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Science tip from Nobel laureate: sip and gossip

New Delhi, Dec. 20: Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan today shared tips to pursue outstanding research with science students, but questioned the wisdom of assessing a nation’s science through the Nobel Prize.

“There is no magic formula for winning the Nobel Prize,” said Ramakrishnan, the head of the structural studies division at the Laboratory for Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK, who shared the 2009 chemistry Nobel for his studies of a biological machine in cells called the ribosome.

Judging science through the Nobel Prize is not a good idea, Ramakrishnan said, responding to a query during an interactive session with young researchers and senior scientists organised by India’s department of biotechnology. “If India wins a single Nobel Prize it does not mean Indian science is okay,” Ramakrishnan said in his response to a delegate who had asked him what would it require for India to get a Nobel Prize.

In a session that touched on his own migration from physics to biology and the importance of fundamental sciences to applications in the real world, Ramakrishnan asked young scientists to be passionate about their research areas.

“Don’t work on anything that you’re not interested in — day-to-day science is extremely tedious,” he said. One classic test which, he said, had been proposed years ago by Francis Crick — the scientist who with James Watson had unravelled the structure of DNA in 1953 — was to determine whether interest in the research topic persists much beyond the laboratory or the institution.

“If you don’t gossip about the problem, then you’re not really interested in it. It’s (got to be) something you can’t help talking about. The problem has to be bugging you when you have a coffee,” Ramakrishnan said.

“Also aim to go to the best place for your work,” Ramakrishnan said, responding to K.M. Sharika, a doctoral scholar at the National Brain Research Centre, Manesar (Haryana), who had asked him for words of advice to young researchers in India.

“It’s something all aspiring scientists would like to know,” Sharika told The Telegraph.

Ramakrishnan, who had studied physics in Vadodara and obtained a PhD in physics at Ohio University before turning to biology at the University of California, San Diego, shared the Nobel Prize last year with Thomas Steitz at Yale University and Ada Yonath at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel, for studies on the structure and function of the ribosome, a protein-making machine found in all living cells.

“You can change fields with humility,” Ramakrishnan said during his interaction, recalling how even after his PhD in physics, he had attended some undergraduate classes in biology to build a strong foundation in the subject.

When he switched fields in the mid-1970s, he said, physics was in a difficult situation. “The fundamental problems in physics had become extremely difficult — some of the ideas are not experimentally verifiable,” he said. In contrast, biology was booming.

Scientists hope to use studies on ribosomes to design new generations of antibiotics. “It’s a paradox that the biggest benefits of science to humanity have come from the fundamental science problems,” Ramakrishnan said.

He cited Michael Faraday’s statement on electricity to a British official in the mid-19th century — “One day, sir, you may tax it” — decades before the advent of commercial electricity. “We had to wait 300 years before Newton’s laws of motion were used in rockets.”

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