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Rediff.com  » Getahead » Biotechnology: What to study, where to work

Biotechnology: What to study, where to work

June 17, 2009 13:37 IST

Biotechnology: What to study, where to work

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Prof. Ramasamy

Biotechnology is a set of powerful tools that employ living organisms (or parts of organisms) to make or modify products, improve plants or animals, or develop microorganisms for specific uses. Biotechnology is a research oriented science, a combination of Biology and Technology.

It covers a wide variety of subjects like Genetics, Biochemistry, Microbiology, Immunology, Virology, Chemistry and Engineering. It also has tight links and relationships with many other subjects like Health and Medicine, Agriculture and Animal Husbandry, Cropping system and Crop Management, Ecology, Cell Biology, Soil Science and Soil Conservation, Bio-statistics, Plant Physiology, Seed Technology and the like. Biotechnology is the use of living things, especially cells and bacteria in industrial process. With demand for biotechnologists growing prospects in this industry are increasing.

Dr Ramasamy is the Dean, School of Biotechnology at SRM University



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Where to look for a programme in India?

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Since biotechnology draws upon diverse basic sciences, world over, it is offered as a specialist interdisciplinary programme. But for academics, students and knowledge providers in India it  has shown promise, and attraction as a separate discipline and hence some of the age old programmes like botany, zoology, marine biology etc. have conveniently come under the umbrella of biotechnology as plant biotechnology, animal biotechnology marine biotechnology. This approach has generated a number of 'me too' programmes and sub standard manpower. So it is imperative that a student identifies the right institution and the right programme.  


Image: Top biotech schools in public and private sector in India

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Types of courses

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5 year integrated M.Sc/ M.Tech courses


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How to select a college

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Every now and then the public and the corporate leaders indicate that our biotech graduates are not industry ready and curriculum should be modified.  But the harsh truth is that neither does the biotech industry have a clear understanding of the manpower they need nor are the skills required for employability understood by academicians.


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Career opportunities in the sector

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In India, two main sources of employment are medical biotechnology and agricultural biotechnology. Medical biotechnology, is an emerging sector in India, and accounts for nearly 70% of the total revenue of the biotech sectors. The companies that populate this sector could be divided into three broad categories.  
 
One is that of small startup companies that have indigenously developed biotech products, e.g., Shantha Biotech and Bharat Biotech. Then there are large pharmaceutical firms which have began responding to the biotech wave and have incorporated biotechnology in their strategy like Dr. Reddy's Laboratory (DRL), Ranbaxy Laboratories and Wockhardt Ltd. The third group has start-ups, which are all set to emerge as contract research organisations (CROs), who mainly work for transnational corporations. It is this segment which is considered to be at the forefront of growth and employment generation, but so far has been only in the realm of possibility.  
 
Then there are firms like Biocon India which may not fit well in this kind of classification as they have an established presence in industrial biotechnology   and a growing presence in the pharmaceutical sector, and are now more identified with pharmaceuticals rather than industrial applications. 

Yet another potential area of research is agricultural biotechnology. This sector is populated on one hand by subsidiaries of TNCs and on the other hand by highly specialized technology companies that undertake services for specified research, like contract research organisations. This is a relatively new concept in the agriculture R&D in India. Some of the companies like Avesthagen qualify in this group. Having succeeded in BT cotton, there are  attempts to go for BT products in food crops. The manpower required for this activity is derived mostly from plant breeding and botany.

The industry is keen to get trained hands from Molecular breeding. Though biotechnology has developed as a discipline in several academic (public, private and affiliated) institutions, need based specialization is yet to blossom in India. The developed world on the other hand has initiated focused centres of activity and specially trained manpower is supplied for the niche industry.  

Yet another domain which would recruit in the long run would be the biofertiliser and biopestisides industry. While attempts are on to develop better formulations and cost effective commercially viable biopesticides including microbial pesticides, parasitoids and bacteria, this sector is yet to see active recruitment.


Image: Source: Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, as communicated to Nandita Datta

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International secnario in biotechnology

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Some of the best universities in the world to pursue a degree in biotechnology include Harvard University, University of Tokyo, University of London, University of California, Penn State University, John Hopkins University, Stanford University, Yale University, University of Washington, Duke University, National University of Singapore and University of Western Australia.

A masters degree in biotechnology empowers a student to carry out research in any given area of biotechnology, be it plant biotechnology or animal biotechnology. While pursuing a masters degree in biotechnology one has to grasp the basics of process control and process calculations on the chemical engineering front.

Fluid mechanics is one of the main aspects of mechanical engineering that a biotechnologist has to be thorough with. A successful biotechnologist must also know the basics of computer aided designing and process simulation. Clinical biotechnology is another major area of study for a biotechnologist.

The core subjects of a biotechnologist are microbiology and its application in the industry. Molecular biology, biochemistry and statistical biology are also of immense importance to a biotechnologist.

So there is no alternative to in depth study and the sector is fast evolving. One should be constantly on the look out for new knowledge domains that are impacting the sector and the ability to assimilate and respond to those changes is very crucial. A healthy knowledge of ethical issues is also important

This is a knowledge intensive field and a thirst for knowledge is a sine qua non for survival here. My best wishes.


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