The Power of Naïve Questions

A leading chemist reflects on the questions that drive her.

Laura E. Partain

As an academically gifted second grader in Louisville, Ky., Renã Robinson (Ph.D. '07, Chemistry) was bused from the all-Black school in her neighborhood to a mostly white one. There she saw stark differences in the quality of books, supplies, and even instruction. That bothered her. So, with her mother’s encouragement, she wrote to the school superintendent.

“My mom is a very honest person who calls out things as they are,” she explains. “When things weren’t as they should be, she’d help us find a way to navigate that.”

Now, as the Dorothy J. Wingfield Phillips Chancellor’s Faculty Fellow and principal investigator at a pioneering chemistry lab at Vanderbilt University, Robinson (née Sowell) continues to be committed to addressing racial disparities, not only in her research, but as a mentor and advocate for young scientists.

“It’s extremely important to have a diverse team in a lab,” she says. “If we’re going to move the world’s greatest problems forward, all the different voices we have in our society must be represented.”

The problem Robinson’s lab focuses on is aging, specifically the role that proteins play in triggering and indicating conditions including Alzheimer’s Disease, sepsis, and the weakening of the immune system. In order to do this work, Robinson first needed to develop innovative techniques in mass spectrometry and proteomics, or the analysis of complete sets of proteins within a group of cells or organ. Her lab is using these techniques to try to pinpoint why African Americans are twice as likely as white people to contract Alzheimer’s and sepsis, among other projects. This is a complex, interdisciplinary question considering environmental factors, stress levels, and related conditions like hypertension and diabetes.

“Stress can lead to premature biologic aging,” Robinson explains. “Who you are matters in terms of the stress you experience on a daily basis.”

Robinson in her lab at Vanderbilt University.

At just 42 years old, Robinson is one of the leading researchers in the field of aging, an interest that began as a teenager. Her mother was a dietician at a local hospital and her father worked for L&N Railroad. Both were committed to the education of their daughter and three sons.

“They had very high expectations that we would do well in school,” Robinson says. “That was our baseline.”

She attended a variety of science camps and afterschool programs, where she encountered a diverse group of academically engaged peers.

“The people in these programs looked like me,” she reflects. “I never got the message that I can’t do this because I am a woman or I’m Black.”

In high school she worked at a nursing home and heard about her mother’s experience as a caregiver for people with memory issues.  “I developed a lot of empathy,” she remembers. “I saw what it means to age and what it means to need someone to care for you.”

However, when she arrived at Indiana University to pursue a Ph.D. in analytic chemistry, she had a different path in mind: to start her own cosmetics company. As she went from lab to lab looking for an advisor, her aspirations were met with skepticism, until she talked with David Clemmer, now a distinguished professor and the Robert and Marjorie Mann Chair in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry.

“He was the first person who didn’t scoff at my ideas,” says Robinson.

Instead, he invited her to work on a project studying aging in fruit flies, suggesting she might be able to discover something that would help her develop an anti-aging cream. Clemmer’s project introduced her to proteomics, as well as a range of various spectrometry techniques.

“I learned how to take all these fancy and sophisticated tools and apply them to things that matter,” she recalls. “I also learned a lot by being open and flexible. I am where I am now because I was able to adapt to different scenarios.”

She left her interest in cosmetics behind to dive into the study of aging. After completing her Ph.D., she pursued a postdoc at the University of Kentucky and received a two-year, $85,000 Science Initiative Award from the United Negro College Fund and Merck & Co. to study oxidative stress, or the buildup of highly reactive, oxygen-containing molecules known as free radicals. The lab she worked in was instrumental in connecting the presence of free radicals to Alzheimer’s.

"If we’re going to move the world’s greatest problems forward, all the different voices we have in our society must be represented."

In 2009, she joined the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh. There, she asked what she calls a “naïve question”: What happens in the rest of the body when a person has Alzheimer’s? It was a counter-intuitive leap to examine the liver or the kidneys to better understand a brain disease but could yield important discoveries. Robinson hopes, for example, to develop a better way of diagnosing Alzheimer’s using markers in tissue outside of the brain, since it’s impossible to biopsy the brain of a living patient. In addition, she is trying to identify how changes in the proteins peripheral organs produce might trigger the onset of Alzheimer’s, which could lead to new ways of treating the disease.

“Sometimes those counter-intuitive ideas are the best for moving things forward,” she suggests.

The exigencies of her research have led her to develop novel ways of processing large sample sets, sometimes thousands of proteins at a time. These discoveries have led to accolades like being named one of the “Talented 12” most promising young minds in the field by Chemical and Engineering News. More importantly, these techniques allow her to live her values.

“We have discovered the importance of having a diverse and inclusive cohort of research subjects,” she explains. Being able to take samples from around 30 people at once and process them in a timely manner helps Robinson ensure her pool of subjects is comprehensive.

Now the head of her own lab at Vanderbilt University, Robinson is pursuing several lines of inquiry related to aging, as well as advocating for greater diversity and inclusion in the STEM fields.

“I try to be a resource to students,” she says. “Sometime students know what they’re experiencing is not right, so I’m here to be a voice and a sponsor.”

As the only woman of color on faculty in her department, she is a magnet for diverse students eager to work with someone who understands their experience.

“I am proud of every underrepresented student I have seen able to navigate these programs,” she says. “There is so much richness in each individual’s story and journey.”

Robinson’s dedication to her students and advisees prompted Ph.D. candidate Kaitlyn Stepler to transfer from the University of Pittsburgh to Vanderbilt so she could continue working with the chemistry professor.

“Robinson always pushes us to think deeper, think outside the box, think about what we can do better in our experiments — really making us better scientists,” she says. “That's something I'm really not sure I could learn from anyone else.”

Stepler adds that working in the lab is also a lot of fun, as Robinson organizes kayaking trips or visits to water and trampoline parks to create community among her team.

Robinson in her office at Vanderbilt University.

While it’s important for Robinson to nurture and mentor her undergraduate and graduate students, she also recognizes the need for a “robust pipeline” of young people interested in science. “It’s difficult to be something you can’t see,” Robinson says.

As the president-elect of the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, she works to reach school children with a variety of demonstrations and programs. “Kids like to play with things and mess with stuff in the house,” she says. “It’s a matter of following their curiosity and making it relevant.”

When her son Antonio, age six, asked what would happen if he froze an Incredibles action figure, she gamely let him suspend it in a bag of water in the freezer and challenged him to flex his hypothesis-forming muscles by asking things like How long will it take to thaw? Her eight-year-old daughter Reina is also interested in science; it’s hard not to be with two parents in STEM fields. Robinson is married to an engineer she met at church in Kentucky.

While encouraging young scientists, Robinson also recognizes the challenges in her field. “This is not a career for the faint of heart,” Robinson cautions. Even with her slate of impressive accomplishments, she still experiences rejection when submitting grants and papers for publication.

“I have come to recognize there is growth in everything,” she reflects. “I ask what I can learn from a rejection, but I’ve also gotten better at being vocal about things like systemic racism and what it’s like being in a field where you’re underrepresented.”

Robinson also finds resilience in practicing her faith, in which she finds overlaps to her work in the chemistry lab.

“We step out on faith when we have ideas, but we don’t know if or how they are going to play out in the experiment,” she says. “Faith is critical for me. It has been the saving grace and the foundation from which I have operated in my life.”

Finally, she attributes her drive to her mentors, including her mother.

“She really followed our lead when it came to what motivated us,” she recalls.

Robinson adds that she can’t remember if the superintendent ever replied to that letter she wrote in second grade, but she hasn’t forgotten her mother’s support.

“I can’t believe I did that,” she reflects. “But that was what was on my mind, so I said something.”

Elizabeth Hoover

Elizabeth Hoover is a poet, critic, and essayist based in Milwaukee. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie SchoonerNarrative, and The Crab Orchard Review, among others, and her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Boston Review, StoryQuarterly, and Lunch Ticket. She writes about books and interviews authors for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Bomb, The Kenyon Review, and Bitch and has contributed art reportage and pop culture criticism to Daily Xtra, Paper, and The Washington Post. You can see more of her work at www.ehooverink.com.