Nobel Scientist’s Advice: Do What Makes You Happy
Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, an American co-winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, answered questions from Indians in a Webchat sponsored by the U.S. State Department a couple of weeks before receiving his gold medal in Stockholm, Sweden on December 10.
Here are excerpts of the interaction.
What more could be done to improve research levels in India?
I have always felt that for research to improve, students need to be exposed to the very best research at an early stage. One change over the last several decades is that individual universities have lost ground to large research institutes. It would be a good idea to embed research institutes inside university campuses, and perhaps also integrate research more into universities. There also needs to be a strong emphasis on merit in selection of students and faculty, and scientists need to be free to pursue their work free of any local politics. Finally, education should be valued. Many of my teachers were not great research scientists but were excellent teachers, and I am grateful to them.
What brought about the change in you to take up biology after doing a Ph.D. in physics?
When I was doing a Ph.D., I was doing theoretical physics. This is a field that requires a particular type of abstract thinking. Moreover, I did not have a good feel for the problem I was working on, and had no ideas of what I would do if I were to continue in it. On the other hand, I used to read about articles in biology, mainly in Scientific American, and was fascinated by them. So I switched and joined a second Ph.D. program in biology. One of the strengths of the U.S. educational system is this flexibility. Many countries would not allow you to register for a second Ph.D. in a completely different field.
Do you think science education should start for boys and girls in village schools?
Some people say that scientists are like children who have never grown up, because they continue to be fascinated by the things that every child is fascinated by. So in that sense, cultivating this curiosity from a very early age is a good idea.
After graduating from Indian schools and acquiring the basics from India how is it that you gave your scientific contributions to America?
I think you have to realize science is an international venture. A discovery made in one country is often exploited in a different country. So it is important not to be too nationalistic about science. It does not matter where the science is done. You should also realize that while I got my basic education in India, all of the specialized education and training that allowed me to work on the ribosome was obtained in the USA. And the resources and facilities for the high resolution structure were supported by the government of the UK. So all three countries can justifiably claim to have had a part in my work.
I am in 12th standard. I never enjoyed reading physics. Can you tell me the secret of how to make this subject more understandable and enjoyable?
The best way to appreciate something like physics is to take interesting natural phenomena and ask how physics helps to understand that.
Science teaching in India is more bookish and theoretical. Can such a system ever produce path breaking research?
I agree this is a problem, and there is too much cramming for exams that have very formal questions. My own experience in Baroda was very different. For pre-science, we had the PSSC physics course from the USA, and for my B.Sc., we studied the Berkeley physics course as well as the Feynman lectures. This was due to a handful of dedicated teachers, especially Professor S.K. Shah, many of whom had returned from the USA. So it will take individual professors to change this kind of bookish approach to science.
I’ve often heard it said that the current atmosphere in Indian universities doesn’t encourage scientific innovation. What are your thoughts on this?
I have visited a couple of universities...and my impression is they are under-funded compared to central research institutes. This may be something the government and the Indian scientific community need to look into. I think if one has to constantly worry about funding and facilities, it is hard to be innovative.
What’s your message to post graduate students and teachers in India?
I always say the most important thing is to be really interested in a problem. Beyond that, I think students should look out to make sure the lab is well equipped and the professor has enough money to fund the research. For teachers, I think generally good advice is to let graduate students really participate in the work rather than using them just as a pair of hands to do the work. This means encouraging them to think, contribute ideas, etc.
What is it that the United States did right for you to be able to succeed in the phenomenal manner that you have?
The USA is the closest to a meritocracy that I have seen. In other words, as long as you have the ability to do something, they care less about where you are from, what your background is, etc. So they gave me the opportunities based on my ability. I am not saying it is perfect, because no country is. The other thing about the U.S. is that it is the world leader in science and has a lot of money for research, so this makes it easier.
Do you still see a large number of students taking up basic sciences? That is not the case here in India, and what can be done to promote basic sciences?
One thing that encouraged a lot of very bright students in my generation was the National Science Talent Search Scholarship. This was prestigious, had special summer programs, etc. and was restricted to basic sciences. Perhaps something along those lines will help.
How hard is it to make a mark in science if you have not been educated in English? In India, do we need to improve the scientific resources available in regional languages, or to shift all scientific education to English from an early age?
I think because English is the international language of science, it is very important to become fluent in it, and those who are not are at a disadvantage, because they will find it more difficult not only to communicate but even read textbooks, papers, etc.
What is your advice for Indian students?
Follow your interests, have confidence, and do not feel insecure about advanced countries.
What expectations do you have from your child?
I want my children to be happy. My son got a physics degree but is now a musician. One shouldn’t force them according to one’s own idea of success.
You’ve become such a big role model, not just for kids but for people across India. How do you feel about that role?
People should not see me in that role but rather develop internal confidence. But I hope that people feel happy about the fact that someone from India, who got their basic education in India, could go on and do well internationally.