Monday, April 12, 2010

Prof. Venki Ramakrishnan's Autobiographical Essay

From Chidambaram to Cambridge: A Life in Science.

The essay will eventually find a home on the Nobel Prize website. The current version, hosted by The Hindu, lacks the pictures that Prof. Ramakrishnan included in the essay.

There's a lot in the essay that will be of interest to Indians; there are sections on his school and college education, and on his somewhat more regular visits to India since 2002. And also on how he has been treated like a rock star during his post-Nobel visit to India. "I have come to realize," he concludes, "that I have inadvertently become a source of inspiration and hope for people in India simply by the fact that I grew up there and went to my local university, but could nevertheless go on to do well internationally."

I had already listened to Venki's talk at IISc; it is still nice to see the details on people, places and cultures that had influenced the man.

Here's a short excerpt where Prof. Ramakrishnan's thoughts on the politics of scientific recognition:

The Politics of Scientific Recognition

People go into science out of curiosity, not to win an award. But scientists are human, and have ambitions. Even the best scientists are often insecure and feel the need for recognition. Our ribosome work led to lots of invitations to give seminars and speak at conferences. It resulted in my election to the Royal Society and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and also led me to receive a prestigious European prize, the 2007 Louis-Jeantet prize for medicine. Thus in both my scientific efforts and the recognition for it, I had succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.

Although few scientists are foolish enough to enter a field to win a Nobel Prize, ever since the 30S subunit had been solved, people would regularly bring up “the Prize” in conversations whenever I went to conferences or give seminars. It was clear to me that the ribosome was at least as important as other structures that had been awarded the Nobel Prize. But there were many more than three people who had contributed to the ribosome, even if one only counted principal investigators, which itself is a fictional view of the way modern science is done.

While we were solving the structure of the 30S subunit, I had mostly refused to be distracted by going to meetings to speak about our work. So it was something of a shock when only a couple of months after the atomic structures of the subunits came out, a prize in the USA was awarded to just one aspect of the ribosome, peptidyl transferase. It seemed to me that instead of waiting for the impact of the ribosome work to become clear and then thinking hard about what had really made a difference to the field, the committee had hurriedly decided on which three people they wanted to honor and then written a citation around them that would exclude the others. Richard Henderson, my director, suggested that I should accept more invitations to meetings and talks to get our story known if only to get proper recognition for our work, regardless of prizes.

Deep down, I felt that the scientific event that transformed the field more than anything else was the determination of the atomic structures of the ribosomal subunits and the functional studies that followed as a result, to which we had made a major contribution. However, international prizes for work on ribosomes always seemed to go to other people. So over the years, I had gradually come to accept that I would probably not get a major international prize for the ribosome, least of all the Nobel Prize. Once I had accepted that, I felt liberated and happier, but I have to confess that I felt some trepidation each October. Every time I learned the Nobel Prize was for something other than the ribosome, I would be relieved because it was a postponement of what I felt would be the inevitable disappointment. As the years went by, it seemed to me and many other scientists that there would never be a Nobel Prize for the ribosome because the problem of choosing three people out of all the contributors appeared insurmountable.


  1. Rainbow Scientist said...

    Thanks for the link. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the monologue.