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17 June 2013 Society Cover Story | Smart Indians

Venkatraman Ramakrishnan

The Smart Biochemist - 61 years | Cambridge, UK

“People go into science out of curiosity, not to win awards. But scientists are human and have ambitions. Even the best scientists are often insecure and feel the need for recognition,” writes Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, a 2009 Nobel laureate in chemistry, in his autobiographical article for the Nobel institution. Venkatraman’s journey to the acme of international recognition has largely been driven by focused curios­ity, unclouded by hunger for recognition. Peers would have seen some of his career decisions—forsaking an MBBS seat to do a BSc, for instance—as risky or unwise. Serendipity has brought him full circle: the Nobel he shared with Thomas A. Steitz and Ada E. Yonath “for studies in the structure and function of the ribosome” could influence the making of new antibiotics.

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His studies of the structure and function of the ribosome could help create new and powerful antibiotics.

‘Venki’ was born in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, but grew up in Baroda. In the 1960s and 1970s, Baroda was a quaint town, still in the benign shade of its many banyan trees and its erstwhile Gaekwad rulers. His father was head of the biochemistry department at the Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad University, established by and named after the progressive ruler. His mother, R. Rajalakshmi, had a doctorate in psychiatry from the US. Venki went to the town’s only English medium school. Of what he absorbed at home, he writes, “A life of science struck me as being both interesting and  international in character.”

Much of Venki’s career has been abroad, mostly in the US during his early years. He acknowledges the role of mentors at every stage; also that of family and friends, who stood by him through crucial decisions. One such was the move to Cambridge from Utah, in the US, where he was doing very well. “Many in my family were ambivalent about it, but my mother encouraged me to put aside my fears,” he writes. “Vera (my wife) and I finally decided to leave Utah, where we were very happy, take a 40 per cent salary cut and move to the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge.” Here, he concentrated on the work that brought him a Nobel. He considers Cambridge home. The UK has conferred a knighthood upon him, India a Padma Vibhushan.

It’s only over the past decade that he has been revisiting India. The controversy over how many Indians suddenly claimed they knew him when he won the Nobel is forgotten, and he has associated himself with many science institutions here. “This reconnection...has given me great satisfaction. I realise I have inadvertently become a source of inspiration and hope for people in India simply by the fact that I grew up there, went to my local university, but could go on to do well internationally,” he writes. The Nobel, he says, is not just an affirmation of his past work; it’s an encouragement to keep working on interesting problems.

Raghuram Rajan Fareed Zakaria
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