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Why Venky Ramakrishnan is a great scientist

By Vicky Nanjappa
October 08, 2009 14:35 IST
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Vicky Nanjappa catches up with one of Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan's friends in Bengaluru. Professor Umesh Varshney from the Indian Institute of Science provides a fascinating glimpse into the scientist who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry 2009.

Nobel Laureate will now always precede Venkatraman Ramakrishnan's name. But for Professor Umesh Varshney at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru he will remain Venky.

Professor Varshney, who teaches at the IISc's microbiology and cell biology department, has known Venky since the latter was a G N Ramachandran Fellow at the institute.

"For us, he is a complete scientist, always committed to his work. I have hosted Venky several times at the IISc after he left India and he always obliged. Every time he came down, we discussed a lot of science and, I must say, every interaction with him was memorable. The last time I met him was in December 2008. He promised to return this December. I must ensure that. I am sure there will be a lot of chasing around considering he has won the Nobel," says Professor Varshney with a laugh.

"We have also met several times at international conferences, and each time we have made it a point to catch up for dinner."

"What strikes me the most about Venky is his simplicity. He is a great scientist and has loads of knowledge, but the way he talks to any person -- be it a great scientist or a child -- is unique. Anybody can be at ease speaking to him. This quality of putting people at ease is a trait that is extremely enviable and I must say most scientists do not possess it."

"While at the IISc, most of our interactions were based on science. However we did make it a point to go out for dinner very regularly. A lot of people kick back after a hard day's work with a drink. But for Venky, alcohol was never an option. This man never even touched a glass of beer. However, the interactions were great and at no point was there was a moment when he felt left out from a conversation."

Professor Varshney has been witness to Professor Venkatraman being a great teacher and a great friend to his students.

"Students had a special attachment towards him. They found themselves to be in a comfort zone when they were with him. The manner in which he handled the students was worth watching. Usually, scientists talk in a manner which many people do not understand. But the way Venky could simplify things and explain them was simply amazing."

"Apart from his work, Venky made it a point never to miss a music show. His other passion was Carnatic music. Whenever he managed to get some time, he would make it a point to attend a music show. There have been several times when his students have accompanied him on such shows."

"Venky is a complete and great scientist," says Professor Varshney. "He hails from a family of scientists -- both his father and sister are reputed scientists. A very rare trait that Venky has is he not only speaks of his own work, but also integrates the work of other scientists. This is what makes Venky a perfect and a very great scientist."

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Vicky Nanjappa in Bengaluru