Indian-origin Chemistry Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (Venki) has been bestowed the highest honour in the UK making him join the ranks of eminent British scientists such as Newton and Rhterford.
Venki will succeed Paul Nurse as the Royal Society president from December this year and head the world’s top most science outfit. He was chosen by about 1,200 Royal Society Fellows who had sent their postal ballots and its board of trustees said it has unanimously nominated Venki Ramakrishnan, who was endorsed by over 98 per cent of votes, in a turnout of close to 50 percent.
Venki, who leads a simple lifestyle and cycles around Cambridge, said: “My reaction is that I am very honoured to have been chosen.” He appreciated his fellows for their recognition of him as a fellow scientist.
Brushing aside its depiction as an Indian triumph, he said science belongs to everyone and it is borderless. “Considering I’m an immigrant who came here relatively late in life only 16 years ago, it is a reflection of the wonderful openness that the Royal Society has shown ever since it s inception,” he said.
When he received the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2009 with Tom Steitz and Ada Yonath, it almost went unnoticed though Amartya Sen, another Indian immigrant who rose to fame with his association with the Trinity College in London and a Nobel Prize in Economics is known to many.
Otherwise Venki, awarded a knighthood in 2012 making him Sir Venki, is the deputy director of the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. A graduate in physics from Baroda University, he obtained his PhD from Ohio University in the USA and studied biology at the University of California, San Diego.
Some of the institutions he worked include the Yale University, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the University of Utah. He moved to the UK in 1999 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2003, which he will be heading now. He is also a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, Leopoldina of Germany and an overseas member of the Indian National Science Academy.
A south Indian vegetarian, Venki plans to move to London and frequent the New woodlands on Panton Palace about 10-km from his office for food. As an ambassador of science, Venki will represent the Royal Society which was founded way back in 1660.
Venki was given the Nobel prize for his pioneering research in the structure and function of the ribosome and on the action of antibiotics. He began studying ribosomes as a postdoctoral fellow in Peter Moore’s laboratory in 1978. His findings are crucial in future medicinal production as bacterial ribosomes are different from others and hence make good targets for drugs.
Born in 1952 in Chidambaram, an ancient temple town in Tamil Nadu best known for dancing Nataraja idol, to scietist C.V. Ramakrishnan, who was away on a postdoctoral fellowship in Madison, Wisconsin, with the famous enzymologist David Green.
“Because he (my father) came from a poor family, he did not think that he could support my mother and me on his postdoctoral income, so he went alone. I often joke that but for this, I would have been born in Madison and could have gone on to become President of the United States,” he says.
When he was 3, his parents moved to Baroda (Vadodara) when his father was appointed to head a new department of biochemistry at the Maharaja Sayajirao (M.S.) University of Baroda. Later his mother too went abroad for her Ph.D. in psychology and helped his father in applying some tools in his reseerch.
His childhood and adolescence were filled with visiting scientists from both India and abroad, many of whom would stay with them. “A life of science struck me as being both interesting and particularly international in its character,” he says.