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'Venky cared more about science, not salary'

October 08, 2009 19:54 IST

When his former colleagues at the University of Utah came to know early on Wednesday that Venkatraman Ramakrishnan had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, they celebrated by dancing on the streets.

"We were dancing in the streets," said Jeannine Marlow, wife of Dana Carroll, professor and former chair of biochemistry at the University of Utah, where Ramakrishnan's prize-winning work began between 1995 and 1999.

Ramakrishnan said on Wednesday that the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology and the University of Utah supported his work and the 'collegiate atmosphere there made it all possible.'

Carroll, who chaired the Department of biochemistry between 1985 and 2009, fought hard to keep Ramakrishnan in Utah, but the Indian-born scientist left to join the world-renowned laboratory in Cambridge.

"That lab is one of the premier molecular biology research labs in the world," Carroll said. "So when I asked Venky what I can do to keep you, he said, 'I don't think there is anything'."

'Venky cared more about the science,' he recalled.

Carroll said that the free provision of technical assistance and research materials at the MRC lab attracted Ramakrishnan, who was doubtful whether US funding agencies would provide long-term funding for his research, which was considered 'high-risk' and 'technically very challenging'.

'Venky took a sizeable cut in salary to make the move," he said. "I increased his salary here to make the discrepancy even bigger. But he cared more about the science he'd be able to do than about his personal compensation."

Ramakrishnan's work involves ribosomes, the microscopic 'protein factories' in the cells of every living organism. Ribosomes 'read' the genetic code in genes, and use the code to produce proteins, which carry out all the functions of cells and organisms. A human cell contains millions of ribosomes. They are made of proteins and genetic material called RNA.

Research teams at several institutions bounced X-rays off crystallized ribosomes to get a detailed look at their three-dimensional structure, first at the molecular level in 1999, then at the atomic level in 2000.

At Utah, Ramakrishnan headed one such team. He spent four years at the University and then took a leave of absence in 1999 to work at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. He remained a Utah faculty member until October 15, 2000, when he became a full-time employee at the MRC Laboratory.

"One of the key things he learned from the structure was exactly, at the atomic level, how the genetic code is read by ribosomes to make proteins," Carroll said. "Venky not only determined the structure, but was able to interpret it in ways that were incredibly satisfying.'

In the journal Science's Top 10 scientific developments of 2000, the research by Ramakrishnan and others was listed as first runner-up.

Carroll said that in an e-mail to him and other faculty members, Venki has offered to come and give a talk at the university, emphasising the role his tenure in Utah played in the Nobel recognition.

"He started the work that ultimately resulted in the prize when he was in Utah, but the really big breakthroughs happened after he moved to the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge," Carroll said. "But he did start the work here".

Suman Guha Mozumder