October 28, 2016
Like so many Rackham alumni, Robin Garrell’s career path evolved into something she never expected. She remembers, “I went to Michigan with the intention to go into industry. It wasn’t until into my fourth year that I thought maybe I’d consider an academic job. This was at a time in history when there were many more faculty jobs than people in analytical chemistry. I interviewed and had offers for both. I had to decide which course to pursue.” She decided well, spending seven years at the University of Pittsburgh before accepting a faculty role at UCLA in 1991 where she’s been since. Robin is currently the Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate Division and a professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UCLA.
Robin serves on the Rackham Board of Governors, the oversight group for the Rackham Graduate School established according to the terms of the Rackham bequest. She is passionate about this cause: “The public has less of an understanding of graduate school and the importance of supporting higher education over last few decades. Graduate education is viewed as private benefit not a public good and not given the amount of significance it deserves.
She considers it her role to give back as an alumnus: “What’s more important than our graduate students? We are preparing future leaders; it is central to our mission. I’m committed to graduate student success, and finding a chance to impact graduate students was very important.”
Her student experience at U-M was pivotal in the trajectory of her career. Robin was outnumbered in many respects in her program as the only female in her group and the only chemist in a physics lab. “It seemed normal. In my group, people didn’t treat me in an odd way, but when I went to Pittsburgh, I was the only female faculty member out of 28, and I walked in imagining it would be as even-handed as my experience at U-M had been, and it was only really in retrospect, when I came to UCLA as the fifth female faculty member, that I realized it was not so normal. U-M prepared me to navigate the world in a way that wasn’t focused on how people might treat me. I go out and do my best and assume people do the same - treat people fairly and let that stand on its own merit.
“In some ways I was well prepared, being part of a very interdisciplinary program and working as a chemist for a biophysicist, so I was very comfortable working across disciplines and in between. This helped me establish a unique identity pretty early.”
Robin also mastered an important skill early: “I wrote my first grant proposals before I wrote my first thesis.” Her advisor told her to find a project on her own, so she camped out on the chemistry library floor and came up with one after a few weeks. She remembers, “He said ‘Ok, interesting,’ and coached me on why it wouldn’t work. He set me on the right path. Then I came up with a solid idea, and wrote it up as a grant proposal. I got a three year grant from it.”
She followed that experience by going to a national conference in the field to get up to speed and meet the players there. She recalls, “No one told me to network, but that was a really good thing to do. There weren’t many students or women there. Each time I sat down, I sat in a different place in the room. I overcame my fear and sat down and acted outgoing even when I didn’t feel it. I met everybody, but one person took me under his wing and became an extra mentor to me. He planted the seed for how to become a strong faculty mentor.”
She’s back in Ann Arbor for Board of Governor’s meetings every year and has stayed in touch with her research mentor. “When I was back this spring, I found him sitting in his office, working on a paper, at age 91.” Much of what she enjoyed in graduate school are now just nostalgic memories, lost to the changing landscape of Ann Arbor. Her favorite experiences as a graduate student read like a must-do list from 1983:
- Drink limeade at Drake’s
- Sit amidst a stack of books in the science and history section at the original Border’s
- Study in the Rackham Reading Room
- Cross country ski in the Arb
- Have fun with office and lab-mates on North Campus
- Eat warm Fragels walking along South University
Robin laughs when she describes that she’s currently a student again. “I’m a painter but am taking a basic drawing class now. I’m back to being a student and have homework to do.”