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An Inspiring Day Of My Childhood ‐ A Tribute To Har Gobind Khorana

Govinda Rao Bhisetti, Ph.D

I remember the day vividly, but I do not remember the date. I know I was in 6th grade in a new school with old friends and new classmates. The monsoon rains ended, and also the festival season. The cold weather had not set in yet. There was greenery all around and the rice fields were filled with clear standing water. It is my favorite time of the year. We were back in school after Dasara holidays.
My guess is that the date was October 18th or 19th of 1968. It was a bright and beautiful day. I learned in school that Har Gobind Khorana was awarded the Nobel Prize. I remember the excitement and joy all around me. It was overwhelming. I was also thrilled that my first name is the same as his, though we spell it differently.  Khorana is one of us – one born among the teaming (500+) millions in India who climbed the pinnacle of science and brought the biggest science prize and glory to the nation – a fantastic Diwali gift to the whole nation. Diwali was celebrated on October 21, 1968. This was the first Nobel Prize awarded to an Indian after India’s Independence. Only two others (Rabindranath Tagore in 1913 for literature and Sir C. V. Raman in 1930 for Physics) got this honor decades earlier. Few people I knew had memory of those events. Nobel Prize to Khorana happened in our time… it was a momentous day!
While sitting in a middle school classroom in a small town in a remote part of India, it was not possible for me to grasp the magnitude of this success or comprehend how a person born in a poor family of rural Punjab rose to become a world famous scientist and win the Nobel Prize. Khorana showed that it was possible for an Indian to achieve feats as stupendous as winning the Nobel Prize. But most of us felt that it was possible only for a rare gifted individual like Khorana – one in a million. The science Khorana did was so incomprehensible for my little mind. Even the teacher who told us Khorana created life matter in a test tube, found his work to be so exotic and difficult to explain. America, where Khorana lived and worked, was far away in a distant continent that was unreachable even to the wishful wanderings of my mind. I did not imagine in my wildest dreams that one day I would meet Har Gobind Khorana and sit down with him for a chat. But, it did happen! It happened 20 years later.
Several moths after Khorana’s Nobel Prize in October of 1968, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon on July 20, 1969. These two events left an indelible impression on my young mind. These events may have contributed to my choice of a career in science, instead of pursuing medicine or engineering like many of my friends. I went to Indian Institute of Science to get my Ph. D., and joined Scripps Research Institute (La Jolla, CA) as a Research Fellow. One day at Scripps in 1988, somebody said Khorana was in the building. He was a member of Scripps Governing Board and used to visit Scripps. I rushed to the lobby from lab and got a glimpse of him as he was heading out. About a year later in January 1989, I attended a conference at NIH (National Institute of Health, Bethesda, MD). Khorana was an invited speaker at the conference. I was thrilled to hear his lecture on rhodopsin - the pigment in the eye’s retina that is responsible for the first step in the biological perception of light. During the coffee break, I was chatting one-on-one with Tom Blundell (a famous protein crystallographer from University of London) when Khorana walked by. Blundell immediately got up on his feet, bent over respectfully to greet Khorana. Khorana sat down with us for coffee and that is when I got my chance to introduce myself and shake hands with him. It was a dream come true … a dream I never dared to dream. For those few minutes, I was on cloud nine.
Prof. Har Gobind Khorana passed away on November 9. He has been an inspiration to a lot of students and scientists in India. Because of Khorana’s important contributions to science, I have decided to dedicate a part of Science Day to pay tribute to Prof. Khorana. At the Annual Science Day to be held on December 29, 2011 at my house (in Lexington, MA), students from 6th to 12th grade living in nearby towns are invited to discuss the scientific works of the 2011 Nobel Prize Winners, Science Breakthroughs of the Year, and Global events of the Year. If you are interested in attending, please send an e-mail to govindarb@yahoo.com.

Nobel Laureate H. Gobind Khorana, 89, a biochemist and the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Biology & Chemistry emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, died in Concord, Mass.

Khorana won the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for innovative research on the genetic code, which explains how the order of nucleotides in messenger RNA determines the order of amino acids in a protein.

Born in India’s Punjab region, Khorana received a bachelor’s degree in 1943 and a master’s degree in 1945, both in chemistry, from Punjab University. A fellowship from the Indian government allowed him to study at the University of Liverpool, in England, where he earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1948.

After conducting postdoctoral work at ETH Zurich and the University of Cambridge, Khorana was recruited to join the British Columbia Research Council, in Vancouver, in 1952. In 1970, he moved to MIT.

Khorana was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and a member of the American Chemical Society for more than 50 years. He received the ACS Chicago Section’s Willard Gibbs Medal in 1974 and the National Medal of Science in 1987.

Khorana is survived by his son, Dave, and daughter Julia. His daughter Emily Anne and his wife, Esther, died before him.

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