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Lessons from Bangladesh

RIVERSIDE, Calif. Before he left for Bangladesh to conduct a workshop this summer, Glenn Hicks of the University of California, Riverside did not quite know what to expect. What he knew was that he would be leading a workshop, called "Workshop on Genomics and Proteomics," from July 16 through July 24 at the University of Dhaka, the premier public university in Bangladesh. What his brief visit to that country's capital taught him, though, was that education is critical for all of our futures and that with patience education could help overcome even great cultural and economic differences.

Aimed at providing an overview of genomics and proteomics, the workshop, the first of its kind that UC Riverside has offered in Bangladesh, was funded by the World Bank and hosted by the University of Dhaka's Botany Department.

"I learned early in the workshop that the faculty and students were aware of genomics and proteomics, but not in terms of a practical understanding of the technologies, theories and practice," said Hicks, an academic administrator of facilities at UCR's Institute for Integrative Genome Biology and an associate research plant cell biologist. "So an important goal was to present and discuss how these modern approaches can be utilized in a useful manner towards problems of interest to Bangladesh.

"I learned, too, that many of the research projects in the department were biotechnology-oriented towards solving problems that are important for, and in some cases unique to, Bangladesh projects like plant virus and fungal disease resistance, bioremediation, and production of biomass for feeds and fertilizers," he added.

Hicks found that although the University of Dhaka is a large university, its infrastructure is limited in terms of opportunities for the most up-to-date research and postgraduate studies utilizing advanced methods and technologies. For example, the laboratories he toured had basic equipment for molecular biology research, but access to advanced instrumentation was limited. Still, the students and faculty were eager to learn, he found, and sincere in their desire for more high-quality research.

"They have a strong hunger for more contemporary knowledge and hands-on scientific training," Hicks said. "Many of the faculty are smart and forward looking. They are acutely aware of the need to target new areas for learning. While some of the highest-technology equipment is not available to them as yet, procuring knowledge is what matters as a start. From there, meaningful projects and focused infrastructure can follow. This was noted by the vice chancellor of the University of Dhaka, Professor Siddique, whom I was able to meet. He was very supportive of future interactions with UCR."

The trip to Bangladesh, his first, was an opportunity for Hicks to make a significant contribution beyond the UCR campus. An early difference he made there was getting the workshop participants to ask questions in the ten lectures he presented.

"In the United States, we have this tradition of challenging and arguing constructively," he said. "We encourage this, and it is a resource that can drive scientific inquiry. The impression from my visit is that Bangladesh is a more formal, perhaps hierarchal society, and it is a challenge for students to step out of their traditional role. It takes some effort to get students to speak up and engage in open discussion."

His encouragement and teaching style paid off. After his first lecture Hicks found that the students became increasingly interactive, even interrupting with questions.

"I enjoyed seeing this develop," he said. "It drove home the point for me that in many cultures students are hesitant to ask questions or challenge constructively, but readily take the opportunity when presented."

Another early challenge Hicks encountered was that into his second lecture he realized he was not teaching at an appropriate knowledge level.

"I thought my starting point was appropriate, but I had to rethink it all," he said. "So I went back to my hotel and created many new slides to explain principles that the audience had not been exposed to. Once I could gauge the audience better, I was able engage them more effectively. They were much more comfortable after that and so was I."

Even before Hicks's trip, Bangladesh had ties to UCR. Several Bangladeshi students are being trained today by faculty within the UCR Dept of Botany and Plant Sciences and other departments. Further, the Institute for Integrative Genome Biology has several researchers with ties to Bangladesh, including geneticist Julia Bailey-Serres who works on flood-tolerant rice.

If given another chance, Hicks would readily lead a workshop in Bangladesh.

"My visit there was rewarding, and I learned about a new culture," he said "It took about two weeks of living and teaching there for me to truly understand that education is one of the important keys to increasing quality of life and reducing misunderstanding among people and nations. Such global outreach is yet another example of how UCR is fulfilling its mission as an institution of higher learning."


Contact: Iqbal Pittalwala
University of California - Riverside

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