Celebrating African American Chemists: Gregory H. Robinson - ACS Axial
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Celebrating African American Chemists: Gregory H. Robinson

Photo credit: University of Georgia

February is Black History Month in the United States. This year, ACS Axial is looking forward and highlighting noteworthy African American chemists working today, engaging them in conversation about their life and work.

Gregory H. Robinson is a Foundation Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of Georgia.

How would you describe the current focus of your work?

Basically, we are conducting fundamental inorganic chemistry research concerning the structure, bonding, and reactivity of molecules that prominently feature earth-abundant main group elements (i.e., elements such as lithium, magnesium, aluminum, silicon, phosphorus, and sulfur). Aside from the sheer excitement of studying new molecules, this work also has practical applications. We are discovering that a surprising number of these novel main group element based molecules can perform some of the same important chemical transformations that traditionally have been performed by molecules based on transition metals (which are less abundant and considerably more expensive).

How did you first become interested in your field? In chemistry in general?

I grew up in Alabama in the 1960s. During this time, regrettably, the acerbic tonic of government-sanctioned racial segregation permeated virtually every phase of life in the American South. Enforcement of the seminal 1954 US Supreme Court decision of Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (that ruled the “separate but equal” doctrine of racially segregated schools was unconstitutional) did not arrive to northeast Alabama until approximately sixteen years later! Consequently, my classmates and I had to continue attending inferior, over-crowded, under-funded racially segregated schools for several more years. Even as a young child I found Jim Crow and the abominable practice of racial segregation to be completely illogical. Perhaps partly due to the lingering impact of those turbulent years, I gravitated toward the beautiful “logic” of chemistry and was fascinated by electrons, atoms, and molecules.

Who were your mentors? How did they affect your career?

As is often the case, I had inspiring chemistry professors along the way: in particular Dr. Jerry L. Atwood, in graduate school, at the University of Alabama. Dr. Atwood simply showed an interest in a determined, if ill-prepared, student wishing to study chemistry.

Now that you’re in a position to mold the next generation of chemists, what is your mentorship style like? What does leadership in the lab look like to you?

I’m fairly certain that I cannot “mold the next generation of chemists.” However, I may be able to credibly present chemistry as a viable career option to students that may be interested in science. As a former college athlete (having played football in college), I strongly believe that success in chemistry requires many of the same qualities that are required for success in athletics. To be successful in any athletic endeavor one must be self-motivated, determined, and fully committed to achieving a specific goal. The same qualities are required for success in chemistry (and for virtually every demanding profession). I encourage students to fully commit to achieving their success.

Your education and career span several decades. You’ve been the first African American in the chemistry departments of two major universities. What was the environment like for African American researchers at the beginning of your career? How does that compare with today?

Regrettably, the number of African American chemistry professors at major universities remain stubbornly low. It is significant that the number of African American chemistry professors at a given major university can frequently be doubled simply by hiring one additional African American! However, it is encouraging that the American Chemistry Society recently acknowledged that the critical enterprise of publishing chemistry research is not immune to racism.

What systemic changes do institutions need to make if they want to attract and retain African American chemists?

The natural progression of African American chemistry professors to prominent academic positions of influence such as department heads, deans, and presidents is a logical next step. I remain hopeful.

Read Gregory H. Robinson‘s papers in ACS Publications journals.

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