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Nobel Laureate Venki Ramakrishnan Returns To UC San Diego To Discuss Memoir

February 14, 2019 1:39 p.m.

GUEST:Venki Ramakrishnan Ph.D., author, "Gene Machine, The Race To Discover The Secrets Of The Ribosome"

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

What is being an award winning scientist really like how does research actually happen and what's it like collaborating and competing in the real scientific world. A new book by Nobel Laureate Dr. Vancouver Ramakrishnan attempts to answer those questions. His book The gene machine is a memoir about the complexities of scientific discovery and the choices that define our lives. This week Dr. Ramakrishnan returns to the UC San Diego campus where he did doctorate work to talk about his book and he joins us now. Dr. Ramakrishnan welcome to the program. Hello. Now your Nobel Prizes in Chemistry for solving the structure of the ribosome particle inside cells.

But when you first came to the U.S. back in 1971 it was to study physics what was going on at the time in the world of biology that drew you in.

Well biology has been in a period of explosive growth ever since about 1950. You know probably starting with the structure of DNA a and understanding what molecules and cells are dead and so on and in the 1970s people had figured out how to sequence DNA. They knew what cell membranes looked like they were starting to look at what the big molecules inside cells looked like and how it all worked. So it's a huge exciting period. And I have to say it hasn't stopped yet. It shows no sign of letting up.

So I was in this very mature field and I wasn't doing so well and I wasn't in a problem that I was particularly interested in and I saw all this excitement happening in biology and I thought I ought to join the fun. But I didn't know any biology and that's what brought me to UC San Diego. It was one of the few places that would take me as a grad student even though I had a me already.

How did that decision to switch disciplines like that changed the course of your life.

Yes it did. And the two years at UCSD I didn't actually get a second PGD here although I left my options open. But the two years I spent at UC San Diego were absolutely crucial because in the first year I even took undergrad courses. And the idea is if you want to learn something new you have to start at the beginning. And I wasn't ashamed to you know take undergraduate courses because I had a day in physics you know it was all new to me. And that really gave me a solid foundation for what I did later when I went to Yale as a postdoc.

Now as I understand it the effort to understand the ribosome particle which synthesizes protein in our cells Well it apparently stumped a lot of scientists along the way. What made you persevere.

So I think of ribosomes as the mother of all molecules everything in the cell was either made by the ribosome or made by molecules that were themselves made by the ribosome because it was so important. And also many antibiotics work by blocking bacterial ribosomes without affecting ours. So it had practical importance to part from being fundamentally important. So people just kept plugging away at it. And then in the 90s technology changed and people had new ideas. Whenever the technology changes people then come up with new ideas about how to attack problems and you know it ended up being this very heated race.

You know I was sort of the new comer in a way and the other three groups were very well-established groups. So there's also a feeling of what it was like to be an outsider in science and kind of you know find yourself in this you know pitch race against established groups.

Now you also write about how luck played a role in your success. Can you tell us about that.

So I have a good friend who made a reagent for me that I couldn't buy now if I hadn't met and you don't become friends with him and how our children grew up together and so on. I couldn't have asked him you know to make this thing so you know science depends on all the luck and what happens is when scientists succeed very often they don't talk about all the luck you know in hindsight it all seems like a series of logical steps and they were geniuses and so on when in reality it's all a mixture it's a mixture of good ideas bad ideas that didn't work out and luck.

Now you've reached what many would consider the pinnacle of achievement with the Nobel Prize in chemistry. What was your reaction though what was your family's reaction to winning that prize.

First of all I didn't expect it because I'd gone to several meetings in Sweden when they were obviously kind of auditioning us. And at the last of the meetings I had a big argument with a rival some guy from Sweden and then a few months later I found out he was on the Nobel committee for chemistry. So I thought well you know there's no way I'm going to get that prize and I actually it was a good thing I completely forgot about it. So when I heard about it I was really really surprised.

In fact at first I didn't believe it. And then I asked to talk to the guy and he came on the phone and then I realized it was true that I tried to call my wife now my wife is very old fashioned. She she still doesn't use a mobile phone.

Even though I had given her one and she had gone for a walk and I couldn't reach her. So finally when I reached her she said You know I thought you had to be really smart to get one of those. So it just goes to show you.

So I think I say the book that people the general public thinks that you know if you're a Nobel laureate you're some sort of genius actually a Nobel Prize is given for doing something that's really important. And I say just like Shakespeare said of people that some are born great some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. You could say the same thing about Nobel laureates. Some of them are really really smart. Some of them are pretty good scientists or just persistent.

And some just you know stumbled onto great discoveries you know and just in general what's your feeling about awards for science.

Awards are a bit of a poison in science because science is competitive anyway. Humans want recognition. They want to be first. You know they want to be liked by their peers and so on. That's human nature.

It's in all walks of life. What prizes do they convey that science is like a sporting contest. Well when you have 100 meter race you can figure out who came first second and third. And the rules are very well defined. When you have a science problem lots of people contribute to it and figuring out who made the really important contributions. It's not always easy and people don't always agree. And so often there are more than three people you know so it's not a good metaphor for science. And but you know I thought a lot about it while writing this book and much as I'm against you know prizes and how they make things worse there's some deep seeded nature and humans that they want to think of everything as a story you know with heroes and villains and so on and they want to sort of somehow have these role models and maybe the purpose of prizes is to create these role models as you know those things that other people can kind of look up to.

Dr. thank you Ramakrishnan. We'll be speaking about his book The gene machine this Friday at the Conrad Prevost concert hall. The lecture is open to the public it starts at 3:00 in the afternoon. And Dr. Ramakrishnan Thank you so much for speaking with us. I really appreciate it. Thank you.