2020 Keynote Speaker

The 2020 ACA Keynote Speaker, Venki Ramakrishnan,  will join us on Sunday, August 2nd to share a lecture on his fascinating career path that lead to determination of the structure and function of the ribosome.  Dr. Ramakrishnan shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for uncovering the structure of the ribosome. He is a senior scientist at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, and also the president of the Royal Society in London and author of Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome.  

GENE MACHINE: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome

Mention the word DNA and everyone nods in understanding. We all know—or think we know—what DNA means. It is the essence of our being, determining who we are and what we pass on to our children. Mention the word ribosome, however, and you’ll probably be met with a blank stare. Yet without it nothing lives. It is the mother of all molecules. For if DNA is data then it can’t go anywhere, or do anything, without a machine to process it. The ribosome is that machine, and until quite recently how that machine worked was a mystery.

In GENE MACHINE: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome (Basic Books; November 6, 2018), the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Venki Ramakrishnan offers an insider account of the race to uncover the structure of this elusive molecule, a fundamental discovery that both advances our knowledge of all life and could lead to the development of better antibiotics against life-threatening diseases. He also offers his personal story: his passion for discovery, the frustration of experiments gone awry, and the personal and professional struggles that accompanied the road to scientific success.

Ramakrishnan’s perspectives are unique in many ways. As an immigrant to America at the age of 19 and some decades later to England, as someone who did not attend elite institutions for his education, as a physicist entering the world of biology, he captures the feelings of an outsider yearning to be part of the scientific and social world he observes. As Jennifer Doudna points out in the book’s Foreword, “This yearning may have played a role in the approach to research that he describes: there is at once a desire to belong and yet a willingness to be a maverick and to embark on a journey of discovery that seemed at the outset to be a long shot. Then there is the scientific discovery itself: revelatory structures of the very machinery that reads the genetic code and translates its nucleic acid sequence into chains of amino acids that form all of the proteins necessary for life on earth. The ribosome, composed of one large and one small subunit, is uncovered in all its glory, with Ramakrishnan’s own work revealing the molecular underpinnings of the decoding mechanism of the ribosomal small subunit and the means by which multiple antibiotic drugs block the action of the bacterial ribosome and thereby eliminate microbial infections.”

Ramakrishnan’s story is also one of professional dilemmas, the serendipity of discovery and the deeply human nature of research, in which personalities play an essential role. Any major scientific breakthrough involves multiple contributors as well as the interactions of scientists grappling with the challenges of discovery and setback that accompany the winding path to understanding. It isn’t always clear how ideas emerge, whether they are truly one’s own or an outcrop of discussions with others. Sometimes competition comes between colleagues and must be managed even as the joy of discovery is at hand. The award of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry gave recognition to the early success with ribosome crystallization by Ada Yonath and the subsequent achievements of Ramakrishnan and Tom Steitz in solving the structures of the ribosomal subunits. Yet, as Ramakrishnan shows, others who made key contributions were, by the three-recipient limitation of the prize, left out of this recognition despite the importance of their insights.

From Ramakrishnan’s first fumbling attempts at laboratory work to the prize ceremony in Stockholm, GENE MACHINE shows not just the drive and dedication that it takes to win a Nobel Prize, but also the more human side of science, where who you know and how you handle them—not to mention the critical role of happenstance—are just as important to success as genius or hard work.