Tulaib Azam, a 23-year-old from Mundji village in Kashmir, recently completed his master’s in biotechnology from the Central University of Kashmir. Over the last five years, he has been in touch with the mentors of JKScientists (JKS), a non-profit run by a group of young Kashmiri researchers to help school and college students, who had once visited the university for an interaction.
They guided him on career planning, even helping him draft his CV and statement of purpose. And earlier this year, Azam was selected as a research assistant on a project at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad. “The mentors also did mock interviews, which prepared me well to face the actual one at CCMB,” he adds.
It was 10 years ago, in 2011, that Mubarak Hussain Syed, now 39, started JKS. In the years since, JKS has mentored over 4,000 school and college students, helping them to pursue higher studies and excel in their chosen fields. The JKS mentorship programmes, which run through the year, include initiatives to help students join research labs for their dissertations as well as to guide undergraduates get into summer schools. The main mentors are from J&K but scientists around the country help with research opportunities.
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Over 200 students, including graduates and postgraduates, benefit from their programmes every year, says Syed. So far, they have stayed away from fund-raising, except to help students who were cut off from parents during the August 2019 shutdown and months-long communications blockade—and since the covid-19 outbreak last year.
The group’s impact has been even more palpable since the pandemic pushed schools and colleges online. For JKS too pivoted to a digital, one-on-one mentorship programme.
Umer Saleem Bhat, currently pursuing a PhD in neuroscience at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Mohali, Punjab, is one of the beneficiaries of JKS’ SPROUT mentorship programme, started in 2018. He joined it as an MSc student in biotechnology at the University of Kashmir. Now, he is a mentor and leads the journal clubs at JKS. “My own mentors at JKS helped me better channelise my efforts while I was looking for a PhD position outside Kashmir,” says Bhat. “The mentorship programme has great potential in sharpening the acumen of young and aspiring scientists from Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).”
Syed, the JKS founder-director who comes from the Wahabpora area of Kashmir’s Budgam district, says the aim of setting up JKS was to find a way to foster science education in the region, particularly among students from underprivileged and underrepresented backgrounds. “We take it upon ourselves to identify brilliant minds, nurture them and ensure they achieve their goals,” says Syed, a neuroscientist who is currently assistant professor of biology at the University of New Mexico in the US. Earlier this year, he was awarded the CAREER award by the US’ National Science Foundation for his current research project on mechanisms that regulate neural identity, connectivity and functions.
After a master’s in biochemistry from the University of Kashmir in 2005, Syed worked as a junior research fellow at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. In 2008, he went on to pursue a PhD in biological sciences through the Max Planck fellowship from the University of Münster, Germany. Later, he held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Oregon, US.
Syed’s efforts to give back to society began in 2011, when he was close to completing his PhD. Along with like-minded friends and young scientists from Kashmir, he felt the need to start an educational initiative. So they started a Facebook page, initially called Kashmir Scientists and later renamed JKScientists, to connect with students from the Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh regions. Now registered as a non-profit educational organisation in the US, JKS has more than 11,000 members, which includes students, teachers, scientists and research scholars.
Syed understands the challenges, ranging from lockdowns to curfews and internet shutdowns, that students in the region face. “While the infrastructure and resources are also limited, the education system is also outdated. Promising talent is not promoted. Most teachers and faculty don’t put in that extra effort to mentor individual students,” he says.
Students are not encouraged to ask questions, brainstorm and come up with novel ideas, says Syed. “As a result, when they come out of universities and colleges, they have a degree but lack the skills to communicate properly and professionally.”
JKS, Syed says, is also trying to encourage women students. “We have created a women’s support group and recently started an inspiring women series where successful women entrepreneurs and researchers share their experiences with younger people, especially with women students,” he says.
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Till 2019, JKS volunteers would visit students in schools, colleges and universities once a year to identify those who needed mentoring. But the lockdown in August that year, followed by the outbreak of covid-19 in 2020, have limited its offline activities. They have, however, continued online career counselling, mentorship programmes, lectures and awareness sessions—some on local TV channels in Kashmir. JKS members have also done their bit to donate and deliver essential medical supplies to healthcare workers across the Valley.
Syed and the mentors at JKS are hoping to resume normal activities in the near future. “Our next target is to connect to students and researchers from far-off places (where they have not done student-centric programmes yet) who lack the facilities and exposure to the diverse opportunities in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM),” he says.
This year, JKS plans to register itself as a non-governmental organisation in J&K as well as start a STEM centre in Kashmir to offer a physical space for discussions, skill development and counselling.
Majid Maqbool is a Srinagar-based journalist.