V.T. Yadugiri, an S. Ramaseshan Fellow at Current Science, interviewed Prof. Venki Ramakrishnan just after he delivered a semi-autobiographical talk at IISc three weeks ago (see my post on that event). After covering his Nobel Prize winning work on ribosomes, the interview turns to his personal life as well as his views on doing science.
The whole interview is fascinating, and gives us a glimpse into the way Venki thinks and acts. It crystallizes our impression of Venki as a man who loves his science, as a man who likes to have no gap between his feet and the ground beneath, and as a man who's unafraid to speak his mind. I urge you to go read all of it [pdf].
I'll excerpt here the part where Venki offers a view on whether doing science in a developing country is any different from doing it in a developed country:
Do you see any difference in the way research is done in developing countries and developed countries?
I think, well, if you had asked this question 20 years ago, I would’ve said there’s a big difference because the amount of resources people had were very very different. They were even at different scales. I know that in my father’s department, there was only one spectrophotometer in the entire department, and everybody had to use that. That was a big deal to have a UV spectrophotometer. Whereas in a Western lab, every lab, or maybe surrounding labs, had spectrophotometers. It was a big deal to have a pH meter. But that’s all changed. So I think part of it is psychological. One thing that taught me at the LMB – when I went to LMB, I found that it was not that different in terms of its equipment. In fact, it was very crowded; it almost looked like a rundown place. There are all these centrifuges in the hallways, freezers in the hallways, and so on. It didn’t look like a posh place at all. Of course, it had almost every equipment you would need, but it was shared. It didn’t have hundreds of different kinds of equipment. It’s not that every group owned its own equipment. Expensive equipment is shared throughout the lab. So why did the LMB do so well? Why does it continue to do well? I think it’s a psychological problem. You have to say I’m not going to do boring derivative problems where I’m doing a second or third example of something that’s already been done, and I’m not going to learn that much new from it. I see a lot of that going on in India where something is done in one system and they’ll do it in another system. And I don’t think that’s going to lead to really important breakthroughs. Actually, if people wanted to, they could do particularly Indian problems. They could study specifically Indian plant diseases or even Indian biology. They could look at ecosystems and molecular biology related to it. Or they could compete on worldwide problems where all the molecular biologists are interested in it. They could go either way. And I think the worst thing is to do something where someone has established something in one, say E. coli, and somebody does it in some other bacteria. In general, it’s not going to be helpful.
As you said in your lecture, the first few proteins of the ribosome were published in Nature, the next in lower impact journals . . .
Exactly. Exactly. So that’s an example. You know, I could have made a career just going on doing that. And as long as I kept publishing papers, I would’ve gotten grants. And that’s the kind of mentality that we see more of here. But in good labs in the West, they would see immediately –- okay, this is not getting so interesting. We need to move on. Even with the 30S –- I could keep on doing a bunch of antibiotics. There are dozens of antibiotics, right? We just did six and we stopped. But if I wanted to publish a paper in say JMB or Acta Crystallogr., I could just do one antibiotic, one paper. And I could just make a career out of it. That would be the kind of thing I see more in India. But that’s a psychological problem. It’s not a problem of resources or infrastructure. I think if people had good ideas, at least my colleagues tell me, there’s plenty of funding.