BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 8 March 2016
Presented by Professor Jim Al-Khalili
The most surprising thing about Venkatraman Ramakrishnan is that despite winning the Nobel Prize in 2009 for discovering the structure of the ribosome, as a young man he failed to win a place to study medicine at India's prestigious Institutes of Technology. Speaking to Professor Jim Al-Khalili, for his BBC Radio 4 series 'The Life Scientific', Venki – as he's better known - discusses his academic journey, his views on the Nobel Prize and his current role as president of the Royal Society.
Professor Ramakrishnan was born in India to biochemist parents, but it was not a given that he would follow in their footsteps. His father wanted him to pursue a career in medicine while his mother, sensing that he was more drawn to studying pure science, encouraged him to apply for a National Science Talent Scholarship. 'This was a government scheme to encourage students to go into basic science rather than medicine or engineering,' explained Professor Ramakrishnan. Venki made a deal with his father that if he was awarded the scholarship his father wouldn't interfere with his plans to study pure science. 'As it turned out I did get the scholarship,' says Venki.
He completed his PhD in condensed matter physics at Ohio University in 1976 but soon became bored – he felt he spent all his time completing secondary calculations rather than making intellectual breakthroughs. Meanwhile, his interests turned to molecular biology.
Taking a leap in the dark, in 1978 he completed a PhD in biology at the University of California, San Diego, having to learn everything from scratch. As someone who has moved from engineering into a biological area myself, I can appreciate the effort and patience this must have required.
'I felt the correct way to do it was to go to graduate school and acquire a broad background in biology, and in fact I even took undergraduate courses and felt that was essential in converting me into a biologist,' he explains. 'If you don't have a strong foundation you can't really do original work but you'll end up doing incremental work in this narrow field.'
After his PhD, he moved to Yale and began the work on ribosomes that would later earn him a Nobel Prize. Ribosomes are the molecular machines within our cells that turn genetic code into biological reality – they use the information contained in our DNA to produce the proteins that build cells and drive all biological processes.
His work elucidating the structure of ribosomes made use of his background in physics, involving such techniques as neutron scattering and X-ray crystallography. 'My lab was split between work on chromatin, which was also at a very exciting stage, and the ribosome, and I essentially stopped all of the work on chromatin and put all my eggs in the ribosome basket,' says Venki.
Just a few years later, in 1999, taking another leap of faith, Venki left his tenured position at the University of Utah, took a pay cut, and emigrated with his family to the UK to join the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. The stakes were higher this time as his wife said this was the last time they were moving together, and if he wanted to move again he would be doing so alone! But Venki felt he had to stay true to himself and fulfil his aspiration of generating real understanding rather than just more data.
Professor Ada Yonath and Professor Thomas Steitz were prominent figures at this time also working on the ribosome, and their research focused on its larger subunit. Professor Ramakrishnan decided to explore the structure and function of the smaller ribosomal subunit, known as the 30S subunit.
'I didn't want to enter a three-way competition and thought why not work on another subunit (30S) which nobody seems to be focusing on but there was plenty of work to be done?' says Venki. When the other groups also decided to focus on the 30S subunit, Venki suddenly found himself in a race. Although not normally a competitive sort of person, the quiet and reserved professor realised could not afford to lose this race.
When Venki finally identified the structure of the 30S ribosomal subunit, he says he 'started dancing around the office outside the synchrotron, telling my lab, ''You know, we're going to be famous!''.'
Researchers around the world had shown that ribosomes were the targets of various antibiotics, and now that Venki had identified the structure of the ribosome it was straightforward to observe the interaction between antibiotics and the ribosome. 'It turns out about half of all antibiotics target the ribosome, so we opened the door to the design of new antibiotics,' he explains.
Eventually, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009, along with Professor Yonath and Professor Steitz, for their efforts in providing insights into the structure and function of the ribosome. Although Professor Ramakrishnan is grateful for the award, he told Al-Khalili that he believes the Nobel Prize is a bad thing for science as a whole as it can affect a scientist's approach to research: 'It’'s a terrible thing, a very distracting thing for science,' he says.
Fellow researchers kept telling him he was a great candidate for the Nobel Prize, and over time it began to distract him from his actual research. 'You begin thinking of pitching your work in a certain way,' he explains. After getting into a scientific argument with a Swedish researcher who happened to be on the Nobel Prize committee, Venki was quite confident he would not be awarded the prize and said the feeling was very liberating. 'I just wanted to move along with the next problem in the ribosome without worrying too much about the politics of the Prize.'
Even though Venki is not the sort of person to crave the limelight, when he was approached to become President of the Royal Society he felt he could not turn it down. This was his way to 'pay back Britain' for supporting his science when he arrived here back in the 1990s. 'It was a big honour. I had only lived in UK for 15 years but it shows the openness of British science,' he told Al-Khalili.
Personally, I found it very refreshing to hear about Professor Ramakrishnan's journey and his dedication to science. It was particularly inspiring to hear about how he stayed true to himself, professionally and personally. Fame and money may be attractive but intellectual curiosity and the benefit of research to society must be the driving forces of science.
I thought Jim Al-Khalili was a great host – he asked key questions without being too intrusive and made the interview enjoyable, interesting and accessible to everyone. Professor Ramkrishnan ended the documentary by saying that he would like to make science more inclusive and central to society. 'We're born scientists, and the reason we stop being scientists is because we associate it with people in lab coats or in front of computers. But science is simply knowledge about the world around us, and we're all curious about the world around us, so we're all scientists, and you should enjoy it.'