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Going places: an interview with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan

Harini Barath

Nobel Laureate Venki Ramakrishnan talks about the changes in his career, his engagement with Indian science and his plans for the Royal Society.

Venki Ramakrishnan
Venki Ramakrishnan  (Photo: "Nobel Prize 2009-Press Conference KVA-08" by © Prolineserver 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons)

Venkatraman Ramakrishnan is a structural biologist well known for his work on the ribosome, for which he shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Born in India to scientist parents, he moved to the US to pursue graduate studies in Physics. His career has seen many changes — a switch from physics to biology, and several relocations from Ohio to San Diego, Yale, Brookhaven, Utah, and finally, the UK. He is currently the Head of the Structural Studies Division at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge and will take office as the President of the Royal Society in December. He comes across as scholarly and soft-spoken, yet frank and forthright. In conversation with Harini Barath and Akshat Rathi from Quartz at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, he reminisces about the changes in his career, talks about his engagement with India and his opinion of Indian science and gives us a glimpse of his plans at the Royal Society.

Your career has seen a lot of change, both geographically as well as in your field of study. Yet, with all this flux in the background, you seem to have been single-mindedly interested in solving one question. How did you choose this question? And what kept you going in your pursuit of the answer?

The initial choice was partly accidental. When I wanted to switch to biology I decided to go to graduate school again. During this time, I chanced upon an article by Don Engelman and Peter Moore about how they were applying a physical technique to study ribosome structure. I felt that I had acquired enough background in biology by then and thought I was ready for a postdoc. So I contacted Don and he said they had a position in collaboration with Peter Moore for looking at the ribosome. Peter offered me the postdoc and that’s how I ended up working on ribosomes.

Of course, I knew the ribosome was very important, but I also knew it was a really difficult problem. I knew it wasn’t going to be solved in the next year, and certainly not during my postdoc. But I thought it was a problem that was worth getting trained at. I was also intrigued by this technique of neutron scattering, which turns out to be a somewhat limited technique. 

When I went off and set up my own lab I worked a lot on chromatin structure. But I also developed a new angle to look at ribosomes. I went off and learned crystallography. I was 40 years old. And I then started looking at pieces of the ribosome with crystallography, and so I maintained this sort of constant interest in the ribosome, but I kept on changing the way by which I approached it. 

It is interesting that you studied crystallography at the age of 40. Would you say it proved invaluable to your work? 

That wasn’t such a profound decision. You could see if you were using a technique that is limited both in the sorts of problems it can study and in the kind of information it can provide, you act. I’d used neutrons to publish a lot of papers, some in high profile journals, but I could see that I had sort of skimmed off what I could and it was getting harder to do really interesting things. So if I wanted to stay in neutrons, I would be the kind of scientist who has a hammer, looking to solve problems where a nail would be useful. 

I was interested in the ribosome. I wanted to ask what I could do to answer how the ribosome works. My tenure committee asked me what I would you do if they granted tenure, and I said the first thing I would do is to go on sabbatical to learn crystallography. I knew that’s where the big advances were going to be in my field. To their credit, and to my good luck and they gave me tenure anyway. And that’s what I did. 

I think that going on sabbatical is a very good way to learn because during that year you’re doing nothing but immersing yourself in this new technique with no distractions. So it was actually a big turning point. At the MRC Laboratory, I also learnt what it’s like to do really important science; to always think about what is the important question in your field, rather than thinking what’s the next experiment I can do. That way of doing science is really essential if you want to do first grade science. 

As a scientist, how do you evaluate somebody who comes up to you and says, I’m interested in this field or problem, but I have absolutely no background.” It’s a difficult thing to do as a mentor or recruiter. From another perspective, what is your advice to a scientist who wants to make a switch and wants to approach a mentor for a job?

You have to bring something to the mentor’s lab. For instance, I applied to biology labs when I was a physicist. The people who wrote back to me probably did so because they were using a physical technique like neutron scattering, where a physics background could help. So I would bring the kind of skill that maybe a biochemist wouldn’t have, but I wanted to learn something else. So if somebody could bring some complementary skill that might be useful, then you’d consider them. 

However, I often I get these applications, where they’ll say, I’ve been working on pathogenesis in wheat and I’m interested in ribosome structure.” Or sometimes not even that; simply I’m very interested in your lab.” You know that they’re sending this to hundreds of labs and those things don’t make any sense.

You have been visiting India regularly over the last few years and you have a visiting position at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore. What is extent of your engagement with research and education in India? Do you plan to take it forward in the coming years?

My engagement with India has always been at an individual level. The reason that I started visiting IISc is because there is a scientist there whom I respect and like. It was a nice way to reconnect with India. Then I started giving lectures and engaging with students and young scientists there. I also started visiting a few other Institutes, though not as extensively as with the IISc. 

What is your opinion of the level of scientific research in India? 

I have to say that the Institutes I have visited are the cream of the crop. So my view of Indian science is obviously skewed by that. But, if you go to your typical State University, and I’ve done that also, then you find that they have very poor infrastructure, very poor funding, and a rather low level of research, usually very incremental. I worry about the breadth of the Indian scientific enterprise. I think there’s not enough investment in training people properly. There’s divorce between research and education, by putting research in central institutes and leaving universities to fend for themselves. It didn’t used to be the case. It used to be that some of the best science was done in these old, traditional universities that were established by the British. 

How do you think things can be improved?

The Government is trying to restore things by creating the Indian Institutes for Science Education and Research (IISERs). I’ve visited two IISERs and I was impressed by both of them. I think that is a very good idea. But of course, you need many more high level institutions for a country of a billion people. State Universities need to have better faculty who know what good research is. Otherwise undergraduates as a whole are not going to be exposed to very good science. That takes a lot of investment. If you look at the difference in investment between India and China, for instance, it’s a stark difference even when you correct for the fact that China has a bigger economy. When I go to China, I see a country that, in some ways, has caught up with the West; perhaps not with the very best of the West, but certainly with the average. I don’t see that in India, except for very few elite institutions. 

So funding is one way to solve the problem. And the other way is to balance research and education?

Absolutely. Most countries do, and certainly Britain is a real example in this regard. Britain has a balance between Research Institutes (like the MRC Lab where I work) and some very well funded University programs. I think you need both, because the two can do different kinds of science. For instance, we can engage in very long term science, and often universities, with their turnover of students and so on cannot always do that, although they do that too sometimes. And I think they’re complementary. It’s the kind of scientific infrastructure that a country like India needs to create.

To promote universities, you have to attract talent. How can you get a young scientist to take that leap and become a faculty member at a place with possibly low funding?

Firstly, I think it’s not fair to ask a talented young scientist to go somewhere where his/​her career is going to be killed. But then you have the problem that good people won’t go to these places. So the only way you can do that is by jumpstarting a place. And State Governments can help with this. They can provide matching funds, or even a majority of the funds. They can say, we want to make this University in our state a Center of Excellence in this particular area. We’re going to put a lot of money into it and attract this one senior person who is known to be very good to help recruit younger scientists.

This leads to another problem. Senior scientists need to know when to step down gracefully. And their goal should be to promote people who’ll take over from them. There are very few Institutions in India that do this. In my job as Head of Division at the MRC Lab of Molecular Biology for the last 10 years, we have done a lot of recruiting. Whenever I recruit, the question I ask is Is this person likely to replace me one day?” And if the answer is yes, that’s the sort of person I want. And we do everything possible to make sure their careers flourish. That’s the kind of thing senior scientists have to do, and don’t always. There are exceptions, and I think the National Center for Biological Sciences in particular is a role model for this, where when the new Director comes in, there’s no interference or influence from the old Director. That’s happened twice now. So that’s a good role model.

This is a good excuse to talk about your next position, at the Royal Society. What legacy would you like to leave, if legacy is the right word to use?

It’s a little premature to ask me because I don’t take up office until December, but I have put on record a number of things I would like. One is to increase support for science from the Government, and to increase public awareness and interest in science. Another thing is to work with other organisations to help raise the standards of education, especially in schools, of science. Another thing is to make sure that whenever there are difficult issues, the Royal Society engages productively in getting the best expert opinion on these issues, and producing good policy statements both for Government and the public. 

Of course, another aspect in which I am interested, as somebody who was born in India, is to engage with other countries, especially to foster exchange and collaborations. One idea is to try and get support for exchange programs between Indian scientists and students and British Institutions. I think that would be great. Let’s say an Indian scientist is working on a particularly Indian problem, maybe a pathogen or an Indian plant, but they have need for some technical expertise, which some lab in Britain is an expert in. That would be an ideal case, where they’re taking an interesting problem and getting some complementary skill.

Finally, what one advice would you give to young scientists?

Do something where you really care about the answer, because fads in science don’t last and the process of science can often be very tedious. You have to really care about the question and know the importance of finding the answer. That’s the most important thing, because that’s what will keep you interested and motivated.

A version of this interview first appeared in Quartz India.

Written By

Physicist turned science writer. I enjoy writing about interdisciplinary research and interviewing scientists about science and careers in science.