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Change in biotech curriculum at IIT-M

New courses have a focus on application of engineering principles to biological systems and specialised package electives.

With biotechnology being considered by most students merely as a launching pad for an IT career, educational institutes are now realising that they need to change this trend, and the Indian Institute of Technology - Madras has taken the lead.

The department of biotechnology has done away with their four-year B.Tech Biotechnology programme and their five-year dual degree. Instead, they are introducing two dual degrees, M.Tech in Biological Engineering and M.S. Biological Sciences.

Biotechnology is a research-intensive industry and also requires good experimental skills, which is usually obtained by working on long-duration projects and integrating a variety of experimental skills.

“Ph.D students have the research experience and well-developed lab skills, which the B.Tech. students lack,” says Prof. Guhan Jayaraman. If the students have to be hired for performing routine tasks, an M.Sc. Biotechnology student can do this as well as a B.Tech one (and at a lower salary), he notes.

To him, a chemical engineer would perform better than a B.Tech. Biotechnology student for routine process engineering type of jobs (since in-depth biology knowhow is not required and Biotech students have less chemical engineering expertise).

“A bioprocess engineer with a Ph.D degree has a tremendous advantage over chemical engineers and biologists when it comes to process research and development. Therefore, there is a huge demand for Ph.D-degree holders in bioprocess engineering,” says Mukesh Doble, head, Department of Biotechnology, IIT-M.

Apart from the above-mentioned biology courses, B.Tech Biotechnology programmes contain standard chemical engineering courses and some biochemical engineering courses.

“The problem with most B.Tech. Biotechnology programmes is that majority of the faculty are either pure biologists (without sufficient engineering knowledge) or pure chemical engineers without sufficient depth of study in biology,” says Mr. Doble.

“Faculty trained both in biology and engineering are a scarce commodity and that is one reason the programmes suffer and the employment-potential of the graduates is poor. So, from both a teaching and industry viewpoint, we need more Ph.D-trained bioprocess engineers,” he explains.

The new curriculum emphasises more on the general application of engineering principles to biological systems (be it human physiology or a microbial system). These are followed by specialised package electives in fields such as bioprocess development, computational biology, biomaterials engineering, and synthetic biology.

For this, institutions need not have specialised faculty. “We do require biological engineers from different backgrounds (chemical engineering, computer sciences, electrical engineering, etc) to teach this course. Currently, we are managing with faculty in our own department since we have that diversity. But the way to go forward (for us and other institutes) is to have engineers and scientists in different departments, doing inter-disciplinary research in the area of biological engineering, to offer courses in the Biological Engineering programme,” says Prof. Jayaraman.

The new course in biological engineering will offer a greater breadth in the undergraduate programmes, help students develop a better perspective before specialising in one area and foster better inter-disciplinary research, he adds.

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Printable version | Apr 9, 2020 7:21:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/education/change-in-biotech-curriculum-at-iitm/article3012210.ece

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