Why study evolution?

Why do we walk on two legs? Why are antibiotics becoming increasingly ineffective? Why do we need vitamin B in our diet? Why do people with serious disabilities continue to be born? Why are people in the tropics darker-skinned than those in temperate zones? Why do bats fly only at night? Why are flowers brightly coloured and patterned? Why do people get covid even after they are vaccinated? The detailed answers to those questions vary from case to case, but there is also a common answer: because of evolution. Evolution is the central organising principle behind living matter. That means all of us – viruses, microbes, fungi, plants and animals.


It is rightly said that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Just as physical laws account for fire, rain, earthquakes, motor cars, aeroplanes, artificial satellites and mobile phones, evolution accounts for the makeup and functioning of living organisms. Evolution explains how the huge variety of living creatures came into being. It is a history of life on earth, and not merely a descriptive history. It explains why particular features are characteristic of different forms of life. The explanations fall into three broad groups: those that depend on accidents of chance alone, those that depend on chance combined with reproductive advantage, and those that depend on chance combined with mutual advantage. Let me give examples of each. They are chosen deliberately to illustrate how an understanding of evolution clarifies aspects of human life.


Among the roughly 300 year-old Amish sect in the US, a significantly higher proportion have more fingers or toes than the usual five. Why? It so happened that very early, some Amish had a genetic condition which leads to extra digits. The number of Amish has always been small, and they largely married within themselves. Therefore, purely on account of chance (to which the small population size also contributed), extra digits occur in the Amish more frequently than in others. Next, consider the evolution of resistance to an antibiotic. It originates from a chance event, a mutation, in a single bacterium. In someone who is taking the antibiotic (and also in environmental waste that contains the antibiotic), resistance gives that bacterium and its descendants an advantage. They survive and reproduce more effectively than bacteria that are sensitive to the antibiotic. Eventually, resistant bacteria become widespread. In this case evolution has taken place because of chance and reproductive advantage. Finally, consider vitamin B. It is an essential nutrient, but our body cannot produce it. We depend on the bacteria which live in our gut to make vitamin B for us. In return, our metabolism provides the bacteria with the food that they need. The original association between the two species must have occurred by chance. Once it did, mutual benefit ensured its persistence.


As these examples show, evolution can take place in several ways. Among them, the second in our list has become famous. In it, evolution is the result of cumulative changes, each spreading within a population following a chance event that results in a slightly improved ability to reproduce. That way of evolving is known as natural selection. It was proposed simultaneously by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace in 1858. Popularly, it goes by the name ‘survival of the fittest’ – an expression that has given rise to so much confusion that biologists hardly ever use it. Sometimes natural selection is also called Darwinian evolution (most unfairly to Wallace). It remains the dominant explanation for evolution, especially when the outcome appears to be an adaptation. Adaptation is an evolutionary outcome which makes the members of a species respond optimally to the challenges posed by their surroundings, which include other living creatures too. Optimality is judged as an engineer would, and roughly means ‘as efficiently as possible’. Adaptive evolution leads to better swimmers, fliers, runners, or an improved ability to digest food, see, hear or smell, resist infections, and so on. Molecular biology illustrates the first evolutionary mechanism in our list – chance alone – dramatically. Chance is behind a large number of evolutionary changes in DNA and protein sequences that persist even though they are neither beneficial nor harmful. The third mechanism, in which chance and cooperation combine, makes us look at evolution in a new way. We now see that living creatures (including ourselves) are not isolated individuals. Rather, they are communities that include a huge number of microbial species that live on and within them in an arrangement that helps both sides – or one should say all sides. The emphasis on cooperation reflects a shift in perspective from simple-minded Darwinian evolution, which stresses competition.


Unexpected facets of evolution are emerging. The role of the external environment as a stimulus for evolutionary change is one. The role played by the mechanics of cells and tissues in guiding the development of form is another. Thanks to technical advances in molecular biology and computer analysis, the study of evolution is passing through an exciting phase today. We are learning with whom we share our roots and how long ago that was. The deep history of our own species, Homo sapiens, is acquiring shape. We know that our forefathers originated in Africa and, as hopeful migrants, went out from there to populate other continents. There are tantalising glimpses of the people whose descendants we present-day Indians are. They include the earliest humans to reach here from Africa as well as immigrants who arrived in diverse streams from the north-west, north-east, and south Asia. Two statements sum up what evolution tells us so far. First, life on earth is a spectacular example of unity and diversity, both of them based on common ancestry. Second, the diversity has come about through a combination of accidental events, the laws of physics, and natural selection. In the memorable words Darwin used at the end of The Origin of Species (a book that repays reading even today), there is grandeur in this view of life. The study of evolution is endlessly fascinating. Its goal is to explain the most striking aspects of living creatures, the sorts of things that attract a child’s wonder. At the same time, it throws light on the deepest doubts that have engaged humans. Who are we? Where did we come from?


However, there is a question that evolution seems ill-equipped to answer. Why on earth would anyone want to deny young Indians such richness, when it costs nothing? NCERT appears to have done just that by omitting the topic of evolution from its X standard text book. The reasons given for the removal that I have come across (it is too difficult, Darwin is a controversial figure) make no sense. It used to be thought that evolutionary biology was not utilitarian in the sense that mathematics, chemistry, computer science or engineering are. In this age of organ transplants across species and strategies to counter the impact of climate change, even that is not true. But there is a far more important point behind the teaching of evolution to children at several levels and in progressively increasing detail. An appreciation of evolution enriches the mind. To delete it from the syllabus is as foolish as not teaching a language, or poetry, or history (though I seem to recall an entrepreneur saying that teaching language was a waste of time). Being exposed to evolutionary thinking should be considered an essential element of human culture, on a par with being told about the planets, stars and galaxies and where they come from. One does not have to know about evolution to make a living. Also, cutting down on its teaching will not matter to those who study in private institutions that use their own curricula. They will find, or be directed to, sources of knowledge other than officially prescribed texts. On the other hand, the move will hit precisely those children whose needs should be addressed by a progressive educational policy, those who come from deprived backgrounds, are compelled to study in publicly funded schools, and retain the hope that education is liberating.


Vidyanand Nanjundiah used to be at the Indian Institute of Science and is now at the Centre for Human Genetics. He studies evolution, especially the evolution of social behaviour in microorganisms. He can be contacted at vidyan@alumni.iisc.ac.in. The views expressed in this piece are personal. 

Why dropping evolution from the Std. X curriculum is a very bad idea

In recent weeks, there has been considerable consternation among Indian scientists, educators and citizens alike, following an NCERT decision to drop evolution from the Std. X curriculum (see https://ncert.nic.in/pdf/BookletClass10.pdf, page 21), as part of what is claimed to be a rationalization exercise aimed at reducing the academic load on students (e.g. see https://indianexpress.com/article/education/in-an-open-letter-1800-scientists-educators-express-concern-about-dropping-topic-of-evolution-from-ncert-textbook-8567925/,https://www.outlookindia.com/national/restore-darwin-s-evolution-theory-scientists-educators-tell-ncert-news-280484,https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/news/story/ncert-removes-darwins-evolution-theory-from-science-textbook-open-letter-2363682-2023-04-23, https://thefederal.com/news/scientists-object-to-ncerts-decision-to-drop-evolution-theory-from-class-x-syllabus/, https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/scientists-open-letter-after-ncert-drops-evolution-from-class-10-textbook-3968686, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/hyderabad/dont-delete-darwin-from-ncert-books-say-scientists/articleshow/99678576.cms?from=mdr). Over four thousand concerned scientists and others signed an open letter expressing deep anguish at the move and hoping for the decision to be reversed. The President of the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bengaluru, has also written formally to the concerned minister on this issue. There have been articles expressing concern about the dropping of evolution from the Std. X curriculum in India by leading international scientific journals like Science (https://www.science.org/content/article/scientists-india-protest-move-drop-darwinian-evolution-textbooks), and even television stations abroad have covered the growing controversy (https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/sundayextra/india-darwin/102280810).


While it is true that evolution is very briefly introduced in earlier classes (Std. VII), and will still – for the time being?. – remain part of the Std. XII curriculum, its removal from the Std. X curriculum is a matter of grave concern for at least four major reasons outlined below. We also note that what is often colloquially termed ‘Darwinism’ is really the ‘Theory of Evolution’, for which Darwin provided the first detailed scientific framework and also compiled ample evidence consistent with that framework. The ‘Theory of Evolution’ was later further developed and refined by innumerable scientists from across the world, combining Darwin’s original insights with later discoveries in Mendelian genetics and many other fields including ecology, behaviour, developmental biology, and mathematical and statistical genetics. It is not a branch of biology, but rather is a logical framework and perspective with which to make sense of the diverse facts we continue to learn about the living world (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7pJ9w5oswg).


The importance of evolution to understand life

Any science calling itself ‘biology’ must address how living things are “living” (rather than non-living), and also the diversity, relatedness and adaptedness of life forms. The first question is addressed by functional biology, often at a molecular or cellular level, the other three are addressed by evolution. The very existence of life in diverse forms, ecological interactions within and between groups, or the inter-relationships between living organisms and their immediate surroundings cannot be explained without invoking the ‘Theory of Evolution’. This means that one cannot understand any aspect of natural science without invoking the concepts of the ‘Theory of evolution’. Evolution is not a mere sub-discipline of biology; rather, it is an overarching perspective from which we make sense of all the factual information gleaned from research in diverse branches of biology. It is evolutionary theory that provides the logical framework for understanding biological diversity and dynamics, and elevates it beyond just being a collection of interesting facts about this or that species. As the great Nobel Prize winning immunologist Sir Peter Medawar said, “For a biologist, the alternative to thinking in evolutionary terms is not to think at all”! An equally profound statement, which is as relevant today as it was 75 years ago, was Theodosius Dobzhansky’s assertion that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.


Centrality of evolutionary biology to our survival and healthy living

It is often thought that evolution does not have applied significance and is just of academic interest. That could not be further than the truth, as recently highlighted by the covid pandemic where evolutionary concepts were needed to develop effective models and plan vaccination and other public health strategies. Whether it be the origin and spread of multi-drug resistant bacteria, new zoonotic outbreaks and pandemics, epidemiology and public health, impact of loss of biodiversity, effects of environmental degradation and climate change, cancer, ageing, crop and domesticated animal improvement, use of DNA in forensics, genome wide association studies to identify genetic variants underlying complex diseases, assessing the potential risks of genetically modified organisms, understanding human diversity and pre-civilization migrations, or a diverse set of social pathologies (including sexual violence), an evolutionary perspective and the application of evolutionary theory are crucially important to how we understand and, therefore, tackle or manage these important societal challenges. Concepts from evolution are also used in diverse areas of computer science, like artificial intelligence and machine learning (for more detail on the centrality of evolution for both biology and for solving diverse societal challenges, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fut6NtPc7_0).


The importance of evolution in our intellectual history

The concept of evolution is something that all citizens should be aware of because it speaks directly to who we are, as humans, and our position within the living world. Following the Copernican and Newtonian intellectual revolutions in Europe, living organisms were the last bastion of “religious” or “supernatural” explanations in nature. The Darwinian intellectual revolution showed, that just as in the case for movement of celestial bodies after Newton, there was no need to invoke supernatural explanations to understand the living world, the diversity, relatedness and adaptedness of life forms, or of human origins (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xppn7ITteZw&pp=ygUeQW1pdGFiaCBKb3NoaSBFdm9sdXRpb24gUG9ldHJ5). Thus, evolution is also a central concept in our modern rational world-view, as opposed to a superstitious or mythological one, and as such a basic understanding of the tenets of Darwinian evolutionary theory is important to the cultivation of a scientific temper, something our Constitution exhorts us to strive towards. If the vast majority of students (those who do not go on to take biology in Std XI-XII) are to be deprived of any exposure to the concept so important to a scientific world-view, it is a travesty of the notion of a well-rounded secondary education.


The importance of evolution to cultivating the ‘scientific temper’

As is clear from the point above, evolutionary thinking is immensely important for developing a scientific temperament. Evolution provides scientific thinking in the form of knowledge-driven and evidence-based explanations of our very existence, our diseases and other life-style maladies, our relationship with other human societies, and with our living and non-living environment. It helps us to understand our position in the biosphere, our relationship with other human groups and other species, and the importance of diversity in humans and all other life forms. It helps us to understand the unity underlying our ethnic and other diversity, diseases, ways to conserve biodiversity and also helps us to design strategies to keep out planet liveable. And, above all, it is one of the pillars of a rational view of the living world, as opposed to a mythological, superstitious or religious one.


Concluding Remarks

As we have briefly seen above, evolution is a foundational concept for both the study of biology and for cultivating a rational view of humans and their interrelationships with one another, and with the living and non-living environment. It is also important for how we choose, as a society, to address diverse challenges in public health and societal well-being, especially in rapidly altering times characterized by environmental degradation and climate change.


As of now, what we know is that evolution has been removed from the Std X curriculum. We do not know the reason why. It is still there in Std XII curriculum. So, the concern is not so much that “evolution is removed” from curricula, inasmuch as students taking biology in Std XI-XII will get exposure to evolutionary biology. The concern specifically is that, other than basics of how the human body functions, evolution is perhaps the most important part of biology that all educated citizens should be aware of and, therefore, it should remain in the Std X curriculum which all students study before they choose different specializations in Std XI. In the absence of rational and scientific understanding of life, as children grow up they would become more likely to succumb to superstitions and irrational explanations and practices. How will they explain why the mighty dinosaurs, which they all are fond of, are no longer around? How will they explain similarities between human and other mammals to an extent that we can take a pig organ and transplant it into a human? How will they innovate any new products without the understanding of common chemical basis of life across all organisms, from tiny bacteria to large banyan trees to humans to elephants to whales?  As the vast majority of students do not take biology after class X, they will be deprived of any exposure to a concept so important to both biology and a scientific world-view. For the past 50 years, India is reaping the benefits of globalisation by providing S&T services to the whole world, especially IT services. With the advent of artificial intelligence and machine learning, this is in danger unless we reinvent our education, which is what NEP2020 is attempting. However, no student will be able to master high levels of creativity and innovation to develop AI-driven modules without a deeper understanding of the fundamental concept of natural selection. Concepts of evolution are today finding a role in areas from computer science, artificial intelligence and machine learning, to economics and manufacturing.


At this point we do not know if this removal education from Std X is part of a broader government policy or not. There is trepidation that it might be so, given that in 2018, there was a statement by the then Minister-of-State for Human Resource Development that evolution was discredited and should not be taught, prompting a strong response from the academic community (see http://confluence.ias.ac.in/joint-statement-by-the-three-science-academies-of-india/, http://confluence.ias.ac.in/defying-both-logic-and-biology/). On the other hand, it may well be that this move is just a reflection of a general view among many in Indian biology that evolution is somehow unimportant, compared to molecular biology (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fut6NtPc7_0), or perhaps just sheer intellectual laziness or incompetence by the concerned committee members. There have been some suggestions by defenders of the NCERT policy that the concerns expressed are politically motivated, that basic ideas of evolution are “too heavy” for Std. X teachers and students, and that Darwinian evolutionary theory has long been superseded by the Modern Synthetic Theory of Evolution which is too technical to be taught in Std. X (see https://www.ndtv.com/video/shows/ndtv-special-ndtv-24×7/the-darwin-debate-theory-of-omission-evolution-of-a-controversy-696075). These arguments are disingenuous and appear to be meant to deflect and obfuscate the issue. All the points we have made above are technical points in the science and academics domain; we would have made the same points if any other government had removed evolution from the Std. X curriculum. The basic concepts of the ‘Theory of Evolution’ can easily be introduced to Std. X students, or indeed the general public (see for example, this public lecture explaining very nuanced and up-to-date aspects of natural selection, without any technicalities or mathematical details: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDPtRvj7wYc). Moreover, the conceptual core of evolutionary theory has not really changed much since Darwin: some details have been added and more recently discovered phenomena have been incorporated (see https://ecoevorxiv.org/repository/view/3688/).


What is also distressing is that none of the internationally known Indian evolutionary biologists were consulted on this matter. India has a small but very strong evolutionary biology community and Indian research was the only non-western research to make it into a compendium of 65 major conceptual breakthroughs in evolutionary ecology since Darwin, according to a recent book (https://dst.gov.in/indian-study-finds-place-among-major-breakthroughs-ecology-and-evolution-counted-origin-species). Indian scientists have contributed a lot to evolutionary biology in the last 30-35 years, and are among world-leaders in areas of social evolution, behavioural ecology in plants, evolution of competitive ability, evolution of population stability, sexual selection and sexual conflict, and core concepts in evolution and our understanding of its history (https://dst.gov.in/indian-biologists-put-forward-novel-refinements-fundamental-conceptual-principles-evolutionary). There is also a professional society, the Indian Society of Evolutionary Biologists (https://home.evolutionindia.org/), that could have been consulted but was not.


Especially given the recent covid pandemic underscoring the importance of evolutionary theory to solving real-life problems, we find it inexplicable why NCERT would want to drop topics on evolution from Std X, even if the aim was to ‘reduce the academic load’: in that case, some chapters with factual detail could have been dropped instead of the chapter dealing with the logical foundations of the discipline of biology. We note also that this move is against the spirit of the NEP of 2020 in that the policy emphasized the importance of concepts and rational thinking over mere absorption of factual material. We would like to believe that this is a genuine, though huge, mistake by the concerned committee, and we are hopeful that the responses from the Academic community will help initiate a rethink and possible reversal of this decision.

L. S. Shashidhara is a developmental geneticist and evolutionary biologist and is presently Director of the TIFR-National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru

Amitabh Joshi is an evolutionary biologist and population ecologist and is presently Chair of the Evolutionary and Organismal Biology Unit, of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru.

Both authors are also founding members, fellows and executive committee members of the Indian Society of Evolutionary Biologists (https://home.evolutionindia.org/). The views expressed in this piece are personal.


One Among Us: Virtual Socialisation



(Translated by: Tarun Saxena; Reviewed by: Ruchi Agrawal)

Other languages

  • Bengali (Translated by: Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti; Reviewed by: Suman Chakrabarty)
  • Chhattisgarhi (Translated by: Ganesh R. Sinha)
  • Kannada (Translated by: Ganesha; Reviewed by: Rajiv K N)
  • Malayalam (Translated by: Nikhila KN; Reviewed by: Kabanee)
  • Marathi (Translated by: Shriram Barve; Reviewed by: Shailesh Sahasrabhojanee)
  • Tamil (Translated by:G Srinivasaraghavan; Reviewed by:Murugan, Ramanujam, Shubashree)


Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti is a faculty member at IIITB, Bengaluru. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Confluence, its editorial board or the Academy.

For the other cartoons in this series, please click here.


One Among Us: Online or Offline



Hindi translation: Sujit Chakrabarti


Tamil translation: R Ramanujam

Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti is a faculty member at IIITB, Bengaluru. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Confluence, its editorial board or the Academy.

For the other cartoons in this series, please click here.


Interview of Prof. S. Sivaram: Mentorship experiences


Interview of Prof. S. Sivaram, wherein he discusses his mentorship experiences – from his days as a student at IITK where he was mentored by the Chemistry faculty, to IPCL where he was involved in setting up India’s first large polyolefin manufacturing industry to his tenure in NCL, where he was part of the leadership.


About the participants: Prof. S. Sivaram is currently INSA Senior Scientist and Honorary Professor at IISER-Pune. Before this, he was the Director of the CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory in Pune. Sutirth Dey is professor of Biology at IISER-Pune and Guruswamy Kumaraswamy is professor of Chemical Engineering at IIT-Bombay. 


Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Confluence, its editorial board or the Academy.


This article is part of a Confluence series called “Mentor-Mentee Relationships in Academia: Nature, Problems and Solutions”

Mentoring in Academia: One Size Does Not Fit All

The academic social network in India has recently been abuzz with stories of data manipulation, duplication and misreporting. Needless to say, these are all crimes of the worst kind in the academia, and we have evolved various ethical guidelines to combat them. As per the guidelines of the UGC (May 2016), students registered for PhD programs are required to take a minimum four-credit course on Research Methodology, which includes research ethics as a topic. We thus assume that all students registered in various PhD programs across the country are given a capsule on research ethics to internalize, and they do so. But do all students registered in various PhD programs across the country take such a course, and even if they do, do they really “learn” research ethics and use this learning in their lives? This question might appear to be a simple one, but an attempt to answer it might stir up a hornet’s nest of issues in the academia, which most try to brush under the carpet.


A couple of years ago, I had designed a survey to collect some inputs from PhD students in India on their awareness of research ethics. This had stemmed from a discussion that we were having during a course I taught on Scientific Communication, where we were discussing issues like plagiarism, data manipulation, representation, etc. I was quite sorry that in spite of sharing the survey widely through various platforms and requesting friends and colleagues to spread the word, I received only about 40 responses to the survey. While writing this article, I shared the survey again and the total number of responses went up to 75, of which 46 are from current PhD students, while the rest are from people who have either just submitted their thesis or have completed their PhD in the last 1-6 years, and are thus early career researchers. In spite my sincere attempts, I got only 20 responses from universities; central, state and private included, and 49 of the responders were from the biological sciences. This could be a reflection of the bias of my social network, and so I wanted to highlight these before sharing more information.


What I learnt was that 23 of the 75 responders had never taken a course on research ethics, either as an independent course or as a part of some other course. 37 of the responders (71%) agreed that they had indeed learned from the course that they had taken, and several pointed out plagiarism issues, honesty, data integrity as some of the key takeaways from such a course. 13 of the responders stated that they have not co-authored any research papers, which means a fraction of those who have already been involved in publications (82.7%), either as first, middle or (in a few cases) corresponding authors, have either not been exposed to or have not learned from a course on research ethics.


This brings me to a major concern that I have developed over the last decade or so, seeing the world from a perspective different from that of a student. Personally, I had quite a rollercoaster ride when I started my independent career as a researcher and faculty member at IISER Kolkata. Keeping my personal story aside, I realized, with a mix of amazement and sadness that the academic world that had appeared to be a happy place when I was a PhD student, actually had a lot of dark secrets. As a PhD student at IISc, I had laughed reading “PhD comics” and seeing PhD life memes, but I had never taken them really seriously. Of course, there had been people around me with upsetting stories, but they were a minority in my wonderland. Only when I was sitting at the other side of the table and interacting with people on both sides, did I begin to see the real picture emerge, which left me rather upset.


Looking back

I did my PhD at the Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES), Indian Institute of Science (IISc), with Prof. Raghavendra Gadagkar (RG). I still look back on my PhD days as some of the happiest years of my life. I matured as a person and learned to be a scientist during those years, picking up skills that have helped me in my journey ever since. CES was a department that was home to its students, and generally had a group of people with varied interests. Our research group was a family, where I made friends for life. RG was not just our research supervisor, he was a friend, philosopher and guide, a mentor in the true sense of the word. When I needed to discuss an idea, or vent my frustration or complain about some flaw in the system, he was the person I went to. We spent hours discussing literature, art, philosophy and pedagogy and of course, science. He and Geetha, his wife, were like caring parents to the students, and we were always welcomed to their home with a smile, a hot cup of tea or coffee and snacks. When I decided to get married, RG was the first to know, when I was expecting my first baby, RG was again the first to know. He advised us to apply to the IISERs when I was ready to move on. Unlike most supervisors, he was happy when I decided to shift from his field of research to a completely new one. He stood by me when I went through a tough time in my career and continued to provide me the strength to keep doing my science. Even today, he is always a phone call away whenever I need advice, or just someone to discuss an idea with.


My PhD journey taught me the importance of asking questions, for breaking silos and for effective communication. RG was always supportive of his students engaging in various activities outside the lab, and this gave me the opportunity to indulge myself, engaging in a wide range of activities on and off campus, which helped me mature intellectually, creatively and personally. He was a patient listener and critic, when I reported on my various activities, an indulgent supervisor when I wanted to try out crazy ideas, and a loving grandparent to my first born. I had always loved teaching, and RG offered me the chance to handhold new students and even postdocs and a long line of interns throughout my stay at CES. It is through this experience that I learned the first steps of mentoring and training students for research. We did not have a course on Research Methodology during those days, but I learned to write papers and grant proposals, oversee projects, give feedback on the performance of interns, critically assess published papers and give seminars, through actually doing all of these. When I finished my PhD, he asked me to help him review manuscripts, subtly teaching me another essential skill for a life in the academic world. This, to me, is the role of a true mentor – to be there when the mentee needs them; to provide subtle guidance, gentle nudging, a little handholding, and sometimes active support, as the need may be, without encroaching upon the independence of the mentee. This is a lot to ask, and immensely difficult to achieve. This is why I look up to my mentor and strive to emulate him in my life. He is indeed a model easy to admire and very difficult to mimic.


Present continuous

Even after spending more than a dozen years as a faculty member, I often feel that I have not quite lost my “student” persona. And this is perhaps why I have made many friends among the students that I have taught at IISER Kolkata. I have, in fact, had the privilege of teaching at all possible levels in this institute, thus engaging with a large cross-section of the students that have spent years of their youth with us. One issue that has stood out among others has been the lack of understanding and support for mental health. One the one hand, many who need help do not understand this, and on the other, people around them are not supportive, leading to a rather difficult situation on many campuses. I have personally been involved in counselling students through my years at IISc and IISER Kolkata, and I have seen a rise in mental health problems. I don’t know if this is because I am interacting with many more young people at IISER, or because I have become more perceptive of these issues, or because there is indeed a rise in the fraction of people needing mental health support. Nevertheless, this is a problem that often gets ignored or brushed under the carpet at best.


As a mentor, one needs to be perceptive of one’s mentee’s intellectual and emotional needs. Not everyone is a good listener, but I strongly feel that this is a prerequisite for a good mentor. Young people can be emotionally much more vulnerable than us, and are often going through various issues like settling down in a new campus, staying away from home for the first time, making new friends, adjusting to completely different food habits, falling in love and enduring heart breaks, finding varied interests and failing in time management, handling competition and making career choices, to name a few. While some take all of these in their stride and blossom, others find the challenges difficult to handle, and get bogged down by the stress. They need support from mentors, who would hold their hands to tide over difficult times, nudge them on when they fall behind, give them space when they need it, encourage them to try harder, cheer them for little successes and provide a patient ear when they need to vent their passions. This can be quite a challenge for us, but then, when we choose to build a life in academia, do we not pick up this mantle of mentorship too?


Another issue that often gets hushed up in the academic scene is of harassment and abuse. This is mostly specific to the relationship of the PhD supervisor and their students, because here lies a power equation. The supervisor is often seen as the “boss”, who has the right to decide the path a group’s research will take and control every little step the group takes. I have seen students being “scared” of their supervisors, not having the courage to ask for leave to go home, even for very valid reasons, leave alone taking a vacation. There are labs where students are monitored, asked to sign in at 8 am and work until 10 pm, and keep tabs on each other. Students are often made to believe that their PhD supervisors can control their lives, restrict their activities outside the lab and keep them “chained” to the lab benches. Many students actually believe that they cannot complain to the authorities, because the supervisors can “ruin” their careers. It is this fear and that of social stigma, that prevents many girls from raising their voices against male supervisors when they are sexually harassed, abused or even discriminated against. Its high time students realised that it is in fact, the supervisor who has already built a career and perhaps a reputation, which can be ruined if the students complain and matters become public. A student who has just started a journey in research and is yet to be known to the world, does not yet have a reputation that can be ruined so easily.


A PhD supervisor has a very critical role to play in the life of their mentees; a PhD is not just about doing research to write a thesis, publish papers and generally work towards a degree. It is about training in critical thinking, ethical practices, teaching and engagement, about developing into a future independent researcher, who can, in their turn, train others. This is a responsibility that we need to take very seriously. Some of us run research groups like factories, mass producing research articles and PhDs. While some of these graduate students are excellent researchers, many are not truly engaged in “doing research”, but are hands that follow protocols and complete experiments efficiently, without asking a question. While such research groups do a service to society by training a large number of individuals in certain research methods, they do not produce true mentors or teachers. Some of us, on the other hand, are too selfish to engage with “not so smart” young people, and hand pick very few students, who are so smart and talented that they don’t need much mentoring. They need the resources and some guidance, and can carry out their research on their own. Such students are likely to win prizes and be highly successful researchers in their own right.


Personally, I believe that one should choose to take up a career in research only if they are highly motivated. A PhD is what a researcher earns, and should have the right to do so at one’s own pace. However, policymakers would not agree, and we have the onus to see a student through their PhD in a maximum number of years. This can be highly stressful, for both the mentor and the mentee, and at times leads to a situation of conflict between the two parties. I feel that we often forget that it’s the student’s PhD, not our own, and students often forget that the onus is on them to complete the work required to earn the degree. Having gone through a system of endless examinations, it might take one some time to get adjusted to the idea of working, not for an examination, but for one’s own satisfaction. A mentor’s role is to be the guiding light, and this is a great responsibility that we shoulder. We need to be aware of the strengths and limitations of our mentees and understand the personalities of each. This, I believe, is rather difficult if one has a large research group to work with and I admire my colleagues who can do this. As mentors, it is our responsibility to inculcate best practices among our students, irrespective of whether they have attended a course on research ethics. When our mentees shine and win accolades, we rightfully bask in their glory, but we also need to carry their burden of shame if they make mistakes. It is easy to blame a student for misrepresenting data, but very difficult to acknowledge that we have been negligent, or perhaps, too much in a hurry to get a fantastic result published. The race of metrics, awards, grants, honours often blinds us, especially when we are struggling to establish a career in academic research, struggling to climb up the ladder and attain a strong foothold within the system. While this entails a lot of stress on the mentors, we need to be cognizant of the needs of our mentees and ensure that they do not get left behind as we keep running to reach the next target.


My mentor had told me something in our first meeting, which I still remember. He said, only when you do a PhD, you get paid for doing something you enjoy doing and you also get a degree at the end. This is the philosophy with which I work, trying to give each student the time they need, helping them to work at their own pace. I am happy to work overnight to comment on a manuscript from a workaholic student, to allow the highly self-critical and thorough student to take months for one analysis, to discuss science and gossip with a student who is like family, to be a little formal with a student who likes to keep a distance or to wake up in the middle of the night to receive a call from student who is going through a panic attack. After all, it takes all kinds of flavours to make a dish savoury!


Anindita Bhadra is Associate Professor at the Department of Biological Sciences, IISER KolkataViews expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Confluence, its editorial board or the Academy.


This article is part of a Confluence series called “Mentor-Mentee Relationships in Academia: Nature, Problems and Solutions”