Wednesday, August 25, 2010

U.S. Returned Faculty Are Liking It In Small Town India

In an effort to expand the higher education system, the Indian government in 2008 decided to open 8 additional branches of the Indian Institute of Technology. There was plenty of criticism of this move including a) is the decision being hastily implemented when the infrastructure is not yet ready?  2) are there enough new quality faculty available to teach? 3) would these new institutions become bogged down by the same byzantine bureaucracy and hierarchical stranglehold bedeviling older institutions?...

Its not that any or all of these concerns are invalid and indeed they may be playing themselves out in small or large measures on many of the new campuses of the IIT's. But sometimes I feel there is too much pessimism.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a feel good story on the refreshingly positive experience of many U.S returned faculty who are now teaching at the new IIT campus in Ropar, Punjab, a small town near Chandigarh.

The administrators there worked hard at recruiting faculty, concentrating on young faculty and in fact manipulating the recruitment process to facilitate quick hiring, and then giving them considerable freedom in setting up syllabus and research labs. Here are some snippets:

 Ropar has tapped alumni networks abroad and marketed its advantages as a flexible new player in a mostly hidebound system.....

.... So how did Ropar do it? To get the word out, administrators relied on their established network of IIT contacts and alumni, including holding events in the United States to explain the opportunities available at the new campuses in India.

Once they found a candidate they wanted, they figured out ways to cut through India's notorious red tape.

For example, Ropar's new hires often start in a "visiting position" to avoid the lengthy selection process involved in hiring permanent faculty members.

Then the institute works on converting them into permanent faculty members.

And some faculty and student comments:

"I can see a lot more flexibility and freedom here in terms of research and teaching," says Himanshu Tyagi, 31, a graduate of IIT Delhi, .....

New research "is taking off here," Mr. Gupta says. "So you can actually set up your own lab and make an actual contribution, which is kind of hard in the U.S."

"The faculty here are much younger than Delhi's, and they are ready to experiment," says Ishan Chhabra, a third-year computer-science student. "They are ready with bleeding-edge research, and they take it and expose undergraduates to it. In an older institute, only Ph.D. students would be introduced to it."

I think the "lets make a fresh start" and "making an impact" mentality among young faculty is helping along with some enlightened and sympathetic administrative decisions.

Off course there are always the occasional hazards:

In the car with a young trainee and her mother, Mr. Gupta was fumbling with the stick shift until the instructor proudly announced that his student was a "foreign returned" professor at the new Indian Institute of Technology down the road.

There was a brief silence. "Are you married?" the girl's mother inquired.

Some things will never change in India.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Wedging California Apart Along The San Andreas Fault

BLDGBLOG writes about research being done along the San Andreas Fault in the Carrizo plain, in an effort to understand historical seismicity along the fault. The paper has been published in the September issue of Geology. The story has been making news as results suggest that major earthquakes since the 1300's have been occurring at approximately century long intervals before the last big one in 1857....

I love BLDGBLOG's imaginative scenario of the consequences of geologists digging deep trenches to study earth movements:

Imagine a rogue, university-funded team of geologists researching ever-lower levels of the earth, forcing themselves downward with separating devices that pin open rocky wounds to split whole landmasses along unanticipated faultlines. Using these tools—terrain deformation grenades gone linear—they create islands in the earth's crust, like walled castles of geology, carving out new blocks in the landscape.

Maybe its time for a sequel to Alistair Maclean's Goodbye California.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is My Fossil Not Spongeworthy?

The Australian reports on a recent announcement of possible sponge-grade metazoan remains from the Flinders range in south Australia claimed by a research group from Princeton University and hints at a darker controversy involving priority:

Paleontologists such as Jim Gehling with the South Australian Museum say it is no surprise that simple sponge-like animals lived 600-650 million years ago, as reported yesterday in the journal Nature Geoscience. But they are far from convinced they are what the Princeton University team has found.

"To argue these were sponges is a difficult proposition. They look like Coco Pops, " said Dr Gehling.

Moreover, Dr Gehling said better, older fossils had been found three years ago by University of Melbourne geologist Malcolm Wallace and his team. Dr Gehling suggested that competitive pressure might have been the reason Dr Wallace's group has been unable to publish their results.

The Australian understands that one of the co-authors of the contentious paper is a reviewer for the journal Science, to which Dr Wallace's group has submitted a paper. It is not clear whether the reviewer has read the paper but Dr Wallace acknowledged that "we've had difficulties getting our results published". He preferred not to discuss Dr Gehling's suspicions. He did affirm that his group's finds were roughly 20 million years older than those reported by the Princeton team, headed by paleontologist Adam Maloof.

Using a position of influence to suppress a rival groups study from being published would be a very serious ethical transgression but if the identity of the reviewer is that obvious would anyone take that risk?

Andrew Alden at and Chris at Highly Allochthonous express their opinions about the study.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Multicellularity, Evolution, Life

On NPR's Cosmos and Culture blog biologist Ursula Goodenough has been writing some terrific posts on evolution. Two that recently caught my eye:

Unicellularity Vs. Multicellularity: Why We Bother With More Than One Cell

Time and Life

Both are worth spending some time on.

Coming back to the topic of the evolution of multicellularity the latest issue of Geology has a paper that does some analysis on continental reconfiguration during the early Cambrian and proposes that there was a major movement and rotation of Gondwana resulting in establishment of a new ecological landscape, new conditions that may have provided the impetus for the rapid radiation of metazoans otherwise known as the Cambrian "explosion".

Explanations for the Cambrian explosion have occupied two extremes. One view proposes that the fuse was a biological one. Some crucial biological innovation in terms of gene regulation and molecular cascades remained to be discovered until complex metazoans could evolve. According to this view these changes likely occurred beginning around 600 mya. The other view proposes that practically all the complex genetic machinery necessary for metazoans to function already existed in unicellular eukaryotes. The reason for the delay in the advent of metazoans (complex unicellular eukaryotes date back to more than a billion years) were ecological constraints such as a lack of enough oxygen in the atmosphere.

Lately I sense that the ecological argument is winning out not least because earlier experiments in multicellularity are coming to light. Life getting organized into agglomerates of cells is a  theme that has been independently invented several times and as far back as a couple of billion years ago if recent findings in Gabon and in India's Vindhyan basin hold true.

The thought of genetic potential waiting to be unshackled into new and varied forms is fascinating and one doesn't have to venture into the unfamiliar Cambrian terrain for an example. The transformation of the wolf into the myriad morphs of dogs is a strong example. A recent study (via Panda's Thumb) showed that the morphological variation in skull shape across the entire order of Carnivora is less that the variation seen within dogs. The ecological landscape experienced by ancestral wolves did shift dramatically in recent times not by continental movements as proposed for the Cambrian radiation but by the imposition of new selection pressures by humans. Wolves apparently always had the genetic potential to diversify into what could be described as downright weird forms. The changing human ecology provided the trigger and helped maintain these forms, many who may not have survived in the wild.

The evolution of complexity seems to be open ended. There must have been occasions when there was a significant change in genetic architecture. John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary document these steps in their book The Major Transitions in Evolution. Other times it was an exogenous influence that triggered a change, a  matter of filling a new ecological niche.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Indian Natural Gas: Policy And Governance Issue

I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago on the geological context of Indian shale gas potential. Indian sedimentary basins have considerable potential in both conventional natural gas as well as shale gas. These resources are being hailed as critical to India's future energy needs.

But geological presence has to be translated into effective use of this resource and how the produced natural gas is to be most efficiently allocated to various sectors is a question that has not been satisfactorily fleshed out at the policy level. The big users of natural gas are 1) Feed stock for fertilizer 2) Power generation 3) Transportation.

Here is an example of the kind of thinking and debate going on within policy and energy expert community regarding best utilization of the gas resources keeping in mind India's food security, need to reduce oil imports, and achieving a cleaner emissions profile. These have been written by energy experts of Prayas Energy Group based in Pune.

Towards a rational, objective natural gas utilization policy, Ashok Shreenivas and Girish Sant, June 2009

Shortcomings in governance of natural gas sector, Ashok Sreenivas, Girish Sant, July 2009

Worth a read to get a flavor of the debates concerning policy and governance issues regarding these resources.