‘Science doesn’t stop because you have received a big award’

Plain speaking:Nobel Laureate Venki Ramakrishnan delivering the TNQ distinguished lecture, in Chennai on Wednesday.K.Pichumani

Plain speaking:Nobel Laureate Venki Ramakrishnan delivering the TNQ distinguished lecture, in Chennai on Wednesday.K.Pichumani  

As Nobel Laureate Venki Ramakrishnan wound up his talk, he played on the large screen behind him an animated video of sorts, showing how ribosomes work. As the 3D image spun on screen, colourful long chains of amino acids bind, grow, bend, unbind making sure the key task of synthesising proteins is done, nearly with the joy of an animated Disney sequence. At this point, watching the coloured links dance on screen, it would have been easy enough to forget the immense effort that went into crafting the structure of the ribosome, a story that he told over just an hour.

His talk, delivered as part of the 10th edition of the TNQ Distinguished Lectures in the Life Sciences 2020 — ‘My Adventures in the Ribosome’ — turned out to be quite animated too, mixing autobiography with a dash of the scientific process, and some very plain speaking by a Nobel Prize winner, his tongue in his cheek often.

Mariam Ram of TNQ Books and Journals provided details about the lecture series that began in 2008, and N. Ram, Chairman, The Hindu Group of Publications, introduced the speaker.

Dr. Ramakrishnan led up to his long, painstaking research on the ribosome, telling the audience how he with his modest education in India, went on to the United States to specialise in Physics. Remember the following, because he keeps coming back to it, and often doles out as a tip: When he figured that it would be difficult to get major breakthroughs in physics, he moved on, not hesitating to go back to graduate school to study biology. The rest, as they usually say, is history, but he spent a good part of the hour he had to talk about how the journey, and the race to the decode the final structure of the ribosome was fraught with problems, big and small, and how it was achieved with help, and a spirit of competition and rivalry fuelling it on.

And then, the Nobel. He had given up hopes of a Nobel by the time the call finally came. The prize is given, he argued, not for being a great scientist, but for an important discovery or advance, and some might just have lucked into it. “Science is not one dimensional, many contribute in many different ways, and it is difficult to say who contributed more.”

While he jokes that a laureate gets catapulted into the limelight, and suffers from ‘post-Nobelitis’, a condition in which all the sudden attention goes to his/her head, he acknowledges that the Nobel is not ‘the end of science,’ ínstead it is ‘sort of a by product, even a distraction.’

“Science doesn’t stop because you have got a big award,” he told his audience. Clearly, his adventure in the ribosome is far from over.

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