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RNA pioneer Gobind Khorana's humble beginnings never left him

H Gobind Khorana, the Nobel winning scientist who passed away last Wednesday, is being remembered for his humility and introverted ways as much as his scientific achievements. The New York Times which has run a long tribute piece, recounts how the White House had to send a representative to personally track Khorana down to tell him he was being awarded the National Medal of Science, because he didn't like talking on the phone and had not read any of his mail. The Kansas city star noted how he used donuts as a means of figuring out which of his MA students had come into the labs to work over the weekend.

Image from MIT website

Khorana, was awarded a Nobel prize for physiology or medicine in 1968 for his path breaking work on how we understand DNA. He helped show that the four DNA nucleotides form three-letter words that specify the amino acids to be joined to proteins, or how cells 'read' the DNA code. (Read more)

Khorana's daughter, Julia Khorana, in a statement released by MIT, said that her father loved mentoring young scientists.

"Even while doing all this research, he was always really interested in education, in students and young people," she says. "After he retired, students would come to visit and he loved to talk to them about the work they were doing. He was very loyal to them, and they were very loyal to him, too."

The other factor that made Khorana so interesting was his rags to riches story. His life was a testimony to how hard work and raw brilliance could bring success. Born in Raipur, British India (now Pakistan), his father was the village "patwari" (or taxation official). He received  his early schooling from his village teacher under a tree and said  that his family was “practically the only literate family in the village inhabited by about 100 people,” in a Nobel Prize-oriented autobiography.

Later he did his B.Sc and M.Sc from Punjab University, Lahore. In 1945 he was awarded the Government of India Fellowship that enabled him to go to England where he studied for his PhD at the University of Liverpool. From that point onwards his aptitude for science won him a host of fellowships, ending with him working as MIT's Alfred P Sloan Professor of Biology and Chemistry emeritus.