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Royal Society elects biologist Venkataraman Ramakrishnan as president

Livemint:  March 20, 2015

New Delhi: Joining the ranks of some of the greatest scientists the world has known—Isaac Newton, Humphry Davy and Ernest Rutherford are just some of them—Indian-born Nobel laureate Venkataraman Ramakrishnan has been named the president of the prestigious Royal Society.

The Royal Society, a self-governing fellowship consisting of nearly 1,600 fellows and foreign members, was founded in 1660 to recognize, promote, and support excellence in science.

Today, nearly 80 Nobel laureates are a part of the Royal Society and current fellows include Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Harry Kroto and Tim Berners-Lee. Ramakrishnan, a biologist, will succeed Paul Nurse.

“It is a matter of great pride for India as this is the first Indian-born scientist who will become president of the Royal Society. We have all been very familiar with his work on ribosomes and he his considered an icon in Indian scientific circles as well,” said Raghavendra Gadagkar, president, Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi, where Ramakrishnan is a foreign fellow.

Describing Ramakrishnan as a humble man, Gadagkar said that he often visits Indian schools and institutions, including those in small cities, and has been inspiring young students. “This honour shows the potential that India has to succeed in world forums. We need to do much more for our students,” Gadagkar added.

Ramakrishnan, who is currently deputy director of the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology and a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, was named president after a ballot at a meeting of the society’s council on Wednesday.

Ramakrishnan was born in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, and has a BSc in physics from Baroda University. He went on to attain his PhD from Ohio University and studied biology at the University of California, San Diego.

He began his career as a post-doctoral fellow at Yale University, and then as a biophysicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 2003, and is also a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, Leopoldina (the German science academy) and a foreign member of the Indian National Science Academy. “I feel very touched that the Royal Society has chosen me for this job, especially because I only came to Britain 16 years ago from the US,” Ramakrishnan told the BBC. He will take up the post on 1 December.

Ramakrishnan’s research focuses on the structure and function of the ribosome, the molecular machine that synthesizes proteins by translating genetic information held in mRNA, and on the action of antibiotics on this process. As bacterial ribosomes are different from those in higher organisms, they are good targets for drugs and are critical in developing antibiotics.

For this work, Ramakrishnan shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009 with Tom Steitz and Ada Yonath, and was awarded a knighthood in 2012.

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