Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel Laureate for Chemistry, delivers a lecture for NCS students

Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre

Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel Laureate for Chemistry, delivers a lecture for NCS students

It’s not every day that you get to meet a Nobel Prize winner, let alone spend an hour in the company of one. It was therefore a real privilege for us to welcome Professor Venki Ramakrishnan to The NCS on 17th March 2017 to meet and deliver a lecture to our science students.

Prof Ramakrishnan, who recently took up the role as president of the Royal Society was awarded the Nobel for Chemistry in 2009 for his work into “for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome”. After touring our state of the art science facilities, Prof Ramakrishnan told our student body about his life, career and those who inspired him.

“It’s often the case that one or two teachers can change your thinking just by turning you onto a subject and making you see how it can be good for you. You can relate to something suddenly because of a good teacher. I had a very good science and math teacher so I started to think about a career in either engineering or medicine.”

His story encompassed many of the attributes that we promote as an institution. He never settled, always questioned and moved frequently around the globe to find the right people to work with and the best facilities to utilise. Prof Ramakrishnan detailed the many experiences that shaped him as a person and professional and how failure in science is sometimes just as important in driving discoveries forward as successes.

“I applied to a wide spectrum of colleges. The big research universities said, ‘Who is this guy? He’s applied to some lesser universities and then he tried to do biology at a decent university but he couldn’t get a PhD and now he’s used some weird technique called neutron scattering to look at ribosomes. This is not the kind of guy we’re interested in.’ So they tossed me out. I ended up getting no interviews at all. So here I was, I failed at my first career as a physicist, and now I was about to fail at my second career as a biologist.”

“I went to a big national lab near Yale and was doing ok there but neutron scattering was not a very useful technique. I had this feeling that I was hitting a dead end again and that I needed to do something different. They were considering giving me tenure and wanted to know what I would do, they want to make sure that you’ve got some good plans. So I said, ‘If you give me tenure the first thing I’ll do is stop what I’m doing now and I’ll go away for a year to learn a better technique called crystallography.’ They luckily gave me tenure and I decided to go to Cambridge to learn the technique because it was the birthplace of protein crystallography.”

Before answering the many questions provided by NCS students, Prof Ramakrishnan ended his talk by demonstrating his work on ribosome functioning that he discovered. An impressive 3D animated graphic born from this nobel winning work was annotated and described live by the man who carried out and led the research.

“When you do the experiment you get a three dimensional image of the molecule but that doesn’t tell you what the atomic structure is. So how do you get from the three dimensional image to the atomic structure? It’s a bit like solving a jigsaw puzzle. You look around and do the easiest parts first and then solve the hard parts like [in a puzzle] the sky and trees.”

This was a truly wondrous and insightful afternoon that gave our students incredible access to a brilliant and determined mind whose work has moved the world forward. Everyone at The NCS would like to thank Prof Ramakrishnan for taking his time to visit.

The Student View
``It was a great privilege to have Nobel Laureate, Venki Ramakrishnan talk to us about some of the exciting research he had conducted. Using macromolecular crystallography, his groundbreaking findings on the ribosomal 30S subunit left me in awe. I most enjoyed learning about the complexity of the ribosome and its significance. His career path was also inspirational as he talked about the challenges he faced, and how he had overcome them. It was truly inspiring to hear about his journey and his astonishing contributions to biology.`` - Anjana
``His talk was definitely inspirational and provided us all with a fresh perspective: even though he experienced failure more than success, he persevered, constantly stepping back to consider what more he could learn. His overview of the different techniques he used in his work such as neutron scattering and his research on the ribosome was also quite interesting and I think was understandable to even the non-biologists in the room. All in all, it was a very engaging talk!`` - Tafsia
``The lecture provided a great insight into the journey Professor Ramakrishnan made to getting his Nobel Prize. Despite numerous rejections, trials and tribulations, his raw passion for biology led to his eventual success - I believe he left a piece of that passion with all of us!`` - Zaeem
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