At the IISERs, each student shapes his own curriculum and stress is on cutting-edge research

The four-year-old Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research in five centres across the country are already carving out a niche for themselves in the realms of basic sciences education. With each of the IISERs billing up an average annual budget of over Rs. 100 crore, and an acquired grant of Rs. 500 crore (spread over five years, Rs. 2,500 crore in total) from the government, the IISER family is defining a critical epoch in the history of science education and research in India.

The five IISERs established by the Ministry of Human Resource Development are located in Bhopal, Mohali, Pune, Kolkata and Thiruvananthapuram. Their elite status is not just about the large funds they receive. Every student enrolled in the integrated five year B.S.-M.S. programme at any of the IISERs is either a Kishore Vidyarthi Protsahan Yojana (KVPY) or an INSPIRE scholar and is awarded a grant of a minimum of Rs. 5,000 a month for the entire duration of the course. It is the only bachelor's course in the country where students receive stipends throughout the duration of their course.

Dr. Sutirth Dey, the INSA (The Indian National Science Academy) Young Scientist Awardee in 2010 and Assistant Professor of Biology in IISER-Pune, said: “The infrastructure of the hostels, lecture halls and especially the labs are amongst the finest on offer in the country. But our true strength lies in the multitudes of active researchers and renowned scientists, who are best equipped to convey the sense of excitement in the basic or applied sciences to the students, particularly the undergraduate students.”

IISERs also have colloquiums that have seen several Nobel Laureates, including Richard Ernst and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, interacting with the students in the campus or in collaborative workshops organised around the country and the world.

Lab facilities

The labs are equipped with state-of-the-art amenities such as the 600 Mhz NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) spectrometer to determine protein folding. At these IISERs, infrastructure is currently being developed to power the super computers and particle accelerators of tomorrow. The libraries, though still in their infancy, have thousands of books, leading journals and online collaborations with e-papers and online scientific research journals.

The IISERs pride themselves on their extensive and elaborately designed curriculum that is very similar to the ones being adopted in universities such as Harvard, MIT and Oxford. In order to build a strong background for all sciences and the ‘new age' phenomenon in research methodologies in ‘interdisciplinary' subjects, the five-year integrated B.S.-M.S. programme is accordingly structured.

For the first two years, students are required to study all disciplines of science and computation, ranging from ‘quantum dots' in physics to ‘Python' in computation. In third and fourth year, students are allowed complete freedom in terms of choosing their courses. Thus, each student shapes his own curriculum, which the IISERs believe is more beneficial for the students in terms of their interest.

In the fifth year the students are asked to complete a comprehensive research project anywhere in India or abroad. In IISER-Pune, many students are conducting research projects in Europe and North America.

Also, several second-year students have been to Germany and Japan to attend science workshops and Nobel laureate conferences such as the Lindau Conference.

Assistant Professor in IISER-Pune, Dr. Subramaniam, who is currently doing extensive research work on solar coronal physics and black hole accretion, said: “The IISERs aim to establish themselves in the mould of a world-class science university where broad-based undergraduate teaching meshes effectively with cutting-edge research and graduate teaching. This approach of integrating research with undergraduate teaching is relatively new in India, and the IISERs are among those at the vanguard.”

Extra-curricular activities

The IISERs also host their own inter-college cultural fest, ‘Karavaan,' and a three-day science quiz, a one-of-a kind ‘knowledge marathon' known as “Mimamsaa', which last year was extremely competitive, witnessing participation from over 50 leading science colleges.

The IISERs are also the hub for cultural groups such as SPIC MACAY, and receive invitations for workshops in drama and theatre from leading groups spread all over the country, thus exemplifying their support and stance to a variety of cultural and non-academic activities.

There are sports facilities too, including football and cricket grounds. Student Activity Centres (SAC) are being designed and built right now.