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Department of Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology at the University of Dhaka: A Brief History

Professor Rafiqur Rahman

The department of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology is one of the newer departments of the University of Dhaka. The first batch of students took admission in 2001 and the 11th batch of students will enter the department in a couple of weeks. As many as four batches of students have completed their BS and MS. Many of these students have gone abroad to pursue advanced studies and may have entered job markets. The department has finally moved from Science workshop where it has been temporarily housed for about nine long years to its new niche on the 5th floor of the Science-Complex building on December 9, 2009. Since that memorable December day, a new day has begun for the department of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. A brief history of how we got here, where we are today is described below.

It was in the late nineties of the last century in one of those lazy but cheerful interacting hours of the teachers of the department of Biochemistry, Professor Syed Saleheen Qadri tossed the idea that when so many new department namely departments of Aqua Culture, Peace and Conflict, Women Studies, etc. were springing up, why not try to establish a department of Genetic Engineering and Molecular Biology which has a great deal more promise than the departments mentioned above, which were already in the  making being approved by the Academic Council of the University. In days or weeks I do not recall, the matter was  taken up by the Academic Committee of the department of Biochemistry and resolved unanimously to take steps to establish this new department namely department of Genetic Engineering and Molecular Biology.

We knew that the Vice-Chancellor was the key individual to make or break our resolve. Naturally if I recall correctly sometime in late 1999 one fine morning we, the teachers of the department of Biotechnology went to see the then Vice-Chancellor, Professor A.K. Azad Choudhury on the matter who was already demonstrating a great deal of dynamism in conducting the affair of the University. Professor Choudhury’s first and most spontaneous reaction to our proposal to establish the new department of Genetic Engineering and Molecular Biology was why you, distinguished colleagues didn’t, bring this very important proposal earlier? He told us it was late, but not too late. He gave us hope and in his usual style steam-rolled the proposal to establish the new department through various University bodies in no time with one important change and that was the new department would be Department of Generic Engineering and Biotechnology rather than Department of Genetic Engineering and Molecular Biology, which we proposed. That was it. We gladly accepted Vice-Chancellor’s proposition. A new department namely Department of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology was born; some would fancy and say a new department was christened.

No sooner the Syndicate of the University gave approval to establish the new department, the Vice-Chancellor appointed Professor Anwar Hossain of Biochemistry as Project Director of the new department. Prof. Hossain is also a dynamic individual. In a couple of months he and his associates prepared the most important document for the new department to start functioning academically and that was the syllabus. He deserves thanks from all of us for the good job he and his associates namely Professors Aftab Uddin and Sharif Akhtaruzzaman have done. There is absolutely no question that it was hard work. Prof. Hossain and his associates have also done another important work for the new department. They had prepared a project proposal to develop the infrastructure of the department which was submitted to the ministry of Science and Technology and Prof. Hossain has been able to pursue Dr. Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, the then minister in charge of the ministry of Science and Technology to grant taka fifty lacs. Dr. Alamgir deserves our thanks for the grant and for the importance he attached with the grant to give extra dynamism to develop the new department for the good of science and biotechnology in the country. After successfully completing his job as project director of the new department, Prof. Hossain moved to his parent department of Biochemistry to lead the department as its Chairmen for the next three years.

The Vice-Chancellor Prof. Choudhury then appointed Dr. Haseena Khan, Professor of Biochemistry and a leading molecular biologist of the country as the first Chairperson of the new department of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. At this is very moment in time the new Chairperson and the new department did not have a place/office form which Prof. Khan could operate her official responsibilities as the Chairperson of the new department. Despite the presence of sufficient space in some quarters of University the Vice-Chancellor was not able to sufficiently convince them to give some rooms to the new department. He was helpless and possibly temporarily helpless for not being able to provide a temporary operating office to the new department. In this difficult time of trying moment of the new department, Prof. Mesbauddin Ahmed of Physics, the then dean, faculty of science, currently Vice-Chancellor, Jagannath University, was kind to provide just enough operating space for office and class rooms in the science workshop building/shed. Thanks to Prof. Mesbauddin.

Despite many difficulties which appeared insurmountable at the time, Prof. Haseena Khan, the Chairperson of the new department gave a jump start to the department. It was heroic. She did not have a single faculty member of her own, however, she has been able to solicit and get the services of many faculty members of the departments of biochemistry, microbiology, botany, statistics, etc. and got the first academic session of the department start at 1999-2000 The current GEB family take this ten years celebration opportunity to express their grateful thanks to the distinguished teachers who have rendered invaluable services to the new department of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. Some of the respected teachers namely Professors Haseena Khan and Zeba Islam Seraj of the department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology have continued their uninterrupted services even to this day. Thank you very much Professional Khan and Seraj. Because of death of space, the new department could only take a dozen students every year. Speaking about dearth of space, the first couple of months the new department had no class rooms, no office space whatsoever. In that very difficult period it was the magnanimity of the department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology which had provided class rooms for the students of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. Grateful thanks to those respected Biochemistry colleagues who extended their helping hands to the new department in that hours of need when it was needed most.

Interestingly many of the top students of the country started to pour in into the new department. After four very difficult, tough but successful years Prof. Khan (24/1/2001 - 9/8/2005) left the Chair to make room for the next senior person of the department namely Dr. Anwarul Azim Akhand. Before she left Professor Khan has been able to recruit Dr. Anwarul Azim Akhand, as an Assistant Professor, Dr. Jesmin, Dr. Sabina Yasmin, Dr. Nazmul Ahsan, and Mr. Abul Bashar Mir Mohammad Khademul Islam as lecturers.

Dr. Akhand has also completed his three years term of chairmanship (10/8/2005 - 9/8/2008) with diligence and total dedication. Dr. Akhand also has done an admirable job under very default circumstances. During Dr. Akhand’s tenure the construction work of the new department in the fifth floor of the science-complex building has mostly been completed. Dr. AA Akhand is also a distinguished scholar. He was the recipients of TWAS 2004 and BAS 2005 Junior Scientist awards. Before he left the Chair of the department, Dr. Akhand has been able to recruit MD. Shahnooor Hossain and Mrs. Sanchita Rahnuma Khan as lecturers of the department in June 2006. Following Dr. Akhand, Dr. Jesmin has become the Chairperson of the department. Dr. Jesmin is also very hard-working dynamic individual. She has taken leadership of the department in August 2008.

After leading the department for about a year Dr. Jesmin went to Virtual Biology Laboratory, University of Nice, in the August of 2009 on a postdoctoral fellowship offered by the prestigious research organization namely CNRS. During her one year of administration before she went to France Dr. Jesmin recruited as many as six lecturers. Just before she went to France Dr. Jesmin had recruited three young second batch MS graduates namely Md. Mustaq Ibn Ayub, Mr.SM Mahbub Rashid and Md. Salim Ahmed as lecturers to replace Mr. Abu Ashfaqur Sajib, Md. Miraj Kobad Chowdhury and Mrs. Nazlee Sharmin who went abroad for doctorial studies. All these latter three young colleagues were from the first batch of MS graduates.  Mr. Sajib went to Manchester University, United Kingdom, as a Commonwealth Scholar, Mr. Miraj kobad Chowdhury and Mrs. Sharmin went to the University of British Columbia and University of Alberta, Canada, respectively.

While I have been talking about others. I thought I might jump in and tell something about me. Something good has happened to me during this period. I have joined the department of Genetic and Biotechnology as a Supernumerary Professor in May 2009. When the University handed me the appointment letter I was teaching in the department. A matter of fact I have been teaching in the new department right from day one of the academic activities of the department in 2001. My service to the department has finally become official since May 2009. Please don’t get me wrong. Before May 2009, my service to the department was not official because I did not ask for official status. It was as simple as that.

Following Dr. Jesmin’s departure for France, Dr. Nazmul Ahsan next in line to become the Chairman of the department because the acting Chairman for the period Dr. Jesmin would day in France. Dr. Ahsan is a young man with a great deal of idealism and dynamism. During the period Dr. Jesmin was in France Dr. Ahsan worked very hard and gave good leadership to the academic and other activities for the department. Dr. Ahsan has been able to begin and complete the difficult task of shifting the department to its own home on the 5th floor of the Science-Complex building successfully and efficiently. It was December 2009. Hurrah!

After spending over nine years in the shanty rooms of science- workshop, the department has finally moved to its own building, what a fantastic, exciting and joyous moment that was. The joy and excitement is still there amongst the students, the teachers, and the staff of the department and will remain so in the joyous mood for a considerable period of time.The joy is even more joyous when you think that in those very difficult nine years particularly for the students, they never complained of limited class rooms, limited laboratory and many other limited facilities. The student was just fantastic. The move to new premise was an occasion for celebration which was, of course, celebrated with great fun and felicity. That was January 2010. Now it is January 2011. In the mean time 3rd and 4th batch of students have completed their MS and many of those students have already gone abroad for higher studies. Jannat-e-Zereen one of our first batch MS graduates has recently received the doctor of philosophy degree from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Mr. Abu Ashfaqur Sajib, first boy of our first batch, a lecturer of the department as mentioned above, now a Commonwealth Scholar, is currently pursuing his doctoral programme in the University of Manchester, United kingdom, secured the higher marks in BS Hons, in his year amongst the students of the Faculty of Biological Sciences for which he was awarded a crest and a certificate. Another interesting story about award winning was that of Mr. Miraj Kobad Chowdhury, Sajib’s year mate, also a lecturer of the department, who is currently in the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, working towards his doctoral programme. It was in his second year that Miraj proposed a cost effective organic synthesis of gallic acid and trisodium gallate for which he received US 100 dollars gift voucher to buy books from Amazon. It was waved based one of those innocentive challenges organized by Innocentive Inc. USA (www2.innocentive.com). It was Mehadi, a year junior to Miraj, who told him about the innocentive challenges. Miraj now says that I inspired him then about solving the organic synthetic problem, and with that nice compliment for me I say Miraj, thank you and keep working harder.

After a gap of five years Ms. Nilanjana Paul secured the highest marks in the Hons. final amongst the students of Rokeya Hall for which she was awarded Gold Medal on 9 December, 2010, the day of remembrance for Begum Rokeya’s 100th birth anniversary. Congratulations to Ashfaq, Miraj and Nilanjana for their outstanding achievements.

Mr. Shafiul Azam, Mr. Mahdi Mohammad Moosa, Mr. Mehedi Hasan and Ms. Nusrat Sharmeen our MS graduates from the third and fourth batches were part of the Jute genome team lead by Professors Maqsudul Alam and Hasseena Khan whose hard work made it possible to sequence the genome of jute, golden fiber of Bangladesh. This was such an historic moment for Bangladesh biotechnology that the Prime Minister Sk. Hasina did not want to miss the opportunity to announce the historic event in the National Parliament House at Sher-E-Banglanagar on June 16, 2010. Meanwhile Minhaz Ud-dean, a fourth batch honors graduate who went to Europe to do his Masters has just published a paper in the prestigious Journal of theoretical Biology (264, 822-829, 2010) on “Structural explanation for the effect of humidity on persistence of airborne virus: Seasonality of influenza”. Minhaz is the lone author of the paper. This sort of thing does not happen very often anywhere in the world. The paper is already being cited by many senior investigators in the field in Europe and the United States. More on Minhaz‘s achievements: he was invited and presented two posters in the IET (Institution of Engineering and Technology) BioSysBio conference held in Cambridge, England in 23-25 march, 2009. These were later published in the form of two papers. He is currently in Germany working towards his MS in “Optics in Science and technology” supported by the Erasmus Mundus scholarship at Abbe School of Photonics in the University of Jena.

Three of our GEB family members have achieved the rare distinctions of getting invited to International Nobel Laureate Meeting held annually in Lindau, Germany. They are Mr. Abul Bashar Mir Mohammad Khademul Islam, lecturer, who is currently in Spain working towards his doctoral degree, Mr. S.M Touhidul Islam, a first batch MS graduate, at the present time pursing graduate studies in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship and Mr. Mahdi Mohammad Moosa, our fourth batch MS graduates, currently in Bangladesh, working with Professor Haseena Khan on jute genome. Mahdi captured the four year Hons. First position of his class. Mr. Khademul Islam and Mr. Touhidul Islam attended the 57th Nobel Laureate Meeting held in 2007, while Mr. Mahdi Moosa attended the meeting held last year, 2010. The annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings provide a globally recognized forum for the transfer of knowledge between generations of scientists. It is an opportunity for many young bright minds from around the world to interact with Nobel Laureates on a variety of scientific issues. You will be delighted to know that in last year’s Lindau meeting, out of 675 participants from 200 academic institutions of 68 countries our Mahdi Moosa was one of only 50 participants who had the distinction of getting selected to participate in ESOF2010 meeting held at Turin, Italy. ESOF or the Euroscience Open Forum sought to showcase European and International achievement right across the scientific spectrum and serves as an open forum for debates on science related issues.

Last year two of our MS students from the 6th batch namely Mr. Habibur Rahman Shubuj, who topped the list of successful students in the final 4th year examination and Ms. Tasnim Ahmed, who also done very in well in the final honors examination, have own two prestigious essay writing competitions. Both won the first prize. Habib’s topic was “Economy of Bangladesh after 10 years”. It was a Dhaka based competition comprising the institutions namely University of Dhaka, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), Dhaka Medical College, Begum Khaleda Zia Medical College and Jagannath University, while Ms. Tasnim wrote the nationwide competitive essay on “How can Bangladesh improve in global recession?” organized by Bangladesh Scholars Council (BSC). Meanwhile, Mohammad Monzur Sharif Sayeem, a final year hons. student, who was awarded a Summer Research Scholarship by the EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) last year (July-Aug.2010) to study about Molecular Biology of Alzheimer’s disease  in the Brain and Mind Institute at Basel. Sayeem was also one of the winners of ACI Pure Salt Deshke Jano quiz competition and collected taka one lack as second prize. Sayeem happens to be the young man who captured the first position in the Dhaka University ‘Ka’ unit Admission Test of 2006. Congratulation to Habib, Tasnim, and Sayeem from all of us

Meanwhile Dr. Jesmin has returned from France from last July and as usual has been working hard for the good of the department. She of course, joined as chairperson of the department, as she has to complete the remaining two years of her term. The new department has just passed ten years since the beginning in January 2001 as mentioned above. This will be celebrated on January 29-30, 2011. Everybody has been working hard to make the celebration event a great success. A great deal of infrastructure works is in progress in the department. The department will surely get a face-lift.

What about the academic activities of the new department? What do them tech? What sort of courses do they do they offer? What are the current student’s strength? What is the faculty strength?
Four batches of students have completed their BS and MS programs. The 5th batch of students are about to submit their thesis and get their MS in a couple months. At the present time there are four batches of students approximately totalling 50 students are working towards their BS and MS programmers.

The department has been offering a variety of courses and they are as diverse as fundamentals of genetic engineering, biotechnology, molecular biology, metabolism, enzymes, physiology and endocrinology, immunology, cell biology, development biology, Chemistry for biologists-I and II, spectroscopy, molecular genetics, proteomics, bioinformatics, environmental science etc.

What are the research interests of the teachers of the departments? Out of the last ten years, nine years have been spent in the science-workshop where as mentioned above the resources for any meaningful research have been extremely meagre to say the least. In addition, the course loads for every teacher have been and still are very heavy. Even then under very difficult circumstances most of the teachers have put in very hard work and made some good publications. At the present time Dr. Jesmin’s main research interest is on the so called in silicon study of gene regulatory networks (GRN) of type 2 diabetes the hypertension to understand the mechanism of cross talks between these diseases. Dr. Akhand has interest in signal transduction; in addition, he and Dr. Nazmul Ahsan are collaborating on a project on bioremediation of arsenic toxicity. Dr. Ahsan has also interest on (a) viral mediated cancer and (b) effects of various natural products on pathogenic microorganisms and cancer cells. Dr. Sabina Yasmin has been working on mutational variation in gene for B-thalassemia in Bangladesh population. Messers. Salim Ahmed, Mostaq Ibn Ayub, and Mahbub Rashid have been working with Professor Haseena Khan on jute genome.

Genetic engineering and biotechnology have taken root and has begun to grow in Bangladesh. It will continue to grow and will take time to mature. Hopefully some of the students who have graduated from the department in the last five years who are currently abroad will come back and serve the country and the depardent to help it grow and mature. The department may be new but it has already become a matter of envy of many older departments because it has been and still is attracting the top students of the country to its fold. The setup in the new building will take a lot longer to age and take shape than might have been thought at the beginning. The practical classes are still held in the old science workshop. The research laboratories have yet to take their right configurations. A great deal of help and cooperation will be needed from the administration to make these happen. We are hopeful that we will get the needed cooperation and help form the administration.