Jayaraman Sivaguru makes a difference in lab, classroom
BGSU professor’s groundbreaking research shines light on impact of Center for Photochemical Sciences
By Julie Carle ’78
When Jayaraman Sivaguru (Siva) was finishing high school in his native India, he envisioned a career working with computers and engineering.
His academic performance during his first year of college was remarkable in chemistry and caught the attention of one of his college professors, Dr. K. V. Raman, who encouraged him to pursue a career in chemistry. The teacher's mentorship and encouragement enabled him to enter the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT-Madras) for his master's degree.
“Honestly, I didn’t even know chemistry was a path I could take,” Sivaguru said. “I believe that the mentorship and advice from Professor Raman really changed what I was going to do.”
Since that time, his ascent in the world of chemistry and photochemistry has been rapid. He is the Antonia and Marshall Wilson Professor of Chemistry and associate director of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University.
During his academic journey — from bachelor’s to master’s to doctoral degrees — he received guidance from dedicated educators and chemistry/photochemistry experts, each one shepherding him to the next mentor.
His Ph.D. adviser at Tulane University, Dr. V. Ramamurthy, praised Sivaguru for his intelligence, cooperation and work ethic, ranking him in the top 5 percent of the students he has taught in 40 years.
“He worked very hard, published a lot and helped put our program at the forefront with our chiral chemistry research,” the now University of Miami (Florida) professor said.
When Sivaguru went from Tulane to Columbia University for post-doctoral work, he trained with the late Nicholas Turro of the National Academy of Science. Under the tutelage of Turro and Ramamurthy, who co-authored “Modern Molecular Photochemistry,” the book that is considered the bible for the field, Sivaguru learned from two of the world’s leading experts in photochemistry.
His research today, which reflects that influence, is based on how light interacts with matter.
“We have a diverse set of projects, but the central theme is to see how light interacts with matter, whether it is molecules or material, and investigate their properties,” Sivaguru said. “Once you understand their properties, essentially, you can tailor them to benefit our society. Light plays an impactful role in our lives, whether it is photosynthesis by plants providing us food, making computer chips or helping us make complex molecules for therapeutics or materials that cater to daily comforts."
One of the areas involves utilizing light to build chiral molecules, which make up the majority of the drugs that are in the market today. Chiral molecules have mirror image forms, just like a pair of gloves, with a left hand form and a right hand form. While the two forms possess the same physical properties, their biological properties are quite different. For example, one form might be therapeutic and the other form can cause side effects.
"It is a holy grail for chemists to develop strategies over the last hundred years to access only one chiral form," he said. "Typically, expensive metal catalysts are employed to access them."
Since 2006, Sivaguru's lab has developed methodologies in which light acts as a reagent to access one form of the chiral molecule very effectively. The strategy he developed is so unique that it was recognized by the Swiss Chemical Society for its innovation. Sivaguru's group has also recently developed photocatalysts based on hydrogen bonding to access chiral molecules with high efficiency and purity.
Another area of research pioneered by the Sivaguru lab involves biomimetic supramolecular photocatalysis.
"This is a methodology borrowed from nature," Sivaguru explained "Similar to how enzymes can sequester molecules to do chemistry in your body, we use water soluble nano-containers to sequester or encapsulate molecules and dictate them to react in a specific manner with light. An interesting conceptual significance is this nano-container will change shape to accommodate the molecule they sequester, similar to many biological enzymes and enhance their reactivity upon interaction with light."
One of the projects in Sivaguru's lab, which has received worldwide attention and has been highlighted in the media, is his group's invention of using light to make degradable and recyclable polymers from plants. Plastics are part of everyday life, from the toothbrush that is used first thing in the morning to the bag used to take out the garbage at night. Plastics are often derived from fossil fuels. The ever-dwindling petroleum reserves in the world put enormous strain to find alternative sources for energy-intensive tasks such as driving an automobile and producing plastics used in day-to-day life. Additionally, the plastics we use daily are difficult to degrade and often present ecological, environmental and biological problems as they are transformed to small molecules or micro-plastics that are toxic.
His group is working to address the issue of dependence of fossil fuel-based, nondegradable plastic materials by developing plant-based plastics that are degradable and recyclable. They want to develop plant-based plastics that won't clog landfills while they degrade or create toxic chemicals once they do degrade.
The idea was to supplement fossil fuels with plant-derived materials.
"Additionally, we want the plastics to be degradable and recyclable," he said. "This will enable us to make the process sustainable. We wanted sustainability as part of our strategy because if there is competition between using plants for food or for plastics, nobody will say, ‘I’m going to make this plastic rather than use the plant for food,’” Sivaguru said.
The goal is to use plant-derived materials to make a simple, small organic molecule, called a monomer. Sivaguru compared this monomer to a Lego® piece and explained that a polymer would be a big Lego® set designed by assembling the individual Lego® pieces. An important element when they assemble the polymer or the Lego® set is to place a light-sensitive unit within the set.
"We have the ability to design and develop a light-activated unit or molecules that are stimulated at a specific wavelength of light," he said.
Once the Lego® set is assembled, it is pre-programmed to degrade with specific wavelength of light. By shining light on the Lego® set of a specific wavelength that is pre-designed, it is taken apart into individual Lego pieces which then can be reassembled to another shape.
"In short, you can make plant-derived materials or polymers that are degradable with light and recyclable on demand with a flip of a switch," Sivaguru said.
The long-term commitment to basic research is the key to address many of the scientific, economic and ecological challenges that modern society might face, he believes. "It typically takes decades for the human society to realize the importance of basic research discovery, as development and testing takes time. Without our commitment to basic research, we will not be where we are today."
Though he chose to be a photochemist and focus his research on making the world a better place to live and do something very good for humanity, he knows anything he creates has to be practical and affordable to the society at large.
“It is great to have an environmentally friendly strategy that will work in the lab as an experimental proof-of-concept, but to realize its full potential and to benefit society, the scientific process should not only be ecofriendly but also be economically viable," he added.
While he and his co-workers have secured the patent for the strategy, he would like to generate workable and practical products out of this invention. One of his long-term goals is to start a company, create high-end jobs, in addition to addressing the environmental problems using science and research.
“That’s a long-term goal I really want to do,” though he laughed when he admitted that he will stick with his chemist job and teaching rather than running the company as a CEO.
In addition to working on basic and applied research, he and his students have recently started working with Johnson & Johnson® Vision. He also works on water remediation initiatives using photochemistry, a project that started with Dr. Eakalak Khan, a water resource engineer, during their association as academics at North Dakota State University (NDSU) in Fargo. They developed a photochemical process to remove toxins and toxic chemicals from water.
According to Dr. Mukund Sibi, a university distinguished professor, American Chemical Society Cope Scholar and organic chemist at North Dakota State, Sivaguru was “an outstanding colleague and a really bright star in photochemistry.” They worked on many projects together and have continued their partnerships in research and in the classroom.
Dr. Malcolm Forbes, director of the Center for Photochemical Sciences, recognized that Sivaguru’s 11 years at NDSU were “well spent in establishing his reputation as an internationally recognized leader in his field.
“I had him in mind for a senior hire for the center and chemistry faculty at BGSU,” Forbes said. “He is friendly, outgoing and very active. He teaches, manages his research group and helps me channel ideas for the growth and increased external funding on which our center heavily relies.”
Sivaguru’s dedication to his research is second to his commitment to educating young scientists. He has assumed the role of shepherd and mentor to his students in the lab and the classroom.
It is a badge he wears with pride.
“Looking back at every stage in my career, I had a professor or teacher who really gave me direction,” he said.
As much as he enjoyed the science and the research, he also knew he wanted to go into academics because of the teachers he had encountered in his career.
“I was able to see what influence they had and I wanted to do the same,” Sivaguru said.
He tries to share similar lessons and practices that his mentors taught him — lessons such as the importance of exploration on their own.
“In research, you have to develop an attitude of coping with experimental failures and pursue research avenues that are a little bit out of your comfort zone," he said. "That's a lesson I learned from my mentors who gave me the freedom to explore and do things on my own."
The focus should always be on “doing the best job you can” rather than worrying about the consequences of it, such as where the research will be published, his mentors advised him. His post-doctoral adviser was one of the first to incorporate computers in the classroom in the late 1990s, explaining to Sivaguru that “if a new technology has the promise of educating students better, it is worth the trouble of learning and incorporating the technology in spite of the challenges they tend to come with."
At BGSU, he has utilized software that draws chemical structures on an iPad and projects them live, allowing students to visualize chemical reactions and methods better in the classroom. The students liked it so much, he shared it with other faculty members who now are using it in their classrooms.
Seth Smith, a junior chemistry major from Clyde, Ohio, met the professor during a chemistry club meeting and was immediately impressed with his enthusiasm for chemistry.
Sivaguru helped Smith successfully apply for a Center for an Undergraduate Research and Scholarship grant last summer. This year he was selected to perform summer research in Sivaguru's lab through a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). And when Smith sat in on a research meeting, “Dr. Siva would draw out something when I did not understand and explain point by point the reaction mechanism.
“I believe his research is crucial for the future as the world reconciles its dependence on fossil fuels with oceans full of plastic," Smith said. "By designing plastics in a way which allows them to be photodegradable, the polymer can be turned back into a monomer, which can be shaped into a new container.”
In addition to Sivaguru’s commitment to his students, he is also interested in helping local high school students experience the joy of doing cutting-edge research. He developed and implemented a program called PICNICS, or Parents Involvement with Children Nurturing Intellectual Curiosity in Science. He introduced the program at NDSU, where it was very successful, and decided to initiate it at BGSU after his move to Ohio in 2017. He ran a successful program in 2018 with eight students from five northwest Ohio high schools.
This summer marks the second year for the BGSU program that exposes high school students to research in the chemical sciences and stimulates their interest in science, technology and math. The program runs from mid-June to mid-July.
Among his most prized awards during his career thus far are the two teaching awards he received.
“It is something I cherish because it acknowledges that so many people have been influenced in the classroom,” he said.
He also received the 2008 National Science Foundation CAREER award, the 2010 Grammaticakis-Neumann Prize from the Swiss Chemical Society for outstanding independent research by a faculty member under the age of 40 in the fields of photochemistry, photophysics or molecular photobiology, and young investigator awards from the Inter-American Photochemical Society and Sigma-Xi.
He recently was named a Presidential Visiting Fellow of the Chinese Science Academy of Sciences and traveled to China in 2018 and 2019 to collaborate with scientists there. He also serves as the American editor of the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology: A-Chemistry.