Thursday, October 08, 2009

More on V. Ramakrishnan and a book that started it all

You could start with the telephone interview on the Nobel website. What's interesting is that Ramakrishnan did his PhD. from a not particularly distinguished university; his rather peripatetic career really seems to have taken off only several years after graduate school. I think this is a good illustration of what you can achieve even later in life if you put your mind to it. In the interview he says that in fact he was not very interested in his PhD. research project. He used to subscribe to Scientific American at the time and it was through the magazine that he realized that the most exciting developments were happening in biology (I was about to switch my subscription from Scientific American to Discover; maybe I should stick to Scientific American now). He was also inspired by the example of famous physicists like Francis Crick and Walter Gilbert who switched to molecular biology and made pathbreaking contributions.

It is worth remembering that one of the key influences that propelled physicists into molecular biology after the War was a little book by Erwin Schrödinger named "What is Life"? which laid out the basic questions- but tantalizingly, not the answers- necessary for addressing the questions of life and heredity at a molecular level. It makes for very interesting reading even today. The book was based on lectures that Schrödinger gave in neutral Ireland in 1943, one of the very few places not torn by the conflict. Schrödinger was also woefully ignorant of chemistry and therefore did not focus on metabolism (proteins), only on heredity. Now we know that metabolism might have evolved separately from genetics and is at least as important as genetics.

More links; profile of Ramakrishnan in TOI featuring interviews with his father. It's always amusing when, the moment someone wins a Nobel Prize, the fact that he or she does not own a car and bicycles to work every day suddenly becomes the title of a news piece! In this particular case, given that Ramakrishnan works in bicycle-friendly Cambridge, it's probably not surprising that he rides to work. He would probably not have done this had he worked in San Diego or at Yale.

Ramakrishnan is astonishingly the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology's 13th Nobel Laureate. The laboratory has been to molecular and structural biology what Rutherford's Cavendish Laboratory was to physics in the first half of the twentieth century. It was set up by Nobel Laureates and has served as a magnet for biostructural research for half a century.

More: A video interview with Ramakrishnan about his ribosome work, recorded at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (another molecular biology pioneer). It's worth noting how, in addition to being extremely perseverant and creative, Ramakrishnan was definitely also in the right place at the right time. For instance after his PhD. he ended up working with Peter Moore at Yale, a scientist who was then one of the very few people working on the ribosome. In addition, most modern high resolution structure determinations need access to a synchrotron which provides a very high intensity beam of x-rays. Ramakrishnan ended up at one of the world's premier sources of synchrotrons, Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Ramakrishnan also spares few words in castigating both the press and the general public for taking cognizance of important work only after it wins prizes. He says,
I think it’s a mistake to define good work by awards. This is a typical mistake that the public or even the press make. None of you called me about my work even two days ago… right?”

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Blogger KeepingItSimple said...

That is a really nice write up.

Thanks for this post.



9:37 AM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

It pleased me no end when Venky said that he was not much interested in his PhD thesis and switched to Biology late in his life which had started to interest him greatly. This has struck a chord with me. I also half way through my thesis completely lost interest in it. The thesis was about a problem which was already solved a million of times and only a pedant would have been interested in learning about anything more on it. The fact that I had terrible advisors also contributed a great deal to my overall sense of disillusionment. At that point, I came across Richard Dawkins books and the poetry of life in his books filled me up with so much joy that it is hard to express it in words. The Self Gene, in particular, fired my imagination. After reading 'The Blind Watchmaker', I honest to God wished that I was in Biology. I still wish that. Venky's example is inspiring to me since he has proved that it is ok to find your calling late in your life. You can still overcome the handicap of poor choices and succeed.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Wavefunction said...

Raghuraman, thanks. Vivek, extremely interesting experience, and I sympathize. I too felt sometimes that I was not enjoying my graduate research as much as I wanted to. Fortunately my work was already very close to biology so I am being able to make forays into biology more easily. I think Ramakrishnan's example illustrates another important point, namely that biology is an ideal field in which non-experts, namely non-biologists can make contributions. So it's never too late!

3:23 PM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

Yes, biology is a science into which a non expert can perhaps fit into more "easily". Part of the reason is that it is still an evolving science; there are still a lot of fundamental, exciting questions that can potentially be answered with existing tools and technologies. That is what makes it highly interdisciplinary.

9:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi, i just wanted to say that I DID live in both San Diego and Yale with two small children, but without a car. So it's not just being in Cambridge.
Otherwise a good post on changing fields. I was led to it because I was curious to see if anyone had picked up on the Scientific American aspect.
Venki Ramakrishnan

2:55 PM  

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