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Monday, October 19, 2015

Nobel to Venkatraman: Its Imperative is to improve Educational Standards

The Nobel Committee announced the award of 2009 Nobel Chemistry Prize to Dr. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, along with two others – Thomas Steitz of Yale University, US, and Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel – for their discovery on how the genetic code is translated into the molecules of life.

The three, using a technique called X-ray crystallography, mapped the position of each of the hundreds of thousands of atoms that make up the ribosome. The three-dimensional models developed by them revealed how the ribosome reads the genetic code of DNA and convert it into the protein molecules that control all biochemical processes.

Their research into the ribosome’s working will help scientists understand the life better—how the core processes function. That aside, it has a practical utility: paving the way for improving antibiotics’ ability to disable ribosomes in bacteria. The knowledge of the precise structure of the ribosome will facilitate better understanding of how the instructions of the messenger molecule trapped between the two pieces of ribosome are used to assemble the protein that the gene encodes out of smaller molecules called amino acids and thereby facilitate better designing of drugs – antibiotics – that interfere with the ribosome’s function.  The discoveries of these three scientists reveal how antibiotics— the chemicals that kill disease-generating bacteria by blocking the function of their ribosomes—bind to the ribosomes precisely, which knowledge several drug manufacturers are today using to develop new molecules that would bind to that site bur perhaps more specifically or with fewer side effects.

The whole nation rejoiced the news—of an India-born American citizen, winning the Nobel. Venkatraman was born in Chidambaram in Tamilanadu and educated in Gujarat but emigrated to the US 25 years back. He started working on ribosomes as a postdoctoral fellow at the Yale University in the US and is currently working at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. Suddenly, every educated Indian started talking gloatingly about India’s competency in science and technology.

To be happy about a fellow Indian’s great achievement is alright.  But that is not imperative here. What matters most now is what are we, as nation, doing to produce such scientists and scientific discoveries. As Madhavan Nair, the ISRO Chairman, observed, of course, in a different context: “the level of education and knowledge being imparted by many colleges …they are not up to the mark. Instead of concentrating on quantity, these institutions should concentrate on quality”. Madhavan Nair also warned that if the quality of education is not improved the nation will only have people for clerical or routine jobs.

Similar warning echoes in what the President of Indian National Academy said: “the structure of Indian science is unequal to the requirements of modern scientific research.” This obviously calls for rejigging our educational system. As the academicians are demanding for, “true interdisciplinarity” must be introduced at the under-graduate level itself. It is pertinent to bear in mind here what the Nobel laureate himself has said about what helped him in the pursuit of his research goals: “My earlier exposure to physics certainly helped me in the use of biophysical techniques like crystallography, the use of computing, calculations, etc.”   

Instead of gloating about Venkatraman’s Nobel prize or cribbing at the absence of many such Indians in the ranks of Nobel Laureates, what the government should do is  revamp the educational system to inject ‘multidisplinarity’ into education at the under graduation level itself. And importantly, as Venkatraman desired “…what the government should do is concentrate on building a broad culture of respect for basic science and knowledge.”

Of being happy of Venki’s Nobel is fast waning; the urgency for action on its imperative is not.
                                                                                 *  *  *
It’s almost five years since these thoughts have been shared and if we look for the positive developments if any on this score, we are just ending up with a disappointment. For, nothing substantial has been done since 2009 except for establishing six Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, where “teaching and education are totally integrated  with state-of-the-art research” meant to “nurture both curiosity and creativity in an intellectually vibrant atmosphere” across the country.

What then is in store? 


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