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Why Indian students should be goats, and not sheep

My somewhat allegorical message is based on the life story of Prof. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who in my view epitomizes the noblest values in the pursuit of science. I trust you would need no introduction to Venki, as he is popularly known, but in case you were too busy with the IPL, let me present his credentials - he is one of the few Nobel Prize winners of Indian origin. Venki won the prize for Chemistry in 2009, and this was in recognition of his pioneering work on ribosomes, the part of the human cell that converts genetic information into proteins, the building blocks of our bodies.

Until he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Venki was largely unknown to the public at large and, in fact, even to an extent within the scientific community.  In 2008, when he gave a talk at the Indian Institute of Science, where I work, only a handful of people showed up in the audience. But the very next year, when he came to deliver a lecture after winning the Nobel prize, a capacity audience of well over two thousand people had crowded the auditorium, more than half an hour in advance - in fact, in an unprecedented move, the talk was started a few minutes earlier than the scheduled time, simply because there was just no more room for anybody else to come inside!

Not surprisingly, the Indian media quickly lavished fulsome praise and adulation on Venki, and although all his research had been entirely carried out abroad, we quickly appropriated him as our own. What was forgotten in this nationalistic hoopla was that his path to the Nobel Prize violated many cherished beliefs of Indian society. In particular, he made three major decisions in his life, which I like to call the "Three Sins", each constituting blasphemy with regard to the accepted wisdom in our country, especially the parental community. 

Let's start with Sin #1: After completing his PUC in Baroda, Venki gained admission to the Maharaja Sayyajirao University, for the coveted MBBS program. But he soon decided to give it up and switched to the B.Sc. program in Physics instead! The admission office initially refused to permit the transfer, convinced that an egregious mistake had been made, and only when he insisted, reluctantly acceded to his request. Venki's choice would be considered even more insane in today's world, where a sterile binary of "engineering or medicine" unfortunately rules the roost, and the frantic goal is to claw your way into these badly misnomered "professional programs". 

Sin #2:  After finishing his BSc, Venki went to America for a PhD in Physics at the Ohio University.  He completed the program successfully, and one might have reasonably expected that he would immediately take up a research position upon receiving the degree. But not so!  In an incredible and heart-warming display of academic integrity, Venki, after having come to realize that he was not particularly well suited for Physics, went straight back to college for another PhD! This time in biology, from the University of California, San Diego, attending classes with students much younger than himself. As I can testify from personal experience, most researchers are exhausted after negotiating just one PhD, but Venki possessed the remarkable mental strength to take on the strenuous program all over again!

Sin #3: A few years later, after a postdoctoral stint at Yale, Venki finally took up a scientific position in the Brookhaven National Lab where he worked for about fifteen years. Then, he suddenly moved from America to Cambridge University in England. Cambridge is a historically great institution, so you might think, what's the big deal in the shift - but then, I didn't tell you the full story - he made the transition with a substantive pay cut, at roughly half his earlier salary, simply because he wanted to collaborate with the researchers there!  And it was in Cambridge that he took his Nobel prize-winning work to fruition.

So, as you can see, the road to the Nobel Prize was paved with wrong choices, "wrong" according to our society, that is. The natural question that arises here is: How many of us would have had the courage to take such radical decisions, even one, let alone all three?  More bluntly, in my view, the primary reason India has woefully lagged behind in research is not a lack of ability or even of infrastructure, but an acute lack of self-belief, courage and creativity. To phrase it in colloquial terms, you, dear students, breathlessly watch the Fast and Furious movies, but rarely invoke its daredevilry in your own academic lives, opting instead to dutifully stick to the boring straight and narrow.   

In closing, the moral of this story is that, if you aspire to make breakthrough scientific contributions, they cannot be achieved by an insurance policy approach or by following the herd mentality.In essence, the message is: stop being a sheep, emulate a goat instead!  Goats do crazy stuff - they are free-thinkers, they are stubborn, and they clamber up impossible terrain - everything that a researcher should ideally be in a scientific career. I fervently wish that this message resonates with at least a few of you talented students out there, and we can look forward to the beatific prospect of home-grown Venki Ramakrishnans in the coming generations.

Comments

Thank you Prof. Jayant, for sharing this blog with us. It is truly inspiring.

The blog is brilliant, language & thoughts expressed superb. Kudos to Prof. Haritsa. It struck a special chord with me because Venki happens to be part of family, my wife's first cousin.

Prof. Haritsa has brought out beautifully how a real scientific mind works – following the heart & passion rather than well-accepted “norms” to success. Also how the mass psychology works – how suddenly Venki is showered with limelight, while almost unknown till the day before.

We, especially parents, need to encourage our children to pursue & excel in what they really like & enjoy, rather than fulfill their dreams for them. Venki’s son, though a Harvard physics graduate, is a professional cello player !!

Sankaran
Past IEEE Computer Society Vice President

I don't mind being scolded by someone who cares for me.

Courage of Prof. Venki is beyond my imagination. However I yearn for the same.

That was a very inspiring column sir. Prof.Venkataraman is a great person who dedicated his life to research.It is great to know that he deviated from society trends and found success.But when i thought of doing the same with my life,i am not sure i can succeed.The problem is the secret of success is not just following one's own mind,its not even following the trends of society.I don't agree that there is a specific general rule for reaching success.If not following society trends makes some one reach great heights,there are another bunch of people(administrators, doctors,politicians ,lawyers ) who just followed the society trends and achieved great successes.But their achievements don't make interesting stories.Success is a function of many variables.The only variable we found commonly in every story is 'Hard work'. The other variables are still unknown.Sir Charles Kuen Kao who is an 'engineer' got a noble the same year.This gives a completely different conclusion.So no matter whether we follow society trends or not if we are ready to put efforts in what we are doing,we can achieve a lot.Thank you.

Really inspiring!!!I really want our kids should follow their passion and we should encourage them to be free thinkers.

Scientist C N R Rao gives great insight as to what a scientific mind.The most brilliant minds like the KIT Ian's have to be drawn into it.In a country ,failure will destroy the student,can be discerned from the data,the largest number of suicides in India,takes place,the day secondary school results are out.Only,successful dropouts can bringout revolutionary achievements in science.I am one such person,very difficult to be backed by colleges,for nomination for InfosysScience Prize,hence the link of the research work is presented https://www.researchgate.net/post/Spooky_action_at_a_distanceWas_Einstein_wrong

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