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Nobel winner does not own a car, cycles to work

Last updated on: October 08, 2009 10:52 IST

Instead of pursuing a career in scientific research, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry with two others, would perhaps have practised medicine, but for a sudden impromptu trip of his father.

More than four decades ago, Venkatraman, then a Baroda resident, got the national talent award after finishing his high school. Venkatraman, known as Venky to his friends and colleagues, also got admission at the Baroda Medical College.

His parents, father  C V Ramakrishnan and mother Rajalakshmi, themselves scientists, wanted their son to take up medicine, not science.

"You know what, this kid refused to study medicine. When I had gone out of Baroda for some work, my son quietly went to Baroda University, instead of the medical college, to enroll himself in undergraduate studies in physics," senior Ramakrishnan, who now lives in Seattle, recalled as he spoke with rediff.com.

The parents, however, did not push him to become a doctor, though the senior believes Venky would have obliged if they did.

They just reconciled themselves to what they thought would be the uncertainties of the career of their would-be-researcher son.

Venky himself said that although he was exposed to science at an early stage in his life thanks to his parents, and did not want to study medicine, his parents did not push him to become a medical doctor.

His early interest in science, and following his completion of the undergraduate degree in Physics from Baroda, brought him to the US where he did PhD in Physics from Ohio University followed by a masters in biology from the University of California, San Diego.

Since then he had not looked back.

"Right since his school days Venky was good at mathematics and physics and wanted to go into details of everything that he would study," the proud   father said.

Venkatraman, who has been a visiting scientist at MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology at Cambridge, England, was given the Nobel Prize for his studies of the structure and function of the ribosome, a structure in each cell of the human body that synthesizes proteins.

Venky, who started working on ribosome since 1978 and the other two co-Nobel laureates, Thomas A Steitz of Yale University and Ada E Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, worked out in different areas and completely worked out the structure of ribosome.

What does it spell for humankind?

The senior Venkatraman, who started the bio-chemistry department at Baroda University  way back in the late 1950s, said that the work done by his son and two other scientists is going to open up new vistas for pathogenic infections in human bodies.

In a customary interview with the editor-in-chief of the Nobelprize.org, Ramakrishnan said one of the first things that the researchers did was to try and determine the structure with antibiotics, with known ones that bind to ribosome.

'Those gave us a very good idea of how they interacted with ribosome and a good idea of why certain mutations would cause resistance and how you might design better antibiotics,' he said.

None of the three researchers worked in collaboration but had occasional meetings to discuss what they were doing in their respective fields.

How does the father, who once discouraged his son from pursuing scientific research, feel now?

"Of course, I am proud and happy that he has made it. You know what, those days in India – my wife and I were from lower middle-class families -- the belief was that a good career meant either to be an engineer or a doctor and without that children would not have a decent life, nor would they earn much. The thought used to be influenced more by economics than anything else," 83-year-old Ramakrishnan said.

Venky's career in scientific research had taken many unexpected turns. Even after he chose to study science, perhaps he would not have been where he is today but for a decision that he took soon after his PhD.

Venky, who started as a theoretical physicist, decided after his doctoral thesis that many more interesting things were happening outside of Physics.

'My PhD work was on a problem that was not particularly interesting to me at the time. I used to subscribe to Scientific American and I found that there were all these wonderful discoveries happening in biology and I also knew that a number of physicians had gone into biology and been successful. So I decided to switch,' he said.

And that brought him into the world of Ribosome Structure and function.

Although he has been working for over three decades on it, Venky perhaps never believed that he was a candidate for a Nobel prize.

"When the Secretary of the Nobel Committee called my son in London, he said 'you must be kidding with me and trying to fool me," his father said.

The reason Venky thought so, the father explained, was that during this season when Nobel Laureates are selected, a lot of their friends make prank calls speaking in Swedish accent and trying to fool people.

"My son did not believe what he heard from the secretary until he spoke to the chairman of the Nobel Committee," he said. Nor did he.

The senior Venkatraman got phone calls from local news papers 'wanting to talk to his son who has got a Nobel Prize' late at night without knowing that the latter does not live in Seattle.

But he did not believe any of then until he asked them 'hundreds of questions' and was fully satisfied that his son actually got the Nobel Prize.

"A few hours later when Venky called his father to give him the good news, the senior told him that there was 'no excitement ' as he has already come to know about it.

"My son, who did not want to wake me up in the middle of the night, just laughed," he said.

The father described his son as well his daughter Lalita Ramakrishna, a professor at the Infectious Diseases Center at the University of Seattle Medical Center, who is more into research than medical practice as people leading a simple and ordinary life.

He said Venky does not own a car and goes to work in bicycle. "He keeps a low profile. He is very helpful to people, especially young people, and will help them whether in terms of giving advice for their studies and above all he is very friendly with people," he said.

"He always keeps a very low profile and that is how he has been since he was a child," he said.

Has his Nobel laureate son done anything apart from being steeped into research?

The father said that Venky and his sister have been avid bicyclers and love trekking.

"Venky would go up to 25 miles bicycling. He is very interested in nature. So is his sister," he said.

Both Venky and his sister, according to the father, have a benevolent streak. They both donate money to UNICEF, Ramakrishna Mission, of which their parents are great followers and to Doctors without Borders. Then he spills a secret.

"I do not think he is a very spiritually oriented person," he said in response to a question in the context of his son's philanthropy. "He just likes to help people."

Despite being in scientific research that consumes much of his time, the Nobel Laureate also finds time for gastronomical indulgence.Let me tell you this as well. My son, who is a vegetarian as is his wife who is an American, loves to cook Indian vegetarian food every Sunday despite his busy work schedule. He just loves it."

Suman Guhan Mozumder