x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Manipal University to offer doctorates

The Dubai-based Manipal University is the fifth in the city to launch PhD courses.

DUBAI // After 11 years in the emirate, India's Manipal University is turning its focus on research, with the launch of its first PhD course this autumn.

The country's first doctorate in biotechnology will start in October, with perhaps four students researching areas such as immunology and genetic disease.

It is only the fifth Dubai institutions to offer doctorates. In the academic year that finished last month, just one in 250 of the emirate's students was reading for a doctorate.

"It adds prestige to an institution," said Manipal's director, Dr B Ramjee. "The future of biotechnology is thoroughly important … both in industry and academia."

The biotechnology department is headed by Dr Firdos Alam Khan, who stressed the rapid growth in the importance of his field. "Medics only know how to deal with patients and engineers only know how to deal with instrumentation, but we need people who deal with issues such as physiology, biomedical engineering and toxicology," he said.

"We've seen many students who wanted to pursue their research careers beyond master's level, but couldn't. There are many mutations of genetic disorders here, for example, which are not found anywhere else in the world. Not only that, but strains of cancer can be different to those traditionally found in Asian or Caucasian populations. Identifying these mutations is important to give to industry so they can find the target drugs."

The course has received more than 20 applicants so far, but there is one major stumbling block: a lack of funding and grants. All candidates will have to pay about Dh35,000 a year for a minimum of three years to cover teaching, laboratory use and consumables. This lack of financial support, says Dr Khan, comes from industry's lack of understanding of the importance of research.

"The federal Government needs to encourage more involvement of industry," he said. "They need to come up with some kind of subsidy so they encourage industry to do their own research and development. Industry's priority here is marketing, not research."

Shalini Behl, 27, hopes to be accepted on the course. She, like all the applicants so far, is Indian, and says the reputation of Manipal in India was a big factor in her choice. Although she is prepared to pay to advance her academic career, she hopes that in time there might be grants to subsidise her research.

Mrs Behl has spent two years researching immunology after completing her master's at Banasthali University in northern India, and moved to the UAE with her husband three months ago.

"Hopefully my research can get funding from agencies in India," she said. "Without grants, it's very difficult to do good research."

Biotechnology is offered at just a handful of universities in the UAE, including the University of Sharjah and the Biotechnology University College in Dubai - and only as a first degree.

Researchers at Manipal Dubai are already working in areas relevant to the UAE, such as thalassaemia, a common genetic disease in the region.

Tavoos Hassan Bhat, a health and safety officer at Mafraq Hospital in Abu Dhabi, believes a PhD from Manipal would give him many opportunities here and in India. He has a master's degree in biomedical science and has been researching immunology with a focus on rheumatoid arthritis, in India.

He could not afford to take his studies to the PhD level and came to the UAE for work. Now he hopes to study part-time while working at the hospital.

"I came here for the job but this would be perfect for my situation now if I could do my studies at the weekends," he said.

Manipal, one of the first foreign universities to establish a branch campus in Dubai in 2000, with just 100 students, is now one of the largest private universities in the emirate, with about 1,600 students.

It is also planning to open a medical school - within two years, according to Dr Ramjee - that will offer courses including nursing, pharmacology and dentistry.

Currently, there is just one medical school in the emirate, the Dubai Medical College for Girls, a gap that Dr Ramjee says the university hopes to fill.

mswan@thenational.ae