“So I don’t subscribe to the heroic narrative of science. Rather, some of us are fortunate enough to be the agents of important discoveries that would have been made anyway, sometimes not even that much later. “
I think this quote in particular sums up why I loved this book and its author so much. I am aware from both media portrayals of science and from discussing my work with friends and family that the public perception of the scientific process is pretty divorced from reality. It’s unfortunate, but the narrative is still dominated by the idea of the lone genius who ‘eurekas’ their way through discoveries. And nothing could be further from the truth! Real life science is, more often or not, a messy affair; full of ups and downs, drama and politics. So I quite appreciate that Venki Ramakrishnan – a Nobel Laureate – is using his memoir to show the human side of the research process.
For those who are unfamiliar, the Ribosome is the organelle in the cell that carries out protein synthesis. If DNA is the template, messenger RNA is the intermediate molecule that carries this information to the Ribosome. The Ribosome, in turn, links amino acids together based on what it ‘reads’ from the messenger RNA. Ph.D. complex little biological machine is critical for life itself, and the process of determining its structure was a big deal in the molecular biology word – and unquestionably a Nobel worthy pursuit.
But I don’t think even Ramakrishnan himself could have guessed that he would eventually win a Nobel when he first started his career. In fact, Ramakrishnan initially completed his Ph.D. in physics. It was only after coming to the end of his degree that he had the kind of realisation that I think many PhD students fear to dread – that his field of study was kind of boring, and he could no longer see himself making a career out of it. Just imagine it; after several years of investment and countless hours of stress, you decide that this path is not for you after all. It’s more than a minor career stumble, and again, this is a Nobel Laureate confessing to it.
He couldn’t just throw it all in though – Ramakrishnan had married during grad school and had a young family to support. So instead, he took the ambitious move of trying to pivot into biology. Although he had (insanely, might I add) toyed with the idea of doing a whole second Ph.D., he eventually did a two year stint studying molecular biology at the graduate level, and moved on to working on the structure of the ribosome; a project that would, in one form or another, keep him occupied for well over 30 years.
And what drove his decision to study ribosome? Serendipity. He happened on an article about it in Scientific American, and it stuck with him.
Mapping the structure of the ribosome was no easy task. The primary method used at the time to explore protein structure was X-ray Crystallography, which can be a bit of a tricky business. (Some might consider that a charming understatement.) Not only do you need to obtain proteins that have folded correctly, you then need to crystalise them, so they hold their shape. You then blast them with X-rays and hope that you can determine the structure from the refraction pattern. Hopefully, your crystals don’t disintegrate first, as those X-rays are damaging! Then there is a multitude of problems that you have to deal with when interpreting your refraction patterns because different diffraction waves can cancel each other out. (Cue shuddering flashbacks to undergrad biochemistry lectures.) This process is complicated even with small regular structures, but with something as complex as the Ribosome, it became a bit of a nightmare. There were multiple labs across the world tackling these problems, and solving the structure took many years and manhours.
Ramakrishnan’s entertaining account of the collaborations, rivalries, dramas, and politics of the decades-long process casually shreds the lone genius narrative of science. Each one of the three winners of the 2009 Nobel Prize played their own role: Ramakrishnan’s group was looking at the small ribosomal subunit, Thomas Steitz’s group was looking more at the large subunit, and when it came to crystallization, Ada Yonath was ahead of the curve. But none of them, as Ramakrishnan exhaustively details, was working on their own. As stated previously, there were many people involved, and most of those went unacknowledged due to the rules of the Prize itself. Some of these people went on to win other prizes at later dates, but the fact of the matter is that the three-person limitation on the prizes doesn’t give recognition where recognition is deserved.
But Ramakrishnan does. When he’s describing his lab events and work arrangements, he spends his time detailing the people he worked with and what they did, whether or not they were his peers, his postdocs or his students. These descriptions are peppered with little details which serve to humanize the people he worked with, from the one collaborator who was described as a ‘Californian Hippy,’ to a Postdoc that had been laden with the moniker ‘Ferrari Boy.’ There are also accounts of various shenanigans that either he or his co-workers got up to, including judging peoples conference presentations in the manner ISU judges, to setting fire alarms off with cigars.
Ramakrishnan’s interactions with most of these people, as he tells them, are quite warm and considerate. He was willing to remove students and Postdocs off projects that are not leading anywhere and was also very accommodating to a pregnant co-worker. (Which should not have jumped out at me as remarkable, but it did.) I suspect that both the fits and starts of his early career and his own young family made him quite empathetic to the needs of others (Although, this is a memoir, so I can’t say it’s unbiased. Pinch of salt).
I have to admit, I found these anecdotes of lab life extremely relatable, and I think most labs have many similar stories they could share. I also strongly suspect that Ramakrishnan might be holding out on us slightly – perhaps leaving out some ‘shenanigan’ stories that were a bit more out there or more likely to incur the wrath of Occupational Work and Saftey. Those kinds of stories tend to only come out over dinner and drinks and are perhaps best not committed to paper.
Another thing the Ramakrishnan tackles is the sudden celebrity that comes with winning the big awards. The first thing you have to deal with is the surreal nature of being told you had won, which in Ramakrishnan’s case, involved him telling the man who called him that he had a convincing fake Swedish accent. There’s also the dreaded “post-Nobelitis” that causes sufferers to delude themselves into thinking they are experts on everything; and the subtleties of navigating the media, who have now fixed their attention on you. For example, your scientific training probably did not school you in the art of not accidentally pissing off touchy Hindu-nationists because you were charitable.
Overall, I found Gene Machine to be an enjoyable, engaging telling of one man’s career journey, and a fantastic snapshot of the realities of a career in science; where, in this day and age, no man or woman is an island. I highly recommend it to anyone who is thinking of following such a career or just wants to know what the white coat brigade really gets up to.