Fifty years of academic literature, much of it written in Russian, stood between Professor Jeffrey Reimers and the solution to a problem he had mulled over for much of his career: what causes chlorophyll to have the colour it does.
Accepted explanations from the 1960s and the 1980s fell short, but in 25 years of research the resolution eluded Professor Reimers. Finally though, collaborating with some of the best minds in the field – professors Elmars Krausz and Arvi Freiberg – the theoretical chemist had the answer.
“We solved a 50-year-old riddle of how this molecule absorbs red light – and that’s critical to understanding chlorophyll’s role in the solar energy conversion that happens during photosynthesis,” says Professor Reimers, admitting he shed tears of relief at his desk when he made the breakthrough.
He says the popular science community has yet to embrace the discovery, but it will become more important over time, for solar energy capture and photovoltaic cells and in the development of increasingly sophisticated computers.
The Australian Academy of Science has recognised his work, however, awarding Professor Reimers the David Craig Medal for 2016. The Academy cited the breadth of his pioneering research, from the “application of chemical quantum theories in biochemical and technological areas … to explaining the solar-to-electrical energy conversion during photosynthesis and evaluating the role of chemical quantum effects in manifesting consciousness”.
“Given that my own research has been dependent on that of David Craig, a pioneer of theoretical chemistry in Australia, my award pays homage to a great scientist who inspired generations of scientists here and overseas,” he says.
Professor Reimers says he feels like an “academic grandson” of Craig, having done his honours year in 1978 at the Australian National University under the supervision of experimental chemist Ian Ross, himself one of Craig’s students.
“This prize is not just for me either – it’s for all the people I’ve collaborated with. This medal recognises the whole of my career with the chlorophyll work at the centre.
“To do something different, you don’t do that in a short period of time, or with just a few people. And these days, the forefront of research is often not in traditional fields and does not involve just one set of skills.”
Professor Reimers’ early passions were electronics and theatre. He credits a chemistry teacher Tony Guterres at Liverpool Boys High School with inspiring him to pursue a career in science. And he says one of the things he loves at this stage of his career is acting as a role model or mentor – “helping young people, students and staff, in their careers, just like David Craig”.
“My dream once would have been to retire at 55 and return to that earlier passion, the theatre, and put on shows for students.”
As it is, family life and academia account for his time more than adequately – as well as three sons in their 20s, he and his pharmacist wife have a seven-year-old daughter.
Since he joined UTS in 2014 he has been spending most of his time at Shanghai University, and he is passionate about the university’s partnership with this Chinese institution. There is real value for Chinese and Australian students and staff in the collaboration, he says.
His new project is in protein crystallography, which is critical to drug design.
“It may never make us famous either but it has the potential to revolutionise how biology is done,” says Professor Reimers.