An interview with Prof. Neera Bhalla Sarin, Dean, School of Life Sciences
Wafa: How were you introduced to JNU and how would you describe your experiences over the years here?
Prof Sarin: I was a part of the first batch at the School of Life Sciences. At that time one only had options in botany and zoology in other institutions which became a little monotonous and thus a lot of us came to JNU as it provided a new interdisciplinary approach and blend of all these subjects. I also filled up the form because of the promising variety and comprehensiveness of knowledge it offered in different disciplines. There were 22 of us who got chosen in the first batch. From that batch there are still 2 of us teaching in the school, Prof. Alok Bhattacharya (Chemistry) and me. We only had 5 faculty members so it was more like a well knit family. But as it was a new course, there was no setup for research. So the students as well as the teachers set up the labs with chemicals and instruments. Gradually, we got grants and we started a central instrument facility. During those years we were like builders, making and constructing a better course and facilities for later generations.
The uniqueness of the program that attracted us was that it always had a multi-disciplinary approach. We were encouraged to not only learn sciences but also languages by auditing and crediting language courses. Some of my friends even went on to do certificate and diploma courses in French and German apart from our course work. That was something we don't see all that often now a days. The current Vice Chancellor, Prof Sopory also joined as faculty in 1973 after finishing his PhD and was the warden of one of the hostels as well. I found the atmosphere very liberal with one to one discussions between teachers and students. There were no inhibitions and there was a congenial atmosphere. And somehow, after I finished my PhD I stuck on; my supervisor was good and easy to get along with and my work was going great and I liked the atmosphere here and the faculty. Things kept flowing from there, from a student to now being a Professor I have always felt a sense of belonging here.
The department as well has grown in front of my eyes. We believe in collaborations both intra and interdepartmental as well as national and international. The research here varies from plants to humans and microbes, the human brain, neuro and photo biology, genetically modified plants, and so on.
Wafa: How does it feel to be a member of the faculty in your alma mater?
Prof Sarin: When I joined they still treated me as a student even though they did make me comfortable! Only gradually, did the transition from being considered a student to a faculty or a colleague took place and I got a lot of encouragement for that from the entire school.
Wafa: Are there any changes you see in JNU over the years you have been here?
Prof Sarin: Earlier JNU was a much smaller place in terms of the number of students, the infrastructure and was closer knit where everybody knew everybody else. There was a swimming pool as well for those who don't know! There was definitely more interaction. The atmosphere of the university is still very liberal with plenty of space given for debates and discussions and the facilities have also increased corresponding to the increase in the population of students. Earlier we had to go by bus to PUSA institute to even filter enzymes whereas now all this technology is available to us in our backyard. But we were simpler I suppose, whereas now I feel students are more materialistic and have become richer. Of course, that is in keeping pace with the world though.
Wafa: How is JNU different from other institutions you have been to?
Prof Sarin: You don't find a vast difference when you go abroad or to other institutions. The only major difference is that there is more red tapism here like all other government institutions due to which the work moves slower. Abroad, if you run out of a chemical you place an order and it is delivered to you within hours whereas here you have to go through a certain procedure which is time consuming. For our field in particular time is very crucial as even a change of an hour can produce very different lab results thus, it sometimes becomes a problem. But to achieve the kind of results the students and faculty do in spite of this is praiseworthy. There are workaholics here and with better equipment the few hindrances can also be removed and better work can be produced efficiently.
Wafa: What are your goals for the School in the next 5 years?
Prof Sarin: We have already started and would further like to promote joint classes (inter school) for at least some subjects to promote interdisciplinarity further. We are also planning to introduce some programmes and courses for some soft skills like computer knowledge, language etc to teach how to write a paper, read a paper and so on which are very important when the students go out and start working. There are various people working on how the brain functions and stem cell biology. Some research is also going on regarding indigenous compounds on cancer, drug designing, RNA biology, and histology. We are currently also working on this very exciting project on Vitamin E in mustard which helps in reducing skin cancer. We began with 5 faculty members and now we are 30 of us. The laboratory here works 24x7. It is tough with a lot of additional work, reading and constant check for experiments in labs but it ultimately pays off. We have a Meet the Speaker program where we invite a renowned personality and have a one to one interaction with the students. We also have two events under something called BioSparks which are completely organised by the students and they provide a platform to train them for future. We also have a number of outreach programmes and training programmes for students and we have had very good results with students being taken away by companies and institutions even before PhD like hot cakes. There are many more exciting projects going on and I hope to see more promising results and innovative research in the years to come.
Wafa: How is it being an administrator as well as a faculty? How do you balance both?
Prof Sarin: Well, my work has been slightly affected but I try my best. I end up missing lunch many times and have to work after classes and during breaks but it has its own charm. I try to be nice to people and help however I can and have a policy to leave no paper unsigned for the next day. Finance is a big problem as keeping track of the bills, records; the regular correspondence for these is a big headache. If we had someone for a liaison between the school and the accounts it would probably be easier but we are trying our best.
Wafa: Any memory of JNU that you would like to share with us?
Prof Sarin: There are many memories and they make me feel nostalgic. At the time of the student strike I had seeds that I had put in some chemicals for mutations and had to culture the seeds next morning. So, I requested the student body to let me finish my experiment and I would leave as soon as I was done or else all my hard work would be in vain. They allowed me and I continued my experiment and got the best results which I was even praised for.
Wafa: What is the message you would like to give to the JNU student community?
Prof Sarin: I am sure the students already know what they have to do. All I would like to say is have faith in the institution. It is the best place to be. Don't fear teachers, maintain the line of respect but have a good interaction with them. You have to be on your toes all the time and dedicate yourself to your work. The free exchange of ideas and dedication is what matters in the end.