Course Review: Basic Neurobiology/Neuroscience at NCBS Bangalore

Basic Neurobiology course offered at NCBS Bangalore consists of 4 modules of around 6 lectures each, plus a couple of labs on electrical models of cells. Each lecture is around 90 minutes. Usually there are three lectures a week but sometimes two lectures and a tutorial or lab-session is also organized. The TA support is rather limited in this course and quality depends mainly on the motivation of TA.

Module 1 is taken by Upinder Bhalla. It is mainly about cellular biophysics, and computation. Major topics covered were: neurons as electrical entities, passive properties and cable theory, active properties and Hodgkin-Huxley equations. And tutorial sessions have Hodgin-Huxley experiments conducted in-silico using MOOSE simulator; and a electrical-circuit based demonstration of cable-theory/passive properties. This module consists of many assignment and quizzes :-).

Module 2 is taken by Shona Chatterjee. It mainly about synaptic transmission in invertebrate and vertebrate nervous systems; snaptic plasticity in the mammalian brain; and basic concepts in neuroanatomy. The lab session has demonstration of Golgi-staining or mouse-brain. There is usually one quiz and no assignments. Quiz may have any sort of tangentially related questions: such as root-word of “Syanpse” in Latin, and name of X who discovered Y.

Module 3 belongs to Vatsala Thirumalai. She taught small circuits. CPG were central to her lectures. The effects of neuromodulators on rhythmic activities of these small circuits were discussed. This module have assignments.
Sanjay Sane took module 4. It was about comparative neurobiology and ethology. He discussed nervous system — their forms and functions — across animal kingdom.  Sensing and neuronal circuitry involved in sensing was one of the core themes. This module have some assigned reading and paper presentation: no pop-quizzes or assignments though he believes in taking written exams.


Academic culture

The state of our higher education seems to have caught the imagination of our Western educated intelligentsia. It is common these days to come across articles pointing out the inefficiencies and defects in our educational system. Especially during university-ranking season, otherwise indifferent and intellectually sedate men and women show a great concern about universities in their writings. It is somewhat heartening to know that at least once a year we give some thoughts to our universities and institutions of higher learning.

Someone who grew up in a village, I was lucky enough to be able to find a good teacher in my village primary school. With some effort and good luck, I was able to make it to a metropolitan university, albeit a remarkably incompetent one. From there, I was able to move to IIT Bombay for my post-graduation which I completed, and for my Ph.D. program which I left after three years, for NCBS Bangalore for another trial at obtaining a research degree. To sum up, I have been to some of the worst and some of the most reputed campuses in the country.

It can not be too strongly emphasized that in any country academic excellence largely depends on the quality of academic culture and the value put on it by society as a whole. In West, unlike in India, there are many examples of remarkable work done by people with scant resources, little formal education and without any institutional support. In India, except for one Ramanujan, one searches in vain for equivalents of Thomas Edison and Madame Curie. Mainly because it is not easy to import a tradition of research when you lack one in your traditional order which might be extremely rich in other forms of human endeavors such as music, art, and painting. Perhaps it is too much to ask for such a culture to develop overnight, but one can surely worry about happenings in our universities.

It is often said that as far as academic culture is concerned, our universities are less efficient and more illiberal than the university ought to be; and it is largely true. But it would be insincere to put all the blame on the university only. It is often ignored that the social pool from which our universities draw their human resources is much more illiberal and equally inefficient; and it is naïve to expect, given the size of our universities, that the university can stay immune to it. In India, the university, even the worst one, is much more liberal and open than its surrounding.

One can easily notice that in one important aspect the social environment of our universities across the country is largely same. Our universities are places where new forms of social relations among genders and generations are formed and experimented upon; and the old ones are given new definitions and meanings. For many — especially women — university is the only place where they can experience a kind of social existence and experience a life which at times can be very distracting to their basic academic commitments.  For most women in India, and perhaps in many other countries as well, universities are few places available to them to do either research and recreation, and for most among them university is the only place. One must not discount the role universities play in social conditioning of the society like ours.

Various things are said repeatedly about research culture in India, especially by those who rarely contribute to the research culture at home. I often feel confused about their arguments. It is truism that conditions in India for research are not as favorable as they are in the West but it won’t do us any good if we keep ignoring the fact — to give one example of it — that research done in Calcutta university these days is nowhere near to what was done during the time of C.V. Raman. I’ve heard sincere academics pointing out that more money is being spend and more people are involved on universities, yet the quality of work done on Indian universities keeps on declining.

I agree with Prof. Andre Beteille when he says that the problem with Indian universities is not of resources but of morale. It is disheartening to see young and bright students mocking, almost trivializing, theirs academic commitments, and showing little or no taste for an academic citizenship. How a native university suppose to flourish when its member hardly care of basic academic commitments? Although those who stays long enough on a Western university seem to go through a process of extreme change in their outlook towards academics and “research”. Personally, I find it almost impossible to figure out, when an Indian speaks about his passions for science and research, when he is being sincere and when he is bluffing for their interests and passions change rapidly according to the available opportunities (usually abroad).

The Indian university is most likely to expand. It will have more number of “research scholars” and faculty on campus who are neither intellectually self-reliance nor have any sense of academic citizenship. If anything, they will be pretty much interested in building empire for themselves than nurturing scholars or producing science. They will be successful in short run, for a democratic minded government can always be milked for more funds.


Improving higher education

It is not uncommon these days many Indians showing strong concern — at least on public occasions — about the shoddy state of affairs in which we find our higher education today. It will be an understatement to say that everything is not fine with our higher education system. The rot has gone really deep, and in some sense it is equivalent to our record in primary education which is nothing if not a scandal. Our record in intermediate education is only slightly better, depending on where we look at. People in position of influence in this society, whatever they say in public, do not care much about either school education or research education. What they care most is the undergraduate education which they can afford and good enough to be considered by universities abroad for further training [1]. Naturally, the demand for more (subsidized and good) undergraduate colleges have been most intense in our cities while the demand for better primary and secondary education has been lackluster at best. Middle class Indians do not like to send their children to government schools if they can afford a private one.

It goes without saying whatever benefit a research degree from US and Europe brings to an Indian or to India (as green-backs if not as gray cells), some Indian university pays a price for it. Many of our universities which started off really well are in the state of decay. And it is for everyone to see. It is not clear how they can be revived in near future. Those who are directly responsible for affairs in our universities, at times, show remarkable disregard for their own institutions. In any case,  they have little personal, if not professional stake, in research culture of their institute. The Indian professor love to mention his commitments to his university, but what he loves more is sending their children abroad for higher education.

As old universities continue to falter, there is a growing demand for more universities, world-class or otherwise, in this growing country. Our inability to maintain old universities is only matched by our jest for opening new ones. Despite all their shortcomings, there are some still left with some potential of doing research.

Whether or not we are able to find good faculty and take care of our current research students, the emphasis on research is most likely to be continued, even in those universities which proud themselves till yesterday as teaching schools. A strong culture of teaching is a great asset for any university which wants to make a mark in research. Research can not be done by mere inspiration, one has to learn how to do it. And one can not learn everything by oneself, one has to be taught, at least initially. It has been said that in long run teaching suffers a great deal if little research is conducted. It can be noted that there are only few universities in this world which are successful in both teaching and research. In India at least, it is not always easy to find inspired student and teacher who is also competent enough. And our fanatical obsession with examinations creates a formidable distraction to both teaching and research.

There is a presupposition of creativity in research. A research worker is not only expected to produce new data, he is also expected to give new interpretation. In short, he is expected to add something new — no matter how limited — to the existing body of knowledge in his research area. This is perhaps an ideal type of aim which universities seek to emulate. But even if a research worker graduates from an university after mastering only well-known tricks which are useful for society outside in one sense or another, the university definitely can claim some credit in this industrialized world of specialized knowledge.

In the past, the character of research education in European universities was very much like the training of medieval craftsmen. A professor took few research students and they learned their craft as best as they could by personal association. Everything was informal and much depend on the personal equation between supervisor and student. This is how research is done in most departments in Indian universities today.

The defects of such a system are obvious. It leaves too much on personal inclination, on the temperament and character, especially of research supervisor. The personal equation between supervisor and student varies from one case to other to a great extent. Some students have frequent contact with their supervisors, others usually work in isolation or meet their supervisor in very formal and rigid manner. This all leads to much wastage. And even when dropout rates not high, it can lead to much acrimony and heart burning in a society where generations do not meet on equal terms. Nonetheless, the survivor often learn a great deal by slowly coming to grips with an intellectual or unsolved problem, either under close supervision or on his own.

The general intellectual environment of the university plays a major role in all research done in an university. It is a truism that many of great scholars in the past did their work either outside of universities or by sitting at its periphery. Such is no longer the case. We don’t know many who are doing any significant work on their own outside universities. There is much more at stake now in maintaining the culture of university. In a book titled “Universities at the crossroads”, Andre Beteille recounts his experience in a round table conference held in Chicago in 1991 where vice-chancellors of major US universities gathered to discuss the future of universities in 21st century. No one seemed to be certain about it. Many were not happy with the prevalent conditions in their universities: the men of universities are busy spending most of their time in their personal projects and have little time for their universities. It is easy to notice these days that networks and associations are becoming more important than universities themselves. And we should ask ourselves rather seriously, how much of it is beneficial to university as an institute and how much it helps a young researcher to grow?

Various things  are being said everyday on how and what research should be done in our universities. But what is most important to a young researcher — given our love for degrees — is to finish his Ph.D. and find a place for himself before he can strike on his own. When the personal equation between supervisor and his research student plays one of the most important role in a successful dissertation, the institute must ensure that the supervisor gives some minimum amount of time to his students. On universities, not every supervisor does academic work even when he posses high academic qualifications.  At least in India, one is very familiar with the professor who starts off his academic career impressively and in the middle find himself building empires for himself and his dependents. I am not suggesting that empire builders do not chase some higher purpose but I am extremely doubtful if university is the proper place for them to do so.

When the supervisor is busy building empires for himself or have pushed himself too deep into non-academic projects for one reason or another, wittingly or unwittingly, he can hardly give much time to his student. He can not be expected or keep himself updated what is going on in his area of expertise. Their work may have everything in it to please all the funding agencies in the world, and attract all the good words from his peers, but the general atmosphere of an university will be more friendly to academics — and what is more important to a young student — if our supervisors are little more mindful of what their students think of their work, and stop persuading them to fit into their cherished and extremely important agendas, by means foul or fair.


[1] ‘I do think their (Delhi University’s) logic is an interesting one and would certainly be of help to those students who would like to go to graduate school in some place like America where you have a 12+ 4 system rather than a 10+2+3 system as we have in our country.‘ — Shashi Tharoor, defending Delhi University new curriculum.


Pundits and Propagandists

The rigor and enthusiasm with which economists have been advising government – and incidentally maligning each other – have naturally led some to reflect on the role of intellectuals in society. The role of social scientists have enlarged to a great extent in this world and they have come to play some sort of pre-eminent role in public policies and debates. At least in India, most if not all social scientists regard their discipline something more than just an intellectual pursuit. Such a view of their discipline compels them to seek a larger role in public life. There is nothing wrong in  playing an active role in public life for I strongly believe that in any decent society everyone should be free to set a role for himself.

The role can a modest one of satisfying one’s curiosity or a spectacular one of changing the world by putting oneself in the service of government or people. But when a person sets a role for himself which enables him to speak in the name of public, one should oneself be clear about, and be able to make clear to others, the basis and nature of expertise which gives one title such a role. In a country where learning have been a monopoly of a certain castes for millennia, and where a large section of people remains illiterate, people are easily baffled and confused if not beguiled by experts of fictitious expertise.

Our finance minister, members of planning commission, and others in key position have been telling us their best predictions about inflation, rate of growth and employment, level of poverty and education. A casual comparison of their predictions and what actually happened provokes one to ask if there is any basis behind such claims? The assumptions behind there claims are left undefined or too vague. In the end, we get theories which do little justice to reality, or generalization from limited experiences whose theoretical validity is uncertain. Let’s face it, we understand little how our economy  works, and even less about how it will going to behave under unknown circumstances. The number of planning models this country has produced and their success rate is a good example.  When technical expertise fails to deliver, people turn to rhetoric. The rhetorical style of arguing about almost everything around us is becoming extremely common. No doubt there is some scientific basis in what they say but it is obscured by a dense fog of rhetoric which accompanies it.

Intellectual professions, as one might expect, have their own codes and secrets; so from the point of view of a layman, there is a great deal of mystery about what they actually do. Intellectual skills are rather specialized skills and many constructs of common interests created by intellectuals looks clear and “obvious” to those who posses these skills. As long as these skills are used in academic circle, they remain both harmless and useless to most of the world. But when experts claim to speak and work in public interest, we must demand that the element of mystery to be kept at minimum. Those who have the capacity and skills to understand and elaborate the reality are expected to make it clearer to others. But something we might sincerely feel and have a right to understand is often made more obscure by those who are suppose to present in clearer light. When intellectuals themselves contribute to the mystification which they suppose to remove, we should ask how this comes about?

As I see it, there are two kind of mystifier in the world: pundits or technical virtuosity at one hand and propagandists or radical rhetoric on the other. The former is essentially an academic abuse, it concerns mainly if not solely with the style rather than the content of an intellectual activity. Pundits come from a certain kind of academic (and social) background and they jealously protect their style of functioning which looks esoteric from the point of view of a person who has a different background. Surely the argument against the style (or elitism) should not be turned against maintenance of standard and quality. The propagandists are populist in their mood and appeal, and prone to offer quick and simple solutions to difficult problems. It goes without saying that pundits and propagandists exist in all societies but they do not receive same kind of treatment everywhere. When things are working fine, they are not given much attention by public and any power by authorities to do either good or harm. But all this can change when economic system seems to be running down and political system seems to be falling apart.  The government is most likely to appoint pundits to its ranks and the public is most likely to lend its ears to propagandists. This all leads to more confusion. Add “argumentative Indians” to this and we get a cacophony of most mundane type sooner than later.

Punditry and propaganda alone can not very successful in confusing people, a certain combination of both is required. The radical way of arguing has always been a part of our intellectual culture. In recent decades, its appeal  has captivated our intellectuals trained — or educated, depending on point of view — abroad. An education from European and American university give these people a certain kind of assurance about the theoretical validity of diagnosis of ills of their society they make and the remedies they offer. They have their masters abroad who naturally commends the effort of their disciples in changing a society which would not change at its own accord. The command and mastery of these people over concepts such as “feudal”, “semi-feudal”, “quasi- feudal”, “quasi-capitalist” etc. gives them a formidable advantage in debates and polemics in public. What these people wants to settle first and foremost is the question of methods.  Anything which  does not start with enough faith in their cherished method is bound to be ridiculed or condemned as worthless. Moreover, if a certain theory has been accepted by “international” community as valid, isn’t is enough to confound the skeptics in India?

In India, those who are responsible for planning and its execution have always had foreign degrees. When their plans fail to deliver, all they do is to blame a particular expert and his ideological orientation. If such is the case then why not plan a little more carefully and set the responsibilities of experts before and not after the plan is written. The success (or failure) or planning commission is enough to point out the limitation of foreign education. Since it has been most incompetent — although impressive in rhetoric and theories — in understanding the reality of our society, the reality has been largely ignored. Since they are convinced that they have the ultimate method by virtue of having most elite kind of education, which will produce  the desired result if only applied correctly, anyone who disagrees with them is either stupid or dishonest or both. It has been said that pundits everywhere hide their ignorance behind a show of arrogance. It has to be added with little exaggeration here they are most successful.

No doubt the densest fog in places where open and free discussion can take place is spread by those who combine technical virtuosity with radical rhetoric. They are already too many and their numbers appear to be increasing. Since they thrive on confusion of time, they naturally contribute to it, knowingly or unknowingly.


A friend departs

I do not consider myself to be a very social person. I have few friends. When I lost one of them to suicide recently; I came to know how much it can disturb one. Siva was my classmate when I was doing my masters at IIT Bombay. In social hierarchy of IIT he belonged to a higher caste (Dual Degree) while I was a member of backward caste (M. Tech). It is not usual for a M.Tech. to have friends among B.Tech. or Dual Degree students. Some even claims that they do not mix. A friend in other IIT who was doing her M.Tech. there cautioned me, when I told her that I have a crush on a DD girl, “What? You know they hate us!”. I am not sure in what degree it exists on IITs but it exists nonetheless.

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Intellectual commitments

‘I will pay my debt to society through research in my subject. And beyond this, I owe no other debt to society.’ Having resolved this, she went on.

—Vidyadhar Pundalik (1970) on Irawati Karve

My first rigorous encounter with city-schooled boys and girls happened during my under-graduation. It gave me many clues about our intellectual culture, for most if not all of our intellectuals come from this background. I marveled at their artful ways in which more articulate among them would describe their interests in, if not a love for, sciences. Many were interested in physics and mathematics and few in chemistry. They spoke about their time in coaching centers and how much they loved a particular topic and how well it was taught. They also talked about their heroes; two names which I still remember are Feynman and Irodov. I did not read them in school, for they were not available in my Hindi-medium school (they were in English anyway). I often felt left-out and at times I constructed my own imaginary love affairs with physics and mathematics in order to cope with the peer pressure. It troubled me that I could not feel a very strong inspiration as they felt for any subject. How were I to compete and flourish among them!

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Writing and Speaking

For five years, I gave the shortlisted candidates for our M.Tech (IT) entrance a short second test. In one of the questions, I would ask them to write something in English about their family, then rewrite the same thing in their mother-tongue or in any other Indian language they knew. Invariably, people who wrote bad English also wrote bad Hindi, bad Marathi, bad Telugu, etc. My belief, therefore, is that poor writing is a result of lack of mental discipline to write properly. Also, it is language-independent. If you’re good in one language, it means you’ve disciplined your mind to write well and carefully. Then you usually imbibe that discipline when writing in another language. Inadequate preparation on the topic may be one aspect, but invariably, lack of discipline and training in writing is the problem.

Prof. Deepak Pathak
CSE, IIT Bombay
Raintree, Jan-Feb 2011

‘I am really bad with writing!’. It first occurred to me when I was writing my under-graduate thesis. The work was clearly embed in my mind and had no issue talking about it to my friends who cared to hear about it. But I found it very difficult to put it on paper. This bad-writing I am concerned here is not about spelling and grammar mistakes  – this blog has an unhealthy number of them – but rather how I wove my thoughts together. Same situation popped itself up once again when I sat down to write my M. Tech. thesis. After spending 3 years (and counting) as teaching assistant and reading many reports and writing few, I can say with much confidence that I am not alone who lacks the ability of writing well structured and elegant prose.

Indians seem to be at much more ease with spoken rather than written word. They speak eloquently and to a great length with evident pleasure but their writing is often hasty and careless. I am aware that there are vast number of Indians who lack the ability to put written words altogether. But there are many others who have the capacity; and my purpose is to comment on how they use and misuse it. There are of course first-rate poets, writers, columnists but my intention is not to comment on individual talent.

Indians just excel at the spoken words. Anyone who belongs to that large and very ill-defined category called ‘public intellectual’ can speak at any length and on any subject at hand. The curious fact about them is that the speakers hardly refer to any note or reference and often talk without much application of mind. Also they do not like being interrupted or corrected while they are talking. I am not sure whether they feel the same way should anyone correct their writing.

Here, I wish to share an experience of Andre Beteille when he gave lectures at two premier universities each of which was chaired by vice-chancellor of university concerned. The first lecture was at University of Cambridge where the VC was a distinguished medical scientist. He introduced him briefly and, after he finished his lecture, also thanked him briefly. As they were walking out, he told Beteille that he had greatly enjoyed his lecture. When Beteille remonstrated that he was merely being polite, he quietly took out the notes which he took during lectures which ran into three pages: he had come to the lecture to listen rather than to speak.  At other lecture in the Indian university, the vice-chancellor arrived thirty-five minutes late while the speaker and audience waited. Having arrived late, he embarked on a lengthy and eloquent speech on the challenges facing the country and the need for teachers and students to rise up to them. By the time he sat down and Beteille began his lectures on whose preparation he had spent more than a month, it became evident that audience had lost interest in it. As to taking notes, no self-respecting vice-chancellor [professor] in India takes notes at a lecture given by a mere professor [student].

Back in my village where literacy level is well below national average, educated people are called ‘padhe likhe log’ (people who can read and write). For them, the ability of speaking is not impressive since all of them can speak at any length. For villagers, and perhaps to many others as well, speaking counts for little unless it is in English. Indeed, there is a peculiar attitude towards English language, especially among urban middle class. The command over English language, which is very unevenly distributed among them, is not only a very important intellectual asset but also a yardstick to measure ones social status. An Indian takes perverse pleasure in correcting and improving others English by which she establishes not only intellectual but also social superiority over others.

Perhaps lack of reading also hinder growth of writing skills. It is also interesting to note that libraries in India are not only hard to find; they are also least used on per capita basis. Unlike many Western countries, buying and reading books for entertainment and pleasure is not in our culture. Indians prefer to buy a book only if it serves some specific purpose and has a long shelf life. I am of the view that one can not go very far in developing ideas without reading good books or conversing with thoughtful people. It is much easier to access former than the later.

Many believes that this lack of writing ‘good’ prose is due to use of foreign language. If there is problem with language than why they use it; or chose to write at such immoderate length when the language is forced onto them? It is only a part of the picture as the experience of Prof. Pathak shows. Perhaps the most important reason is the lack of care and patience which is hard to notice while one is speaking.  This same lack of measure and discipline shows itself vividly in written discourse which can easily be found in our judicial and in academic prose. I often read in news that Supreme Court judgements often run into thousand of pages. Mr. Nani Palkhiwala had once observed that this clearly shows the Indian preoccupation with eternity and infinity.

By their very nature, writing and reading are solitary activities. Speaking, on the other hand, is a way of being gregarious. The Indian is gregarious by nature. He finds is very hard to be alone unless he a sanyasi or a poet. From childhood he grows in the company of others: relatives of uncountable denominations. He is never allowed to be himself and made to believe that being himself is a way of being selfish and arrogant. And as he grows in status in society, so does his visitors in number and variety.

I always find myself perplexed noticing the time Indian academician are able to spent in others company. One often wonders from where they get the time to think and work on them? What quality their research would be, if any? I do not have any experience of academic life in West but it is hard not to notice the difference – by looking at the amount of time they put in writing. It rarely happens that an Indian professor prepares notes to make them available on his home page or to circulate in the classroom. In West, it seems to be a primary activity among academics. Their home pages are filled with notes, informations, and tutorials even though similar material is available outside. That much of writing is not possible without spending a significant time is solitude. It is not to say that academicians in the West do not spent time in committees and meetings but they must be aware of the time they need to be by themselves. Successful Indian academics like to complain endlessly of the time they have to spend on committee and meetings, but their complains need not taken seriously. They cherish nothing more than being surrounded by people before whom they can hold forth; what they cannot bear is being themselves.

The ability of writing good prose does not emanate entirely from intelligence or from facility with the language. Writing is a solitary art which requires patience and care and a certain kind of emotional investment. If a person spent so much in being gregarious, she can not be put a concentrated effort in writing. Of course, there are masters of both spoken and written words. These individuals are outstanding and therefore are not confined by the circumstances but able to rise above them.

In engineering colleges, of which I have first hand experience, this lack of patience and care is evident in code or design students submit for their assignments. These erroneous designs and buggy codes, and their carelessly written reports which says little on how the design is build or code is written are of little worth. But they are accepted and graded. What is troubling that even the most technically sound student writes hastily and with little care for reader. Often her writing does not match her technical abilities. Contrasting this with my experience on many on-line discussion forum located in west; I was amazed to read carefully written and extremely lucid answers provided by academicians to questions posed. On these on-line communities, they are very strict about style of writings and community standards, and they protect them jealously. It would not strain one’s credulity to believe that there is some difference in general orientation between cultures towards this very important academic activity as Prof. Andre Beteille puts it, ‘some culture tolerate careless, vacuous and disjointed writing while other discourage it.’

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