From Chidambaram to Cambridge: a life in science

GRADUATE STUDENT: A 1975 picture of V. Ramakrishnan. 'I often joke,' the Nobel laureate says, 'that if I had graduate students like me, I'd fire them!'. PHOTO COURTESY: V. RAMAKRISHNAN  


I was born in 1952 in Chidambaram, an ancient temple town in Tamil Nadu best known for its temple of Nataraja, the lord of dance. When I was born, my father, C.V. Ramakrishnan, was away on a postdoctoral fellowship in Madison, Wisconsin, with the famous enzymologist David Green. Because he came from a poor family, he did not think that he could support my mother and me on his postdoctoral income, so he went alone. I often joke that but for this, I would have been born in Madison and could have gone on to become President of the United States. In fact, I first saw him when I was about six months old. My mother, R. Rajalakshmi, taught at Annamalai University in Chidambaram, and during the day, I was well cared for by aunts and grandparents in the usual way of an extended Indian family. When I was about a year and a half, my father left again, this time with my mother, to go to Ottawa on a National Research Council fellowship. They returned a little over a year later, and during their absence I was brought up by my grandmother and my aunt Gomathi, to whom I remain close to this day.

At the age of three, my parents moved to Baroda (now appropriately called by its Gujarati name of Vadodara, which refers to the abundance of banyan trees that the city used to have), where my father was appointed at an unusually young age to head a new department of biochemistry at the Maharaja Sayajirao (M.S.) University of Baroda. When he started the department, there was just some empty lab space with no equipment or people. He managed to acquire a low-speed table-top centrifuge, and would get blocks of ice from a nearby ice factory, crush them, and place them around the centrifuge so that his samples would remain cold during enzyme purification .

With this setup he managed to publish two papers in Nature in quick succession.

Within a few years, the department was well established in both teaching and research, and equipped with instruments, a cold room and an animal house.

Unusually for an Indian man of his generation, my father, being aware of my mother's intellectual abilities, encouraged her to go abroad by herself to obtain a Ph.D. She obtained a fellowship in McGill University to do a Ph.D. in psychology.

Probably because she felt guilty about leaving my father and me behind, she finished her Ph.D. in under 18 months, which must be something of a record. When she returned, she could not find a suitable position in the Psychology Department in Baroda. Instead she used her analytical skills to help my father in his research, working initially as a CSIR pool officer, which was a temporary scheme by the Government of India to support scientists returning from abroad. This was the beginning of a lifelong collaboration in their work. My childhood and adolescence were filled with visiting scientists from both India and abroad, many of whom would stay with us. A life of science struck me as being both interesting and particularly international in its character.

My move to Baroda was something of a culture shock initially because until the age of three I only spoke Tamil, a language that I unfortunately no longer speak well. One of my earliest memories is of standing in a playground not being able to understand a word of the Gujarati the children were speaking. This feeling of being an outsider has remained with me for much of my life, as my career has taken me to various countries. Because my parents did not speak Gujarati either, they enrolled me in what was then the only English language school in town, the Convent of Jesus and Mary School, which was located next to a large military base.

Shortly after my sister Lalita was born in 1959, my family went to Adelaide, Australia in 1960-61. I remember the year in Adelaide as one of the most carefree years of my childhood, and returned with an Australian accent that my former schoolmates could hardly understand.

The rest of my schooling was at the Convent School. By that time, there were other English schools in Baroda, and the nuns who ran the school decided to convert it to a girls' school and no longer admit boys. They allowed those boys who had enrolled to stay on, but by attrition, our class kept losing boys, so there was a roughly four to one ratio of girls to boys when I graduated. Perhaps because of this and the fact that my mother and sister both went into science, I have felt perfectly comfortable among women even when I am the only male present, and there have been times when my lab has consisted almost entirely of women .

During the 7th – 9th grades, I dropped from being at or near the top of my class to being in the bottom third. Rather than studying, I spent my time playing and reading novels and other extracurricular books. Luckily, in my last two years I had a dedicated science and mathematics teacher, T.C. Patel, who made those subjects come alive. A strict disciplinarian, he nevertheless had a twinkle in his eye as he would expose us to clever ideas and difficult problems. This sparked my interest in my studies again, and I graduated second in my class overall despite the fact that I did very poorly in Hindi, a language that I never managed to learn well.

Choosing basic science

By the time they finished high school, students in India were separated, as they are in England but not in America, into those who are going into science, medicine or engineering, and those who plan to study the arts or humanities. Although I liked literature and did well in my English class, studying English was never really an option I considered seriously, especially given the scientific environment in which I grew up. Additionally, the cultural climate in India makes it difficult for good students to choose to study the humanities unless they are particularly strong willed, because parents are too often opposed to what they see as a risky career choice.

Accordingly, I enrolled in the pre-science course at my local university, the M.S. University of Baroda. This was a one-year preparatory course before students chose to go into medicine, engineering or basic science. The pre-science course had an excellent curriculum in both physics and mathematics, largely due to forward thinking faculty in those departments. However, the teaching of botany and zoology was very old-fashioned and involved memorisation of lots of facts in a relatively unconnected and tedious way. As a result, I was not particularly interested in the life sciences at that stage.

A critical decision that students have to make after their pre-science year is whether to go into medicine or engineering. Generally, those students who did not get accepted into either of these went into basic sciences as a last resort. My mother however had just become aware of the National Science Talent Search Scholarship by the Government of India, which was modelled after the Westinghouse (now Intel) Science Talent scholarships in the USA. A condition was that the recipient had to major in a basic science. She encouraged me to take the scholarship exam, and arranged for me to do the required research project with a colleague of hers in the Biochemistry Department on quantifying the amount of nitrogen fixation by leguminous plants, which was somewhat ironic given my general apathy towards biology courses.

At the end of the year, I also took national entrance exams for the famous Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and for the Christian Medical College in Vellore, one of the finest medical schools in India, but which had a very small quota for males since it was founded to train female doctors. I did not do well enough to qualify for admission to either institution. However, as a result of doing well in my university exams, I was offered admission to study medicine in Baroda. In the meantime, however, I was offered the National Science Talent Scholarship.

I had made an agreement with my father, who wanted me to study medicine, that if I was awarded this scholarship I could choose to study basic science. That decided, there was the further question of where to do my undergraduate studies. I briefly considered going to Madras, which would have reconnected me with my Tamil roots, but a faculty member in the physics department in Baroda, S.K. Shah, told me about a brand new curriculum they were introducing for their undergraduate course. It began with the Berkeley Physics Course, and was supplemented by the Feynman Lectures on Physics before moving on to more specialised areas. I therefore decided to enrol in the B.Sc course in physics in Baroda, my hometown. Since I was only 16 when I began this course, I sensed that my parents, especially my father, were relieved that I was not leaving home at an age when they felt I was not sufficiently mature emotionally.

My teachers in physics, especially S.K. Shah and H.S. Desai, were very excited to be teaching the new curriculum for the first time, and their enthusiasm was infectious. I also had several excellent mathematics teachers, including the scholarly S.D. Manerikar, who discarded our exam-oriented Indian textbooks and taught us from books like Hardy's “A course of pure mathematics” and Courant's textbooks of calculus. It was during this time that I first met Sudhir Trivedi, who has gone on to a successful career in applied physics in the USA and become a lifelong family friend.

When we had a boring class, we would often skip it. Once he and I sat near an open window and decided to jump out of it as soon as attendance was taken to go off and have tea and snacks at a nearby restaurant. His jump created a loud thud so I could not follow because the professor was staring directly at me.

Towards the end of my undergraduate studies I had to decide where to go to graduate school. The normal route for science students was to do a master's at some university in India before thinking of going abroad. As a Science Talent Scholar who was doing well, I would have been accepted almost anywhere. However, my parents were doing a short sabbatical at the University of Illinois in Urbana at this time, so it was tempting to spend the summer with them and go on to graduate school in the United States. By the time I applied, it was too late to take the GRE and without it almost no universities would consider my application.

At about this time, my chairman N.S. Pandya brought to my attention a letter from the physics department at Ohio University, which said they were looking for qualified students for their graduate programme. I wrote them a letter of inquiry and soon afterwards was accepted with a fellowship. I was living alone when the acceptance arrived, and was absolutely thrilled to be going to graduate school in the USA, a land I associated with many of the great scientists whose textbooks I had studied, including Feynman, Purcell and others. I arrived in America a month after my 19th birthday.

Graduate school in the USA

When I got to graduate school in Ohio, I was surprised to see that over half of our class consisted of foreigners, many of them from India. I passed the obligatory comprehensive exam after two years of coursework, and then chose to work in solidstate theory with Tomoyasu Tanaka. For my proposal, I had considered doing some theoretical work on biological systems, but since neither he nor I knew any biology, this did not go anywhere. The problem I took on was to look at ferroelectric phase transitions in potassium dihydrogen phosphate. This was a particularly difficult time for me, since I had no feel for the problem or even what the basic questions we were trying to understand were. It was the first time in many years that I felt I had chosen the wrong field.

The result was that I felt so frustrated that I withdrew from my thesis work and spent an inordinate amount of time on extracurricular activities. I went hiking and hopped on freight trains with my good friend and classmate Sudhir Kaicker, learned about western classical music from another friend, Anthony Grimaldi, played on the chess team, read literature, and went to concerts. In short, I did everything except make progress on my work. Tomoyasu was far too kind and patient, but even he would get worried every few months and ask how I was getting on. I was too embarrassed to tell him that I wasn't getting on at all! I often joke that if I had graduate students like me, I'd fire them!

It was during this time that I met Vera Rosenberry, who was majoring in painting and was introduced to me by mutual friends because, unusually for the early 1970s in Ohio, we were both vegetarian. After an intermittent courtship that lasted only 11 months in total, we were married in 1975. She has been my companion and friend ever since, and has not only done most of the work of raising our children but uprooted herself many times to move with me all over the USA and to England. The emotional support and stable home environment she provided has been invaluable to me and my work. During that time, in addition to painting, she also became a children's book writer and illustrator, and has published over 30 books.

After my marriage at the age of 23, I was suddenly no longer alone but had a wife and a five-year-old stepdaughter, Tanya Kapka. This sudden change in my responsibilities made me realise that I had to get on with my career. I produced a passable thesis in the next year and obtained a Ph.D. in physics in 1976 just a month before our son Raman was born. But by that time I had already decided I was going to switch to biology.

Transition to biology

Since I hardly knew any biology, I felt I needed formal training of some sort. When three schools accepted me into their graduate programme, I chose to go to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). My first year [there] was tremendously exciting. For the first time in my life, I was at a university that was at the forefront of international research.

In my second year, however, I read an article in Scientific American by Don Engelman and Peter Moore about their ribosome work, and became interested in it. I therefore wrote to Don Engelman, who wrote back and said that he and Peter had a position open on their ribosome project. Peter arranged to meet me in San Diego in early 1978 and offered me a postdoctoral position soon afterwards. Thus began my lifelong interest in ribosomes. — © Nobel Foundation

( This is the first part of an excerpt from an autobiographical essay by 2009 Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry V. Ramakrishnan, made available exclusively to The Hindu . The whole essay, which will be available at The Hindu website on April 9, 2010, will be published by the Nobel Foundation in a few months.)

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