Professor Graham Fleming

Doctor of Science Professor Graham Fleming

Monday 16 July 2012 at 2.30 pm - Orator: Professor Mike Ashfold

Mr Vice-Chancellor,

Those of us on the staff of this University never cease to be impressed by the remarkable things many of our graduates go on to achieve in their later life.  Today’s honorary graduand is yet another wonderful exemplar of what can be possible.   

Graham Fleming is Vice Chancellor for Research and the Melvin Calvin Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley.  Berkeley, on San Francisco Bay, is the flagship campus of the University of California, and is universally renowned as one of the world’s premier universities – boasting no fewer than nine Nobel laureates amongst its current faculty.  The Chancellor of UC Berkeley oversees six divisions, each of which is led by a Vice Chancellor.  By my reckoning, this makes today’s honorary graduand second (equal) among the leaders of his University.  As Vice-Chancellor for Research, Professor Fleming has overall responsibility for the research endeavour of the entire Berkeley campus, and exercises primary leadership in its research policy, planning and administration.  His portfolio includes management of some fifty campus research units, as well as research museums, remote field stations and research administration offices.  He is responsible for almost $760M of reserved funding and, since almost half of all research at Berkeley is conducted in multidisciplinary centres that report directly to him, Professor Fleming has oversight of an incredibly diverse research portfolio – spanning, for example, space science, the theory of computing, biofuels, the social behaviour of hyenas, the Tebtunis papyri, and the study of human development and personality!  Yet, as you will hear later, this is only a part of his current ‘day-job’.  First, however, I need to go back and trace the career path which has taken Professor Fleming to this exalted position.

Graham was born in Barrow, Cumbria, and came to Bristol to read Chemistry as an undergraduate in 1968, graduating with a BSc in 1971.  Graham is one of many students attracted to Bristol not just by the reputation of its University, but also because of the proximity of challenging rock faces.  All Chemistry undergraduates at Bristol (then, and now – as today’s graduating class can attest) undertake a research project in their final year in lieu of more traditional laboratory practical classes.  Graham’s final year project was supervised by Richard Dixon – now an Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at this University, whom I am delighted to see here on the stage today – and Geoff Duxbury, who went on to become Professor of Chemical Physics at the University of Strathclyde.  Graham’s project was successful, and led to his first scientific publication.

Wednesday afternoons then (as now) were reserved for ‘sport’ which, in Graham’s case, often involved riding his motorbike to the Avon Gorge in order that he could then spend a few happy hours scaling one of its many challenging limestone walls.  Graham has shared with me a few other memories from his Bristol days – one of which seems particularly apposite: As a first year undergraduate, he recalls sitting on the floor in a student residence, with friends, listening while a girl from California played Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ and told her wide-eyed audience about tanks and tear gas on the Berkeley campus.  Little did he know that, 30 years on, this would become his home.  Graham assures me that tanks and tear gas are thankfully now things of the past, but that protest is still common!

Graham showed a flair for research and was determined to undertake Ph.D. studies.  The early 1970’s were ‘difficult’ times: funding to support PhD students was scarce.  Thus Graham was encouraged to explore opportunities elsewhere, and received (and accepted) an offer to study in the group of Professor George Porter at the Royal Institution and University of London.  George Porter was already a Nobel laureate by this time, for his discovery and application of the flash photolysis technique, but was only knighted after Graham’s arrival – though this timing was probably coincidental!   Graham’s PhD (completed in 1974) involved both experimental and theoretical studies of decay pathways for molecules excited by absorption of light – and served to shape much of his subsequent research career. 

Following successful post-doctoral fellowships at Caltech (Pasadena) and at the University of Melbourne in Australia, Graham returned to the UK to spend a further two years at the Royal Institution as a Leverhulme Fellow before moving to the USA to join the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1979.  There, he quickly established an original and productive research programme using very short duration pulses of laser light to explore the photophysics of excited molecules, including chlorophyll.  This work represents one of the first ultrafast laser studies designed to probe the fundamentals of photosynthesis – the process by which plants convert sunlight to energy and, as a welcome by-product, turn carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas of huge contemporary importance) to oxygen.  Graham rapidly rose through the academic ranks in Chicago, becoming the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor in 1987 – a post he held for a decade, during which time he served as Chair of the Chemistry Department and played a lead role in creating the Institute for Biophysical Dynamics (which, at the time, was the University of Chicago’s first new research institute in more than 50 years).  But, as one of his then colleagues told me, he remained proud of his roots; among the most prominent of the exhibits on the wall of his office was a framed newspaper cutting headed ‘Barrow boy makes good’.

Graham moved to UC Berkeley in 1997, where he is currently the Melvin Calvin Distinguished Professor of Chemistry.  Upon arrival, he immediately set about initiating, planning, and then becoming the first Director of, QB3.  QB3, the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, is one of four Governor Gray Davis Institutes for Science and Innovation established in 2000 with the aim of helping to ensure the future of the California economy by promoting research and innovation. QB3 seeks to harness quantitative sciences like physics and engineering to unify our understanding of biological systems at all levels of complexity, from atoms and molecules to cells, tissues, and entire living organisms. 

Graham’s role in re-shaping the intersection of physical and biological sciences – at UC Berkeley, and more widely – cannot be overstated.  He is a tireless ambassador for science, and the ways in which it can help to safeguard and to enhance the quality of life.  Yet all of this has been achieved whilst, at the same time, running a large research group (including one who graduated from my own group here in Bristol last summer) and maintaining his own ground-breaking investigations which, increasingly, seek to address the inter-relation and inter-complexity of photosynthesis, energy and climate.  This body of work is described in some 450 scientific publications, which ensure Graham’s position as one of the world's foremost authorities on ultrafast processes in molecules.  His achievements have been recognised by many awards – too many to list here.  Suffice to say that Graham holds the rare distinction of having been elected to the Fellowship both of the Royal Society (1994) and of the US National Academy of Sciences (2007).  

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Professor Graham Fleming as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.



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