Written by Professor Jerry Cohen
Professor Gary M. Gardner is retiring from the Department of Horticultural Science and became an emeritus professor in January 2021. Gary came to the University of Minnesota in 1990 to serve as Head of the Department Horticultural Science, a position he held until the end of 2001. Gary began his science career in the summer after high school working in the laboratory of Dr. Paul Gordon, a pharmacologist at Chicago Medical School, and then as an undergraduate student at Oberlin College. He became fascinated with plants while taking a required course in Plant Physiology with Professor Tom Scott. His graduate studies were at Harvard University with Prof. Winslow R. Briggs on biochemical and biophysical studies of the photo-reversible plant pigment, phytochrome. Prof. Briggs was internationally recognized as an intellectual leader in the critical transition from classical botany into the era of a molecular understanding of plant development. Following graduate education, Gary was awarded a NATO postdoctoral fellowship in the Botany Department of Glasgow University, Scotland, to study polar auxin transport in gravitropism and phototropism, but he also had an opportunity to visit many of the leading European laboratories of the day involved in plant light signaling and hormone receptor biology. Gary returned to the US to join Prof Hans Kende’s lab at the Michigan State AEC (now DOE) Plant Research Laboratory where he continued to develop his research interests in plant small molecule receptors for cytokinins and gibberellins.
Following postdoctoral studies. Gary became a Research Plant Physiologist at the Shell Development Company in Modesto, CA, a facility with a long history of discovery research at the academic-industry interface. Gary took advantage of the excellence in chemical biology to further explore both light and chemical signaling in plant biology. Many important discoveries ensued, ranging from new classes of auxin transport inhibitors, elucidation of phytochrome photochemistry, and the discovery of the atrazine receptor protein, one of the first small molecule receptors described in plants. During this period Gary built a research center of excellence at Shell and supported collaborations with many of the leading-edge research laboratories in North America.
Shell’s agrochemical program was sold to DuPont in 1986 and Gary moved first to DuPont and then to Abbott Laboratories, where he served as Section Head of the Plant Sciences Department and was able to continue his interests in mode of action of plant active compounds.
Gary made the move to academic life when he came to the University of Minnesota in 1990. Gary’s time as Department Head was marked by a period of growth of the Arboretum as well as the research and teaching activities in the Department. One of his major efforts as Department Head was to improve our capital facilities for plant research within the College. This included leadership on a major NSF Academic Infrastructure grant that brought 54 new plant growth chambers to the St. Paul Campus, a push to replace and update our greenhouses that led to Dean Mike Martin’s proposal that resulted in Legislative funds to build the PGF, and coordination of the project that included the renovation of the HRC 600 building and construction of a new experimental winery. He also organized and hosted, with support from the NSF/DOE/USDA the 15th International Conference on Plant Growth Substances in July 1995, served as the Acting Associate Dean of Research for the college, and took a five-month research leave with Prof. Peter Quail in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology and the Plant Gene Expression Center, University of California, Berkeley in 1998-1999.
Toward the end of the 1990s, Gary initiated a healthy plant initiative by establishing the Center for Plants and Human Health and serving as its director, a research direction at UMN that had continued in various forms for the last 20 years. He, along with Mindy Kurzer, played a key role in President Bruinink’s Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives Legislative Initiative that led to the funding and the formation of the Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives Initiative. He also initiated a research program with three primary foci, understanding light regulation of health-related compounds in plants, the regulation of plant growth by light, and light-auxin interactions. Gary took a second research leave to the Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology, University of California, Los Angeles in 2004-2005 to work with Profs. Chentao Lin and Elaine Tobin and to expand his skills on molecular approaches to photoreceptor biology and plant development, specifically on mechanisms of UV-B perception in plants.
Gary taught, with his own unique flair and enthusiasm, Hort1031 Vines and Wines: Introduction to Viticulture and Enology starting in 2004, he served on the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association, and for six years he served as chair of the International Cold Climate Wine Competition. His interest in wine extended to being our local expert on fine dining and he is always willing to suggest new and better venues for taking departmental guests.
Gary is active campus-wide and has been a staunch supporter of the University of Minnesota. He served many times on the Faculty Senate and on its committees, was both a member and was on the executive committee of the Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences, and was vice-president for the Twin Cities Chapter of the AAUP. His keen interest in state politics coupled with his extensive campus experience made him a highly effective University Faculty Legislative Liaison from 2013-2016. His campus-wide commitments earned him the University of Minnesota President’s Award for Outstanding Service in 2019. Out of gratitude for the opportunity to have fulfilling professional careers at the University of Minnesota, Gary and his late wife Helen Kivnick have established two endowment funds, the Gardner-Kivnick Fellowship in Plant Developmental Biology in the Department of Horticultural Science (2013) and the Kivnick-Gardner Fund for the Arts and Social Work in the School of Social Work (2020).