Not many scientists would venture on such a mid-career move. And, not many are chosen for the Nobel prize. For the India-born scientist, Dr Venkatraman Ramakrishnan who shared the Nobel prize in Chemistry this year, the passion to pursue his subject of interest, ribosomes - components of cells that make proteins from amino acids - dominates everything else.
“I wanted to work on the ribosome structure. I had no idea how long it would take, but MRC was the place which would provide steady funding for the project. I was happy at Utah but moved to MRC as I knew ribosomes were important,” explained “Venki” as he is known, at a lecture to a jampacked audience at J N Tata Auditorium at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) here on Tuesday.
Few other speakers at IISc may have had the students and faculty jostling for seats like at Venki’s lecture. All the seats were occupied 45 minutes ahead of the start of the lecture. Scores of students sat on the floor and aisles.
The 57-year old scientist took the audience on a journey through his academic career right from schooling in Baroda to his present position as structural biologist at the MRC Laboratory and also touched on his research .
Later, replying to queries from reporters even as he was mobbed by autograph-seeking students, the scientist said society should encourage students interested in taking up research in pure sciences.
It is but natural
On the general trend of students tending to gravitate to medicine and engineering he said, “It’s not just confined to India. People tend to go to places where they can have high standards of living and a good job, it’s natural.”
The Nobel laureate feels there is plenty of scientific passion in India. “People are interested in science here as anywhere else,” he said.
Venki’s presentation showed what ribosome looks like and how it functions at the atomic level. Venki used a method called X-ray crystallography to map the position for each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of atoms that make up the ribosome. The scientist’s research on how different antibiotics bind to the ribosome has opened new doors in scientific research. These models are now used by scientists in order to develop new antibiotics.
“It is possible through the studies to tinker with the structure of antibiotics to reduce their toxicity,” he said.
Any message for students here in India ? “I am not qualified to give messages. I do not have a broad thinking about education nor I am an educator”.