He might have won the Nobel Prize this week, but Venkatraman Ramakrishnan still remembers the National Science Talent Scholarship he won as an Indian schoolboy as having spurred him into a career in science. In an email interview to The Hindu , he suggests that “instead of thinking about these prizes, what the government should do is concentrate on building a broad culture of respect for basic science and knowledge.
”Did you live in Tamil Nadu at all as a child? Or spend any holidays here? Do you still have any personal or family connections in Tamil Nadu?
I moved to Baroda in 1955 at the age of 3. I visited Tamil Nadu occasionally and until my mother’s death two years ago, my family owned a flat in Madras, where my aunt used to live.
Did any teacher or class inspire you to become a scientist?
I had an excellent math and physics teacher in high school named T.C. Patel, and in the university, I had truly dedicated professors in both physics and mathematics who gave me a sound foundation with which to pursue graduate studies.
I was the recipient of a National Science Talent Scholarship which was specifically [meant] to encourage students to go into basic science (rather than medicine or engineering which usually grabbed all the best students). I hope such schemes still exist in India.
How did you shift from physics to molecular biology? Was your father [a former biochemistry professor at Baroda University] an influence in your decision?
No. I was more motivated by the fact that biology seemed a more open field with lots of possibilities for making significant contributions.
What do you think are the practical implications of your research work?
One important practical application is in the design of new antibiotics based on these structures (ribosomes), something being done in various companies, including a company called Rib-X that I consult for and which was founded by Tom Steitz, one of the co-winners.
What are your observations about the state of science and research in India? Why are there so few Indian citizens among the ranks of Nobel laureates, although there are more of Indian origin?
I think it is a mistake to judge science by Nobel Prizes. In the last decade or more, funding for science has improved a lot in India, and there are now many excellent labs in my field in various parts of India. Instead of thinking about these prizes, what the government should do is concentrate on building a broad culture of respect for basic science and knowledge.
What leads you to work with young scientists, and how do you spot the potential in them? How do you motivate young people to pursue research?
I think it’s important to give young people the freedom to follow their ideas, and pursue their interests. I’m very grateful to have had many brilliant students and post-docs who have worked with me. Potential is often hard to spot, but a key factor is whether they express a genuine interest in the problem, and how they have thought about it.