premier institutions offering an Undergraduate program in Biotechnology are the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Chennai, Delhi. Admissions into the same work on the basis of the common IIT Joint Entrance Examination (JEE). Preference for institutes offering cutting-edge courses in Biotechnology would depend on the applicant's rank.
Another well-known institution offering an Undergraduate course in Biotechnology is the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). Admission into the institution takes place on the basis of the common entrance examination specific for the AIIMS. Based on one's ranking in this examination and availability of courses at the time, further selection processes are carried out. All of the above institutions offer UG, PG and Doctoral Programs in Biotechnology; admissions into the same happen through examinations and/or previous examination scores. For example, if a person has been conferred his Bachelor's degree from Anna University, then it doesn't guarantee his/her admission into the M.Tech program in the same institute. The candidate is required to further undertake the TANCET examination and clear the same to be enrolled into the Masters program.
The Undergraduate program in Biotechnology confers either a B.Tech or a B.Sc degree on the candidate; the former is more highly regarded for higher education (abroad) than the latter. Completion of this course ensures an understanding of the basic laboratory techniques in various sub-disciplines in Biotechnology and also a keen sense of research. The course also sheds light on the history of the field and prospects of the same. By the end of the four years of one's Undergraduate program, he/she would come to realize his area of interest; it is then that actual Research comes into the picture.
Identifying one's area of interest brings with it, a natural curiosity to 'Dig deeper' into already existing arenas in the same. Education after the Undergraduate program in Biotechnology can take three routes: a direct Doctoral program (A period of 4-5 years), an integrated Masters-cum-Doctoral program (A period of 5-6 years) or a Masters program ranging for 1-2 years plus a separate Doctoral program for a period of 4-5 years. [This stands for students willing to take up a Doctoral program eventually].
The Masters program instils in a student, a sense of understanding of quite a narrow spectrum, as compared to the consortium of courses, introduced in the Undergraduate program. The program completely works on the student's analytical and laboratory skills. Like other higher degree programs, reasoning is highly pivotal for the course. This usually is a 2-year course in India and at the end of these two years, the student either earns an M.Sc or an M.Tech degree.
A Masters program abroad usually takes shape as an M.S degree. This M.S course usually ranges from 1-2 years and it solely depends on the sub-disciplines (normally termed credits) the candidate chooses and the series of terms it takes him to finish (Example: Fall 2011- Fall 2012); to quote the exact words of the Head of the Department of my Institution, 'To study more always brings with itself, the need to finish more'.
Completion of the Masters degree narrows the student's interest spectrum even more, bringing him closer to the precise aspect he/she is willing to work on. This coupled with a 'drive to produce something substantial' results in a reaction, the end product being the Doctoral program. Throughout the 5-6 years of the Bachelors and Masters Program, a person is constantly introduced to laboratory techniques of various kinds. In Biotechnology, a person is required to know 'When to apply what' effectively. This requires him/her to be conversant with all the techniques he has dealt with throughout his course of study. Being a field with a vast magnitude of integration, Biotechnology brings within itself, knowledge of the When-and-what of several fields; this would naturally mean being skilled at even the most rudimentary skills taught to you in the First year of your Undergraduate program, irrespective of whether it falls under your field of interest or not.
A Doctoral program normally begins with coursework, during which a person equips himself with theoretical knowledge about his field and other related fields extensively. This normally takes a period of 1 year, but when selected for a Doctoral program straight from your Undergraduate course, one would be naturally expected to do more than what is required. This period of coursework is followed by lab rotations, during which one gets to acquaint himself with labs of his choice and then finally, choose one which would be optimum for him (his interests). This is further followed by approval of the person's project of interest by the Principal Investigator of the corresponding lab. It is after all these processes that the candidate moves on with his project. Period of the project depends on the candidate's laboratory expertise and his understanding of the same. Before one can start with his project, extensive literature and prior analysis is cardinal.
The project culminates in thesis and paper-work, requiring a person to put down his entire project and everything pertaining to the same, in technical language. Approval of the same would lead to a publication. After a detailed viva-voce session about the person's project, he/ she is finally conferred a Doctoral degree by the Institution. At the end of this, a person officially becomes a Specialist in his area of interest; if followed, by a Postdoctoral study, he/she attains a sense of understanding, which goes beyond the realms of published books. The magnitude of the field brings with itself a specialized application process/ screening making sure that only the 'Deserving' are offered the post.
Biotechnology, being the ocean that it is, is a future without which one would not be able to see drugs for real or for that matter, even fight the most common microbes effectively. With a future that sees that the world gets something novel and with imagination that would only stop with extinction, to pursue a career is like 'Walking with a rope in hand with Earth on the other end'. For all of you walking Planet Earth, see you at the other end. Live long and prosper.
This article is a part of a series on Bio-technology - Click here to know more about technical terms in Biotechnology and here to find a list of institutes offering courses in biotechnology in India
The author, Shankar Chandrashekar is a final year student at Center of Biotechnology at Anna University in Chennai. He is currently occupied with his undergraduate dissertation program at Indian Institute of Sciences (IISC) Bangalore.
Image Source - http://www.flickr.com/photos/ricephotos/2678931353/