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In India’s Unequal Research System, Frugal Labs Are Bittersweet Gems

In India’s Unequal Research System, Frugal Labs Are Bittersweet Gems

Some of the attendees of the CUBE Conference held on August 7, 2016. Photo: HBCSE/TIFR

  • In state colleges and universities, where most of India’s science students study, frugal labs are helping overcome a severe lack of facilities.
  • In the spare rooms of colleges and homes, using very small living organisms, students are piecing together functional laboratories with day-to-day household items.
  • More than merely overcoming the absence of high-tech laboratory equipment, they ensure the curiosity and aspiration of budding scientists don’t wither.
  • Jugaad is regarded as a virtue that makes Indians more ‘innovative’, yet the romanticism surrounding it often obscures the circumstances that make it necessary.
  • These frugal labs fulfil an important need – but the need for their existence is something to worry about, not celebrate.

Jugaad is that unique Indian ability to resourcefully solve technical and organisational problems. It is widely regarded as a virtue that makes Indians more ‘innovative’ and ‘efficient’.

Yet the romanticism surrounding jugaad often obscures the circumstances that make it necessary.

Far away from India’s well-supplied ‘institutes of national importance’, in state colleges and universities, where most of India’s science students study, centres of research called frugal labs are helping overcome a severe lack of facilities.

Frugality is usually more desirable than jugaad – but not at the expense of resources that have been promised or are expected to be available.

In the spare rooms of colleges and homes, using living organisms found in the water, air and earth around them, teachers and students are piecing together functional laboratories with day-to-day household items. More than merely overcoming the absence of high-tech laboratory equipment, they ensure the curiosity and aspiration of budding scientists don’t wither.

Such frugal labs give the students an early and accessible gateway to producing scientific knowledge. But at one point, the continuing need to be frugal proves problematic.


Aspiration can come from anywhere. For Rechel Tirkey, as a child in Lalpania, Jharkhand, it was watching Kiteretsu, an animated show about a talented boy, that inspired her to become a scientist. In 2018, it took her 100 km away to Ranchi, where she began studying microbiology at the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee University (SPMU).

In the hostel, she just had a bed and a cupboard, but Tirkey itched for a lab space of her own. Then, on National Science Day (February 28), she heard a third year student talk about ‘Kitchen Labs’, a frugal lab the student had founded. Thus, Binita Ghosh gave Tirkey the opportunity she was looking for.

Currently a PhD student at Tel Aviv University, Binita Ghosh joined SPMU in 2015. Feeling the same itch Tirkey would later, she had started a lab by 2017 in the kitchen of the home of her 26-member joint family. By the time Tirkey got there, the university had also allotted Ghosh some space for the lab.

“They had fought for a lab and they got it,” Tirkey said.

But it was still less than ideal. It was next to the men’s toilet and it didn’t have water supply. It did have a pipe that led to the toilet. When that burst, someone had the idea to attach a tap to it and get some water to their own facility.

“Now we have distillation as well,” Tirkey said with a proud laugh.

Fighting for space is not notable in a city like Mumbai – even though that was all Mayur Gaikwad needed to start a frugal lab at Elphinstone College in 2017. They have had to move multiple times; now, his biotechnology students occupy what was once a storeroom.

On the window sills, students were growing moina – commonly called water fleas[footnote]genus Daphnia[/footnote]: some in beakers, others in old water bottles. Moina can survive in highly toxic, low oxygen conditions.

For many of Gaikwad’s students, that’s exactly what makes moina a fascinating organism to study. One of the students had a makeshift microscope attached to her phone camera so she could observe the crustaceans, which don’t get bigger than a millimetre.

Tirkey, who had also spent some time at Kitchen Labs studying moina, described a similar microscope she made using the lens in a laser toy she had bought for Rs 50.

“It gives 4x magnification and I can see the features of the moina clearly,” she said.

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The CUBE workshop

It is no coincidence that these labs, so far apart, have used the same techniques to build a portable microscope. They are related to each other via the Collaboratively Understanding Biology Education (CUBE) workshops at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE), Mumbai.

Ghosh had attended a CUBE workshop in her first year at SPMU. Back in 2013, Gaikwad was among the first batch of CUBE students when he was in the first year of his BSc at the Chandibai Himathmal Mansukhani College, Ulhasnagar.  CUBE inspired both of them to start their own frugal labs.

The workshops began in 2012 as a workshop series sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology. “It was initiated as a collaboration with Sophia College by M.C. Arunan and Nagarjuna G. – both faculty members at HBCSE,” Meena Kharatmal, a staff member and a PhD scholar at HBCSE, said. “Because it was free, soon many school students [of class VII and up] started coming.”

She has been at HBCSE for more than 25 years and is currently doing her PhD research on biology education in collaboration with teachers.

In a typical CUBE workshop, students spend the first half of a day working with hydra, earthworms, daphnia, moina and fruit flies. (Fruit flies are widely used in many areas of biological study as model organisms.)

With more experienced students as mentors, new students are tasked with keeping these organisms alive in a frugal and sustainable way. The problems they confront and the solutions they come up with help establish core concepts. They also help students make a stronger connection with their textbook material, which is often theoretical and divorced from the messiness of live biology.

“Say you want to trap fruit flies,” Kharatmal says by way of an illustration. “How will you attract them? By using bananas. Where will you put the bananas? Near the garbage, because fruit flies are attracted by the smell.”

In the second half of the day, students report on their progress while the mentors encourage them to celebrate their mistakes and think of ways to improve.

Gaikwad recalled one seventh grade student at a CUBE workshop whose moina turned red because he had added a few extra drops of milk, which is a source of bacteria for the moina to feed on. Moina turn red when the oxygen level drops because they increase haemoglobin production. This was eye-opening for the students as well as the mentors.

The added milk “led to a discussion on gene regulation. How do they increase the production of haemoglobin?”

One way an organism can increase or decrease the expression of a particular gene is by wrapping or unwrapping bits of DNA that codes for that gene. Histone, the protein that acts as a DNA wrapper, is made to loosen its bond with the DNA when the expression of a gene needs to be increased. Valproic acid prevents histone from wrapping itself around the DNA.

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A different classroom

When Gaikwad put the red moina back in high-oxygen conditions, this time in the presence of valproic acid, the moina stayed red. It was a sign that histone is involved in upregulating the haemoglobin gene[footnote]I.e. expressing the gene more[/footnote]. This was not a novel finding – but it was a frugal demonstration of several complex biological principles to school and college students.

Even after the students went back to their original locations around the country, they have continued to stay in touch and discuss what they learnt, in a series of webinars called ‘ChatShaala’ and on WhatsApp groups.

These CUBE sessions, according to Kharatmal, are circumventing the high cost of research equipment as well as are bridging a gap between textbook-based and experimental biology.

“We don’t do dead biology,” Kharatmal said. That is, CUBE workshops work exclusively with live organisms and eschew the traditional method of teaching biology using specimens preserved on a slide.

“Year after year, all those slides are preserved using paraffin and the organisms are preserved using formalin,” she said, referring to the way biological specimens are handled in other locales.

Working with live organisms, on the other hand, allows CUBE’s students to learn everything from ‘capturing’ them for study to their lifecycle. Of course, using preserved specimens is desirable because they allow scientists to maintain a record of where each one was found and thus track long-term trends.

But using them in a teaching laboratory requires a gatekeeper – like an instructor – to oversee how they’re used and to ensure they’re not broken.

“All these things are under lock and key, so there is no apna-pan” – Hindi for ‘ownership’ or ‘familiarity’.

Whereas with apna-pan, students are more confident about designing experiments to probe deeper into the biology of the organism, especially after they’ve nurtured the lifeform’s growth. “One has to be scared. Agar slide break ho gaya tho kya hoga? (‘What if the slide breaks?’) In our lab we say, ‘break whatever you want, make mistakes, but you learn’.”

It is this sense of ownership that Gaikwad said he has been seeing his students develop over the last five years.

When Elphinstone College, formerly part of Mumbai University, became part of Homi Bhabha State University, Gaikwad included research projects in the third-year students’ assessments at the frugal lab. For example, a group of three final-year students is currently trying to find out if multiple generations of moina grown in low-oxygen conditions will produce permanently red offspring.

Students begin working on these projects from their first year, leading to an interest in research that transcends their undergraduate degrees. “They think of themselves as researchers: they are not just consuming knowledge, now they are producing knowledge,” Gaikwad said.

What they ultimately produce become their final-year theses, in the form of physical documents. They will bear the official college stamp on them, but Gaikwad is not sure if they enter the public domain.

The fact that he didn’t ask his department for money helped – but Gaikwad is unhappy with the lack of institutional support. “Colleges and departments need to be more adaptive and open to this collaborative effort,” he said, referring to the extensive knowledge- and resource-sharing between CUBE labs across India.

But he also acknowledged the additional expectations of students. “At some point of time, there should be some funding [for better equipment]. It becomes tiring, the curriculum is vast. University and decision makers need to understand the context.”

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It’s a chain

Ghosh and Tirkey – the latter is currently pursuing an MSc at SPMU – have welcomed four batches of students at Kitchen Labs. When she was just getting started in 2017, there was considerable uncertainty. Ghosh said she used to have to persuade many members of her extended family that she wasn’t “going to kill anybody” – even as she had her own life to “figure out”. “I had no clue what to do at a lot of stages,” she said.

“Now, it’s a chain,” she said of the periodic admission of new batches of students. And she is confident the chain will keep going.

The Government of India is aware of the need for a research-based education. In its 2020 National Education Policy, the Union education ministry (then called the Ministry of Human Resource Development) said “less emphasis on research at most universities and colleges and lack of competitive peer-reviewed research funding across disciplines” as a major problem facing higher education in the country.

Frugal labs and their experimental, discussion-based pedagogy are plugging this gap – but they are doing so without financial and institutional support.

Even after SPMU granted Kitchen Labs some room on the university premises, there were many occasions, according to Ghosh, when its students had to go back to her place to finish their experiments – because “sometimes people didn’t like us and didn’t want us to perform experiments in college.”

At other times, because they weren’t supervised by a faculty member, they wouldn’t be allowed to use the facility after hours.

Shortly after the COVID-19 lockdown began in 2020, educational institutes shut. So CUBE began to promote ‘home labs’ among their network of students and mentors.

For example, one of Gaikwad’s students spent her first year of college (2020-2021) in lockdown at her home in Assam. With help from Gaikwad and the CUBE network, she collected moina from a pond near her house and grew them in her home. Now in her second year, she has moved to Mumbai and is working towards her final year research project studying moina.

In addition to clocking an average of five hours a week in the lab, Ghosh tutored students of classes V to XII for three hours every day, apart from also doing college work. What she made either went towards  her living expenses and  to the lab’s budget of Rs 3,000 rupees a month.

She knows first-hand the effort required to sate her curiosity. However, she also said, “Kitchen Labs happened because there were no facilities. It’s unfortunate, not something to celebrate. It’s something to worry about.”

Note: This article was edited at 7:54 pm on June 6, 2022, to differentiate between frugality and jugaad.

Siddhant Pusdekar is a candidate at the University of Minnesota’s Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour PhD programme.

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