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Inspiration from a Nobel Prize winner; Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan comes to Newcastle

By Becky Bramley

Scientist or non-scientist, everyone has heard of the Nobel Prize. It is often considered the “ultimate goal” of aspiring scientists, and remains one of the most prestigious forms of scientific achievement. Last Friday, Nobel Prize winner Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan popped into Newcastle University to give a talk which would mark the 5th Baddiley Lecture. This annual event celebrates the legacy of our very own Professor Sir James Baddiley who discovered a major class of bacterial cell wall components called teichoic acids. This has attracted several high calibre speakers in the past few years, including winners of the Nobel Prize, the Lasker Award and the Louis-Jeantet.

Professor Sir Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (let’s call him Venki) was introduced to the audience as a “quiet and modest man”. This is perhaps surprising given his list of credentials; the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009, a knighthood in 2012, and President of the Royal Society by 2015. His contribution to the Nobel Prize was solving the precise structure of key components of the ribosome. This is a massive molecular machine (2.5 million Daltons worth) which translates our DNA into proteins, materialising our very being from our genetic information. As Venki elegantly describes, the ribosome “turns the blueprint of life into life itself”.

Nobody said it would be easy, and indeed the scope of the challenge is one of the things that drew Venki to this area in the first place. In his lecture, Venki described the toil of recruiting many post-docs to come “solve a subunit”, in a project with no guarantees of success. In an interview with The Guardian, Venki explains that “It takes courage to tackle very hard problems in science”. With pressure from competitors and funding stresses, it can be difficult to remain hopeful for the duration of such a difficult and ambitious project.

But this was no one-man job. In fact, solving the structure of the ribosome was a 40 year effort on the part of several research groups, and Venki shares his Nobel Prize with two other important scientists in the field. Indeed, Venki is quick to mention the key contributions of many other scientists who did not share in the glory of the Nobel Prize. The discovery is a good example of how collaboration can lead to great things in science.

Whether our ultimate goal is winning the Nobel Prize or simply obtaining a PhD, the pursuit of science takes risks – embracing uncertainty and persevering in the face of failure. Solving the structure of the ribosome helps us to better understand one of the central dogmas of biology, but this could not have been possible without endurance and the willingness to share expert skills and knowledge. So what does it take to really succeed in science? Collaboration over competition, and courage over convenience.

To read what Professor Sir Ramakrishnan has to say about his Nobel Prize: