Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, the Tamil Nadu-born winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, kept his connections with India and the State alive in recent years – not only to deliver scientific lectures, but also to listen to classical music in the sabhas of Chennai.
Most of his scientific career has been in the U.S. and the U.K. In the last decade Dr. Ramakrishnan revived his academic links with the land of his birth, and started collaborating with Indian institutions and interacting with Indian students and faculty. “After a long gap, he came for the Biophysics Society meeting at the University of Madras and delivered the G.N. Ramachandran Memorial lecture [in 2002],” said biotechnologist M. Vijayan, president of the Indian National Science Academy and an honorary Professor at the Indian Institute of Science, who had chaired that meeting.
P.K. Ponnuswamy, an expert in Biophysics and former Vice-Chancellor of the Madras and Madurai Kamaraj universities, remembers that visit, when Dr. Ramakrishnan impressed the scientific community with his presentation. “The slide presentation was a result of very hard work. Working on ribosomes is a very complex task. He was an authority on the subject even then,” said Dr. Ponnuswamy. The symposium organisers offered him an honorarium for the lecture, but he politely declined and instead wanted the university to use it for other purposes.
In December 2008, he visited the University of Madras again at the invitation of the Department of Biophysics to deliver lectures on ribosome structure. “During his interaction with us, he was appreciative of the work being done by our university such as techniques being used in X-ray Crystallography,” said N. Gautham, a Professor in the department. “He showed keen interest in the work being done by our faculty and students. There were long hours of discussions in the lab, exchanging ideas and expertise on current areas of research.”
He showed keen interest in classical music and found time to listen to concerts at various sabhas during visits to Chennai. “He told us that he is interested in music and wanted to spend time in The Music Academy,” says Dr. Gautham.
Although he was born in the temple town of Chidambaram, he spent much of his youth in Gujarat, where his father was Head of the Department of Biochemistry at the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda (now Vadodara). Dr. Ramakrishnan, known to friends and colleagues as ‘Venki’, earned a B.Sc in Physics from that university in 1971.
The university’s Head of the Department of Physics, A.C. Sharma, fondly recalls his visit to the university three years ago. “He delivered a talk on his subject and freely interacted with our students and faculty,” said Dr. Sharma.
Last year, the Indian National Science Academy elected him as a foreign fellow, while the IISc convinced him to accept its G.N. Ramachandran chair a few years ago.