Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Prof. Venki Ramakrishnan's scientific journey

This evening, Prof. Venki Ramakrishnan, India's latest Nobel sensation, gave a talk on Baroda to Cambridge: A Life in Science to a 'not-even standing room' audience of over 1000 people.


Seema Singh, Mint's science reporter, has a blog post on Venki's lecture. She has remembered something Venki said right at the beginning of his talk: "I am going to start with some autobiographical details … because if the Indian press doesn’t know things about me, it doesn’t hesitate in making them up."

[End Update]

While his lecture had a semi-autobiographical flavour, it was a strictly professional affair: there was nothing at all about his family except for a stray quip -- probably intended as a joke -- about how the young Venki was 'repelled' by science because his parents were scientists.

While he acknowledged the early influence of Mr. T.C. Patel, an exceptionally gifted math teacher at school, he attributed his deep interest in basic science to Prof. S.K. Shah, Prof. H.S. Desai and Prof. Pandya, all in the physics department of M.S. University, Baroda. He praised them for modernizing the physics curriculum and for their enthusiastic teaching.

Venki clearly enjoys telling the story of how he ended up studying physics in college. It starts with the IIT entrance exam -- which he took without any coaching, and did not clear. It then moves to the CMC (Vellore) entrance exam, which he did not clear (he said CMC took very few men those days). A mini climax is reached when he reveals that he got into the Baroda Medical College, but only because he was among the the top 10 students in Pre-University exam. He then adds, "If there was an entrance exam for doing medicine at Baroda University, I would have flunked that too!" But the real climax is yet to come ...

In the meantime, thanks to his mother's encouragement, he had taken the National Science Talent Scholarship exam. He didn't mention it today, but he said somewhere else that he had a bet with his father (who wanted him to study medicine): if he won the NST Scholarship, he could dump medicine to pursue his passion in the sciences.

Conveniently, the letter announcing his NTS Scholarship arrived when his father was away! He used that opportunity to go to the University and seek a transfer to the physics department. This request prompted the clerk there to ask all his colleagues to come and take a look at this strange man who wanted to shift out of medicine and into physics...

This episode marks the first of several landmarks in Venki's scientific journey when he forced a decisive change in its direction. Another such landmark would be his decision to dump physics -- "In my third or fourth year of grad school, I realized that I could, at best, be a second- or third-rate physicist." He chose to become a biologist -- "Molecular biology was such a young field; breakthroughs were being reported almost every other week." He was so clear about this choice that he was even willing to go back to graduate school to study biology!

Within a couple of years, his career got the first major break in his new field -- a post-doc offer from Yale to work on ribosomes. His efforts to land a faculty position after his post-doc failed; after a short, frustrating stint at Oak Ridge (because it denied him a shot at doing independent research), he joined the Brookhaven National Lab for what would turn out to be the longest tenure (1983-95) of his career at one place.

When he came up for tenure, he was asked what he would do if he had tenure. His response was that he would go on a sabbatical. Which is exactly what he did; he spent a year at MRC in Cambridge, a place that he would return to in 1999 after a 4-year period as a professor at the University of Utah.

* * *

The second part of the talk was about his work on ribosome itself. While the technical details were beyond me, it was absolutely captivating to watch a great mind conveying complicated ideas using simple explanations. For example, we (normally) don't think of imaging and diffraction as the same thing: images live in 'real' space while diffraction patterns live in 'reciprocal' space. Venki, however, used a neat sleight of hand that implied that the diffraction pattern is essentially an image. Except that the image is obtained from the pattern using a computer whose role is 'essentially' that of a lens in direct imaging.

Right at the end, Venki turned to advice on what is needed to be able to do great science. He used Max Perutz's four Gs of success: "Geld (money), Geschick (skill), Geduld (patience) and Glück (luck)." He pointedly added that the four Gs didn't include 'genius'!

* * *

The Q&A drew out several refreshingly blunt candid responses from Venki: to a question about whether he had plans to return to India, he said, "The short answer is, NO!" To another question about his message to Class XII students about pursuing science, he said, "I don't have any message. I may have solved the ribosome structure, but it doesn't mean that I can advise people on this or that. I'm not a prophet!" To the person who asked him about his value system that sustained him and his scientific endeavours, Venki responded by saying he was first and foremost a scientist -- which means his science was guided by a pragmatic quest for solving specific scientific problems. Philosophy or value systems don't come into this picture.

* * *

I was intrigued by Venki choice to frame his scientific journey -- he kept referring (not just in his speech, but also in his slides) to 'wandering' into this and that.

When you listen to his story, however, it's clear that it's anything but a 'wandering.' Sure, there was luck, serendipity, being at the right place at the right time, generous people who were willing to give him a chance, etc. He did emphasize the role of 'Glück" at the end.

But running through this story of lucky breaks is his agency, his conscious, willful effort to steer his professional life. Several events in his life jump right at you: his choice to dump medicine to study physics at Baroda, his choice to dump physics after a PhD to go back to grad school to study biology, and finally, his choice to leave Utah for Cambridge, even though it meant an over 50% effective pay cut!

* * *

Let me end with his answer to someone's question about whether there was serious competition in his professional life. In response, he said he doesn't recall sleeping well during 1999-2000!


  1. Venkat said...

    Many thanks Abi, for the summary. Is there any chance that IISc would release the video? - Venkat

  2. Pratik Ray said...

    That part about diffraction pattern reminds me of a lecture I attended about 2 years back, by Ron Lifshitz. He used a neat technique as well using a laser pointer and a piece of paper to create a pattern that looked like a TEM pattern during his talk on quasicrystals.

  3. Yeti said...

    VR's career track seems to be awesome. Thats how it should be. No particular career track should be sacrosanct and for every one such based on any "realities", there should be alternate one equally attractive. If in future somebody can ditch S&T career based on interests and opportunities in arts, humanities, social sciences then the real university has come of age.

  4. Yeti said...

    Again..his answer to question reg. people moving to IT from basic science - "...people are free to chose their career" - is perfect e.g. of individualism. The society from family,school,colleges and univs create the environment for exercising the freedom of choice based on metrics/values which the very same instis. will shape/inculcate.

  5. B said...

    Thanks for writing this, Abi. The last part in your writeup is inspiring.

  6. Unknown said...

    thanks a lot for writting the golden words by him...it was my hard luck, i missed it.

  7. Pranav Dandekar said...

    Thanks, Abi, for the excerpts. This is the next best thing to being able to watch a video of his lecture. Your remarks toward the end about the role of luck (ref: wanderings) is right on. Here's an inspiring talk/article by Richard Hamming (http://paulgraham.com/hamming.html); he has a similar take on the role of luck in Feynman's life (can't paste an excerpt into this text-box, Blogger doesn't seem to like it).


  8. Wavefunction said...

    As Fleming said, when observation (read "success") is concerned, chance (read "luck") favors the prepared mind