College of LAS « Illinois

Govindjee

An Absorbing Interest

Govindjee

Govindjee still remembers the day when he and a fellow student in India were taking a walk and he noticed a spotted, yellowed plant with curling leaves. Instantly, Govindjee was fascinated, and the two students decided they were going to find out what lay behind the plant’s condition.

This, Govindjee recalls, was the beginning of a life-long passion for plants and specifically for photosynthesis, one of nature’s most important processes.

Just as a plant absorbs light and creates energy, Govindjee’s career has been one of absorbing everything he could learn about photosynthesis and then transforming it into energy—or, as one former student calls it, “an infectious enthusiasm.”

Govindjee stands out as “perhaps the world’s most recognized photosynthesis researcher,” says Donald Ort, University of Illinois professor of plant physiology. “Driven by a single-minded fascination with the process of photosynthesis, Govindjee’s research contributions have been paradoxically far-reaching and diverse.”

That is why Govindjee also stands out as a recipient of the 2008 LAS Alumni Achievement Award.

Govindjee goes by only one name, a family tradition that sometimes causes headaches in the passport office. He was raised in Allahabad, India, which is most famous for the sacred site along the Ganges River where Hindus flock to immerse themselves in the water.

Govindjee, meanwhile, busily immersed himself in his studies at nearby Allahabad University, where he obtained his master’s degree in botany and became enthralled with photosynthesis. In fact, his first paper, written with his friend about the virus infecting that yellowed, spotted plant, wound up being published in the prestigious journal Nature, a rare feat for graduate students.

Govindjee also remembers the day in which he and other Indian students put on a mock symposium, in which they dressed up and acted the roles of various scientific giants in the field. Govindjee dressed up as Robert Emerson, not realizing that within a couple of years he would come to Illinois to study under Emerson, one of the world’s leading photosynthesis researchers.

Govindjee and his wife Rajni came to the United States in 1956 and 1957 respectively, working on their PhDs under Emerson as U of I graduate fellows, only to be shocked by the professor’s untimely death in a plane crash in 1959.

“It was one of the most horrible things of our lives,” Govindjee says. “We wondered what to do. Should we return to India?”

Ultimately, Govindjee and his wife opted to stay at the U of I, finishing their PhDs under Eugene Rabinowitch, and they have been here ever since studying what another student calls his “grand obsession.”

Among Govindjee’s many discoveries, one of his best known was his seminal research on chlorophyll fluorescence. In addition to absorbing light energy and converting it into sugars, leaves also emit light, which is known as chlorophyll fluorescence. Chlorophyll fluorescence is invisible to the naked eye, but it provides important diagnostic information about the photosynthesis process in plants, algae, and cyanobacteria.

Govindjee says his work has focused on the basic reactions within plants before they begin making food. For instance, his lab was the first to measure the initial, ultra-fast chemical event in photosystem II of the photosynthesis process. Photosystem II is the only system on Earth that leads to the water oxidation process, which is responsible for the oxygen in our atmosphere.

Govindjee was also the first to unravel the unique role that bicarbonate/carbon dioxide plays in photosystem II during photosynthesis, which differs from its major role in making sugars.

Govindjee has been the heart and soul of the photosynthesis community, both at U of I and in the wider world. At the U of I, for instance, his lab was known for its family atmosphere. His very first PhD student, George Papageorgiou, says he vividly remembers the weekly evening seminars in Govindjee’s home. As students gathered on sofas and armchairs and dined on tea and snacks, Govindjee stood at a chalkboard in the living room, writing madly with chalk dust raining down on the carpet.

According to Papageorgiou, “The spirit was great...discussions were heated but friendly, with arguments, counterarguments, and counter-counterarguments flowing freely.”

Another student captured the feeling by describing Govindjee’s photosynthesis laboratory as “full of fun, frolic, and festivities.”

Internationally, Govindjee has also fostered a community atmosphere among photosynthesis researchers through Photosynthesis Research, the world’s leading photosynthesis journal, which he edited for 25 years. He also founded the Advances in Photosynthesis and Respiration book series from Springer publishers, overseeing 28 volumes in the series since 1994.

Govindjee retired in 1999, but that has not slowed him down, and he continues to publish at a fantastic rate, particularly about his new passion—the history of photosynthesis research. He plans to stay put in Urbana because “the people are so friendly and the professors so cooperative. We value the people at U of I and keep in touch with every alumnus that worked with me. I’m trying to honor several of my former 25 graduate students in different ways.”

For a professor who focuses so hard on honoring his students, the Alumni Achievement Award is only fitting. It’s his turn to be honored.

By Doug Peterson
Spring 2009