Down in the basement of the Chemistry Building on the campus of Texas A&M University, Dr. Ganesa Gopalakrishnan is packing up his office. After 40 years of teaching organic chemistry, Gopalakrishnan, a senior lecturer in the Department of Chemistry, is retiring.
One by one, his collection of textbooks — some dating back to the start of his career — are boxed up. The plastic models of molecular structures that adorned his desk are disassembled and stored away. Syllabi and old exams from semesters past are finally thrown out.
Still proudly displayed on his wall, however, are decades’ worth of awards and plaques honoring his service to higher education at Texas A&M, a personal retrospective of a profession to which he devoted the majority of his life and something far more difficult to compartmentalize, much less quantify.
“There are so many outstanding researchers and outstanding teachers in our department,” Gopalakrishnan said. “I’m really lucky to have been a part of it.”
Gopalakrishnan, whose official last day is May 31, played a major role in helping to develop Texas A&M’s organic chemistry program in its formative years. His genial, straightforward teaching style in conveying the structure of molecular compounds found in living things, often punctuated with humorous anecdotes, made him revered by students who came to affectionately refer to him as “G.G.”
On April 29, nearly 80 colleagues and former students gathered via video conference to celebrate Gopalakrishnan’s career with a virtual retirement ceremony. For an hour and a half, teary goodbyes were interwoven with fond recollections of Gopalakrisnan’s quirky lectures and personal accounts of how his influence impacted lives.
“Every aspect of teaching, I loved it,” Gopalakrishnan said. “My teaching philosophy was to put myself in the shoes of each student and explain things in a way that they would be able to understand. Every lecture had to be taught a different way; that’s what made teaching both challenging and enjoyable.”
Dr. Simon W. North, professor and head of Texas A&M Chemistry, emceed the event and estimates that Gopalakrishnan taught approximately 25,000 students during his four decades as an instructor. Although a formal gathering to honor Gopalakrishnan was not possible due to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions, the outpouring of support from those wanting to send him off with one last thank-you, especially former students, was overwhelming.
“It is his ability to connect to students that they remember, and his students consistently comment that they feel he truly cares, not only about their success in the course, but also about them as individuals,” North said. “His record serves as a reminder to us all to try and see every interaction with students as an opportunity to inspire and encourage and connect.”
Anna Birgisson ’21 remembers being “terrified” as a freshman. Despite an advisor telling her point-blank to avoid organic chemistry, Birgisson says Gopalakrishnan’s enthusiasm and nurturing demeanor quickly put her at ease.
“Little did I know that his class would end up being my favorite because G.G. really did care so much,” she said. “He made it so much fun to learn with all of his stories. I’m just really honored that I got to be a part of G.G.’s legacy.”
Mikaila Singleton ’19 took Gopalakrishnan’s CHEM 227 course in the fall of 2016 but fondly recalls how he made it a point to stay in contact with her and her classmates throughout the rest of their undergraduate studies.
“We still visited G.G. because he cared about our success in life,” Singleton said. “Because of that, he made me a better person — a well-rounded person. He’s part of the reason I’m a medical student now, and for that, I am beyond thankful.”
While many of Gopalakrishnan’s pupils through the years would go on to pursue careers in research, education and medicine, his own academic journey was an uphill struggle, if not unlikely. Raised in the small farming village of Maruthur in southern India, no one in Gopalakrishnan’s family had ever received any formal education, and he himself was homeschooled until the fifth grade.
Through the connections of a family friend, Gopalakrishnan’s father was able to enroll him in a boarding school to continue his education. Showing signs of academic brilliance, Gopalakrishnan was accepted into the University of Madras in India, where it was determined that he should pursue chemistry.
“The dean of this college would go into his office and look at everyone’s grades,” Gopalakrishnan said. “Whatever subject your highest scores were in became your major.”
After obtaining his Ph.D. from Madras in 1977, Gopalakrishnan decided he needed teaching and research experience elsewhere. He contacted an acquaintance, a fellow professor in Kansas, who advised him to send his application to Texas A&M.
In 1980, Gopalakrishnan joined the Department of Chemistry, where he completed his postdoctoral studies as a member of the late Dr. John L. Hogg’s research group. Six months later, serendipity intervened: A full-time teaching position became available, and Gopalakrishnan was officially hired on as faculty.
“Little did I know what a treasure I was bringing to Texas A&M University when he joined my research group those many years ago,” Hogg said years later when reflecting on his decision to hire Gopalakrishnan.
Gopalakrishnan’s bond with Texas A&M only grew that much stronger when his wife, Thembavani, earned her Ph.D. in computer science in 1987, followed by their three children, who each received medical degrees.
His flair for teaching earned him numerous awards, including the Student Led Award for Teaching Excellence (2008), the Piper Professor Award (1999), the Texas A&M Association of Former Students Distinguished Achievement Award in Teaching (1998) and the Texas A&M Association of Former Students Distinguished Achievement College-Level Award in Teaching (1994).
In addition to teaching, Gopalakrishnan was a stalwart of educational outreach, helping to organize the Brazos Valley Regional Engineering and Science Fair for 15 years and the Joy of Chemistry in Summer Program for local junior high students for five years.
“I never sought or applied for any other job in my life, even in India,” Gopalakrishnan said. “I only applied for a teaching position at Texas A&M, and I continued it. I have to thank the Department of Chemistry for offering me the job all those years ago and keeping me.
“I could not have achieved any of this in any other place.”
Now at the outset of the rest of his life, Gopalakrishnan plans to do a little traveling with his wife and spend more time with his grandchildren. Although he’s looking forward to the next chapter, one thing is certain: It will take some getting used to.
“I talked to several of my friends who have retired; they said it is a wonderful life,” Gopalakrishnan said. “I hope I will have a wonderful life. But still, it is not equal to a life at Texas A&M.”
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See additional photographs of Gopalakrishnan through the years in this bonus video clip featuring the Organic Chemistry Song, written and performed by Kevin Krenek ’95 more than 25 years ago in tribute to one of his favorite Texas A&M professors.
Contact: Chris Jarvis, (979) 845-7246 or email@example.com or Dr. Simon W. North, (979) 845-4947 or firstname.lastname@example.org