Studying Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Bangladesh: A crisis of identity?

It has been six years since I started my study at Dhaka University. But I often ask myself: was it worth it to spend these six years here? The aim of undergraduate study is to create an educational foundation for a future career. But I can not say I have laid that foundation very well.

By the end of the university degree, one should be able to have a clear goal about how they are going to pursue the next stage of their career. A well-planned career is the only thing that guarantees success in the future. If you do not have such a plan you will fail to direct yourself towards anything - you will likely take some random paths eventually finding yourself nowhere.

Six years ago I had the plan to train myself as a geneticist. On the prospectus of Dhaka University, I saw a list of degrees that were being offered. That list had Genetics in it. So I decided to inquire about the application process. But soon I realized the title of the course had changed. The title of the degree was now BSc in Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. When I talked to some of the faculty members of the Department of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, I came to know that the department was mainly teaching Molecular Biology to train the students as Biotechnologists (and hence the name)!

At this point, I was a bit confused. Shall I pursue this degree? I decided to do some research on what I should expect to learn from this degree. I didn’t know what biotechnology meant and what should be taught in a Biotechnology course. I was dumbfounded by three big terms: Genetics, Genetic Engineering, Molecular Biology, and Biotechnology. 

Some internet digging told me that Biotechnology is the application of biological knowledge in the industry. Biotechnologists use the techniques and methods invented by biologists to develop a product or service. Examples of such products may include drugs, diagnostics, vaccines, or even food like cheese and yogurt. We should rarely expect biotechnologists to engage in basic research of biological disciplines such as biochemistry, microbiology, molecular biology, zoology, botany, and so on.

Molecular Biology, on the other hand, is the biology of biomolecules such as DNA, RNA, Proteins, Carbohydrates, and Lipids. A molecular biologist explains cellular events using molecules. Some of the most frequently used molecular biology techniques are the isolation, detection, identification, and tracking of biomolecules in cells and outside cells.

Genetics, in its earlier days, mainly involved the study of the relationship between genes and traits. But with the advent of DNA sequencing technology, genetics has evolved to become mostly about the analysis of DNA sequence and the role of this sequence in controlling the traits. Techniques used by a geneticist are very similar to the ones used by molecular biologists.

Genetic engineering is not a discipline, rather, it is a technique to engineer the genes or DNA of an organism to make it express some desirable traits. Through the use of genetic engineering, it is possible to develop recombinant microorganisms, genetically modified plants, and transgenic animals.

Therefore, the title genetic engineering and biotechnology should imply the use of recombinant DNA technology in the large-scale production of foods, industrial products, or treatment options. This is cool! Eventually, I did pursue this degree. The reason to chose it over other degrees was the quality of research of some of the faculty members.

But does it really make sense to provide an entire undergraduate program on genetic engineering? Is it possible for a person to have a sensible career by specializing in methods of engineering biological organisms? Maybe it is possible in R&D and in the emerging biotech industries. However, there is already a degree in molecular biology at Dhaka University which offers training on genetically modified organisms. It makes very little sense to create a separate discipline for genetic engineers just so they can specialize in the techniques of recombinant DNA.

It is high time, the genetic engineers and biotechnologists in Bangladesh, started doing some soul searching and asked themselves whether they wanted to brand themselves as biotechnologists or molecular biologists, rather than as genetic engineers.

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