Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel laureate best known for his work in the structure and function of the ribosome, took a step into uncharted waters when joining SFI last year as Fractal Faculty. With his background in structural cellular biology, Ramakrishnan brings a highly focused lens and approach to answer complex questions like the origins of life and mechanisms of death.
You moved from physics to biology. How did your training in physics influence your perspective on biology?
Did your background in condensed-matter physics give you an understanding of atomic structure and interactions that proved useful in your biological chemical work?
Jim Watson and Francis Crick were both inspired by reading Schrödinger’s What is Life? Are there figures who were inspirational for your thinking?
Many of these figures from high-energy physics have a lucidity – a no-nonsense style of reasoning. Is that part of the appeal?
You are working in a field that's very close to markets – to pharma and biomedical concerns. Is there a risk that as computational approaches to science improve, structural biologists will be edged out of their jobs?
Your father and mother were both scientists and your sibling went into science. How did the environment of critical argumentation influence your development?
In you career, did you have a sense of not doing the right thing, or feeling there was something more important you could be doing to make a contricution – a sort of restless ambition?
Most people don't want to be in a position of being a novice as they make advances in their careers. You are refreshingly different in this regard.
You've worked at a variety of institutions, but the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) is very special to you. What makes it so unique?
The MRC is the best-known, most successful molecular biology institute in the world. It has this very unique culture – small groups, big questions. Why aren't more places emulating this model but moving the other way?
You've described LMB as highly collaborative, and yet we know that science is highly competetive. How do you think about collaboration versus competition in science?
When did it first dawn on you that you might be very successful? Did you wake up one morning and say, "I'm not only going to do consequential work, but work that everyone in my field knows about and will remember as important? Perhaps even win a Nobel Prize?"
What are the key ingredients to being successful in science? Is it largely extraordinary single-mindedness and incredibly disciplined work?
You set yourself a tractable, important problem, and you were successful. What's the aftermath of your experience? Is there anything left that feels as important and that seems equally tractable?
And yet, the reason that we're talking is in part because of an ongoing conversation that started during COVID about aging and death. How did that interest emerge?
You're involved with companies and individuals who are searching for a pharmacological fountain of eternal youth. What are your thoughts on the search for immortality?
As president of the Royal Society, you witnessed the love–hate relationship between society and science at a time of extraordinary turbulence in Britain – largely in relation to Brexit. What are your thoughts on science and society? Can we hope to improve the standards of general education?
Check out this and more interesting interviews and perspectives in the Summer 2022 issue of Extraterritorial, or browse all of SFI’s Newsletters.