Venkatraman Ramakrishnan

Molecular Biologist and Physicist

New Haven, CT

Born in 1952 in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan is a distinguished scholar who won the Nobel Prize in 2009 for his discoveries regarding ribosome structure. Born to two parents involved in academia, Ramakrishnan was exposed to science from his earliest memories. He also moved around quite a few times as child, from Chidambaram to Vadodara to Adelaide, Australia and back to Vadodara. Before leaving and upon returning to Vadodara, Ramakrishnan attended one of the few English schools, the Covenant of Jesus and Mary School. When he returned after his time in Australia, the school was converting into an all-girls school, though they allowed the already enrolled boys to stay. This caused a large drop in the number of male classmates, and eventually made Ramakrishnan more comfortable around girls—which led to him often having many women in his labs. He was a mediocre student until a science teacher in his final two years sparked an interest in him, which led to his graduating second in the class. Unsurprisingly, he enrolled at a pre-science course at his local university that was supposed to help students choose between medicine, engineering and basic science. After the course, he applied to medical schools on his father’s advice, but also applied for the National Science Talent Search Scholarship by the Government of India as encouraged by his mother. With brilliant grades and research experience, he won the scholarship and chose to study physics in his hometown.

He excelled at physics and was soon looking for graduate programs; the normal route for basic science students to take was acquire a master’s degree in India and then travel abroad for further study. Ramakrishnan’s parents, however, had taken a sabbatical in the United States, and so he chose to join them enrolling in the physics program at the University of Ohio at the age of 19. Five years later, after much labor and struggling he finished his Ph.D. in physics. During this time, though, Ramakrishnan found an interest in biology from reading journal articles; he found the number of breakthroughs in biology vs physics to be very attractive. His transition to biology was bound not to be a smooth one, since he already held a Ph.D. He was accepted to the University of California, San Diego for a graduate program and aimed to soak in as much biology as possible. In his second year, he found himself face to face with his first experience with ribosome research. He was working in a lab studying membrane proteins when he, miraculously, realized he did not need a second Ph.D. and decided he had gained enough biology knowledge to look for a post-doc research position. He found one doing biophysics at Yale University using neutron scattering to investigate the structure of ribosomes and their subunits in bacteria.

After his fellowship Ramakrishnan tried to find a faculty position at an American University and applied to over 50 schools. He was unsuccessful at finding a position, but bounced back quickly and with that decided to take his career in a different direction—he began working at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. He happily worked at Brookhaven and after a few years was given the opportunity to take a sabbatical at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England; he was rubbing shoulders with some of the most famous scientists in the field. He continued experimenting crystallography which would eventually contribute to how he earned his Nobel Prize. During his year abroad, he was invited to give his first lecture on crystallography, even though he was technically new to the field.  Just one example of how he was quick to find success in all that he did.

After returning to Brookhaven, Ramakrishnan found that his funding was dwindling due to the Department of Energy prioritizing large projects over independent research. A colleague from his sabbatical suggested Ramakrishnan join him at the University of Utah as a part of the biochemistry faculty. Ramakrishnan accepted and began his time in Utah. In his new position, he found great students who assisted him with his life’s research, but as he got involved he began to worry about funding. He decided to move back to Cambridge and pursue his research at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, where he has stayed until the present. He continued his research, and after a trip to the Advanced Photon Source in Argonne, Illinois he was able to define the 30S subunit of a ribosome, his Nobel Prize winning work. This discovery has yielded more fundamental biological concepts. His research now is focused on decoding the whole ribosome.

Ramakrishnan is a decorated scientist having earned numerous awards including: The Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine, the Datta Lectureship and Medal, fellow of the Royal Society, the Heatley Medal of the British Biochemial Society, the Nobel Prize, the Padma Vibhushan, and he has been knighted. Ramakrishnan, a true humble scholar, upon receiving his Nobel Prize was less than thrilled because he feels like scientists should not be competing like athletes. Today, Ramakrishnan is the president of the Royal Society and a fellow at Cambridge.

 

References

Ramesh, M. “‘CERN Experiment Will Be Proved Wrong’.” The Hindu Business Line. N.p., 29 Dec. 2011. Web. 2 Apr. 2016.

“Venkatraman Ramakrishnan – Biographical.” Nobelprize.org. Ed. Carl Grandin. Les Prix Nobel, 2009. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.

Rogers, Kara. “Venkatraman Ramakrishnan.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2016.

Nair, Prashant. “Profile of Venkatraman Ramakrishnan.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. National Acad Sciences, n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2016.

“Venkataraman Ramakrishnan.” Iloveindia. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.

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