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Physicist Turned Biologist Wins Nobel

India West, News Report, Ashfaque Swapan Posted: Oct 16, 2009

An Indian American physicist-turned-biologist has won the 2009 Nobel Prize for chemistry. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, a senior scientist at the Laboratory of Molecular Research at the University of Cambridge, England, shares the 2009 chemistry Nobel Prize with two other scientists, Thomas A. Steitz and Ada E. Yonath.

Ramakrishnans Nobel has been greeted with a massive outpouring of Indian pride, with the diffident scientist still reeling from the huge public attention and media frenzy when India-West reached him Oct. 13 by phone at his lab in Cambridge.

Agreeing that the news of winning the Nobel had brought quite a change in his life, he added ruefully: Well, I hope it doesnt change it too much.

All sorts of people want to ask me about things that I dont feel are particularly relevant, the 57-year-old Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu-born scientist told India-West. I am just a quiet scientist. I have a quiet life. I left the U.S. because, you know, people have too hectic a life in the U.S. Suddenly . . . (all this publicity) . . . its not my thing.

Ramakrishnan and Steitz, both U.S. citizens, and Yonath, an Israeli, were given the Nobel Prize for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a press release Oct. 7. The ribosome translates the DNA code into life.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2009 awards studies of one of life's core processes: the ribosome's translation of DNA information into life. Ribosomes produce proteins, which in turn control the chemistry in all living organisms. As ribosomes are crucial to life, they are also a major target for new antibiotics.

This year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry awards Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A. Steitz and Ada E. Yonath for having showed what the ribosome looks like and how it functions at the atomic level. All three have used a method called X-ray crystallography to map the position for each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of atoms that make up the ribosome.

The three scientists, who will share the $1.4 million award, worked independently and published their results virtually simultaneously in 2000. Yonath, 70, is only the fourth woman to win the Nobel chemistry prize and the first since 1964. She is a scientist with the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

I didn't feel it was a personal competition, but it was a bit of a race,'' Steitz, 69 and a professor at Yale, told the Associated Press. We were all taking separate approaches.

After his graduation in physics from Baroda University in 1971, Ramakrishnan left for the U.S. where he did his Ph.D. in the same subject from Ohio University in 1976.

Then his career took a dramatic turn he changed fields from theoretical physics to biology for a number of reasons, he told India-West.

One is that a particular problem that I was working on didnt engage me. I wasnt somehow really deeply interested in it, he said. The other thing is I didnt really feel that I could think like a theoretical physicist. I mean, thats a very special gift, that ability for abstract thinking.

I used to subscribe to Scientific American, and I would read all these wonderful discoveries that were going on in biology, and I knew that many physicists had made the switch from physics to biology.

Ramakrishnan decided to go to the University of California at San Diego to become a graduate student in biology.

I didnt want to go immediately as a post-doc because then I wouldnt have a broad biology background. I wanted to spend a couple of years studying and acquiring that background and then, once I had done that, I went to Peter Moores lab at Yale University as a post-doc, he told India-West.

I think those two years in San Diego were quite crucial for me to make that transition from physics to biology.

After Yale, he worked as a biophysicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., and was professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City before he moved to the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, in 1999.

Along the way, Ramakrishnan has won a slew of awards, including the Guggenheim Fellowship, election to the National Academy of Sciences, Fellow of the Royal Society and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

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