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Monday, November 28, 2016

Mind Over Matter

Dr. James Roberts visits with a student.
Editor's Note: Last year I wrote a piece about colleague Jennifer Reese for the holidays. I think such posts about fellow employees will be an annual holiday tradition. There are amazing people here. Of course, those who end up on the list probably would rather not. It likely means they have had to face tragedy. But those are the people and stories that move me most.

Dr. Jimmy Roberts wasn't supposed to be here. At Trinity. And yet, the Cowles Endowed Biology Professor is essentially the father of neurosciences at Trinity University. He arrived on campus in the fall of 2008. Just prior, he was seeing a counselor -- a Trinity grad -- for depression. The counselor told Jimmy he needed a job like the one the counselor had seen posted in the Trinity University alumni magazine. The post advertised for a vacant professorship, one meant to head up the newly started neurosciences program.

To say Dr. Roberts was uniquely qualified is an understatement. A distinguished career, that included stints at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and at Columbia, culminated in a position at the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio. Married with no children, Dr. Roberts had come to Texas in 2001 to be near his nieces and nephews. Biology Professor Dr. David Ribble chaired the Trinity search. "Not being a neuroscientist myself, I was not familiar with his record and asked him to email me his CV after he applied," Dr. Ribble said. "Well, his scholarly record is world class, and I called him back and urged him to apply immediately, which he did." The next afternoon, Dr. Ribble and Dr. Roberts met.

"To this day he is one of my most valued friends and colleagues," Dr. Ribble said.

Dr. Roberts met his wife, Mariann, when a colleague invited him to lunch to meet a Postdoctoral Fellow from his laboratory at Rockefeller University. The colleague wanted Dr. Roberts to guide Mariann in her research. She showed up to lunch in a red-and-white rugby shirt, jeans and pink tennis shoes. "I was dead meat," says Dr. Roberts today. She wouldn't start to date him for a long time, he says. "I had to convince her I wasn't her boss," he says.

It was a match made in a laboratory. They eventually worked together at Mount Sinai, where Mariann reported to another chairperson as an assistant professor. They spent 27 years "doing science together." That included publishing nearly 50 papers together.

Mariann developed her own expertise in the area of stem cells in the brain. "We now know that the brain makes them because of the work she did," says Dr. Roberts. Within a year or two of being in San Antonio, Mariann had received her third major R01 research grant. Usually a badge of honor to receive one or two, "three means something special," Dr. Roberts says. "She had a penchant for working on the right thing."

In 2002 Mariann developed a brain tumor - the same kind of tumor on which she was doing research. There was a short reprieve. But then, an MRI image revealed the tumor had grown to the size of a baseball in this slight, five-foot tall woman. "We had hoped the immune system might attack it," Dr. Roberts says.

She died in 2003. "She loved science as much as I did."

Mariann had 17 people working for her then. The National Institute for Health allowed Dr. Roberts and his wife's crew to continue her work, which they wrapped up in 2007. It was then that Dr. Roberts spoke to a colleague about his feelings of depression. Beside the obvious, there was nothing necessarily "wrong." Dr. Roberts just decided that after doing one thing - research - for nearly 30 years, and for 27 with the same person, that a change might not be bad. "It was no fun without her," he says, tearfully.

Dr. Roberts says the the move to Trinity came with a steep learning curve that is just now leveling off. Preparing three-to-five new lectures a week has been challenging. In neuroscience, the science of biology and chemistry is applied to the questions being studied by Psychology, according to Dr. Roberts. The field is one of the fastest growing at campuses nationwide.

What Dr. Roberts didn't anticipate was the impact he would have on students, and how they would affect him. He describes teaching as a "sparkle" where he can show students "how to do science." He couldn't imagine the thrill he would get from students who were researching and seeing their work come to fruition. "This has been the most exciting time since early in my career," he said. And many students feel the same way. Senior Briahna Yarberry notes, "When you listen to Dr. Roberts talk about his experiences back when the science we learn about in textbooks was being discovered, and you find out his name is on a lot of the research, you realize he doesn't have to be here teaching (us). He does it because he loves science and wants to instill it in us."

But it goes beyond that. Dr. Roberts routinely has students to his home near campus or his ranch outside of town. Once he works with a student, the relationship won't just stop. "I'll care about you always." Says Ms. Yarberry: "He genuinely cares about my success, and he's the kind of person who makes my education here at Trinity so special."

When Dr. Roberts informed his colleagues at the UT Health Sciences Center of his unusual move to Trinity, he expected some indignation, moving from a research to teaching focus. Instead, he received encouragement. Many, he says, had sent their kids to Trinity and raved about their first-rate education. He has found himself at home here. A regular attendee of lectures during his time in New York City, he finds the intellectual environment here to be fertile ground. That includes conversations with faculty members from disciplines outside the sciences.

English instructor Jennifer Bartlett co-taught a First Year Experience course this fall called "How We Know What Isn't So" with Dr. Roberts. "He comes to class, cheers me on, collaborates with me on content, and does everything he can to foster a collegial working environment. Teaching this particular course, which has its roots in science, felt challenging to someone like me who has always seen a deep divide between the sciences and humanities," Dr. Bartlett said.

"Dr. Roberts is dedicated to the liberal arts. He advocates for a quality of life bolstered by living a life of the mind, staying intellectually curious, even ravenous, and exploring new ideas whenever possible. He is as genuine and loving a man as you will ever meet,"she adds.

Today, Dr. Roberts is dating Monica, a woman he met on a blind date set up by friends at church. She brings her famous oatmeal raisin cookies to events like the bowling party he hosted for his research students this summer. He will have the students over for reading days, too, for a Christmas holiday party. "You may as well have fun with it," he says of his relationship with students.

Back in 2003, fun was a feeling Dr. Roberts thought he might never experience again. But -- with time and purpose -- he has been resilient. He's developed an incredibly popular and highly respected program, has shown others -- particularly his students -- that they can do anything. If they just set their minds to it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Reboot: Tony the Tiger

Editors Note: I can't say it enough: Trinity employees, we are blessed to work here. It is our colleagues and students that make it that way.

Five years ago we nearly lost Tony Salinas, the Assistant Director of Institutional Technology, to a serious stroke. He no longer works at Trinity, but he is truly a Tiger at heart. Tony made his first visit back to campus earlier this month and he brought a smile the faces of everyone he reconnected with. Tony continues to live at a rehab facility in San Antonio. He and his father, Rudy, had to ride a Via van to accommodate his wheelchair and to get to campus for lunch in the Skyline Room.

Tony was always a good colleague and he as a musician, played at some campus events. While here, you could see the love and fondness that his closest colleagues from IT and the Registrars Office had and have for him. Tony joined a small group for lunch in the Skyline Room, got to see the many changes to the campus plaza between Northrup and Coates, was able to see the finished product that is the CSI sciences and engineering facility, and checked out the changes and his old friends in Halsell and the Registrars Office in Northrup.

Quick with plenty of quips and a quick wit, Tony also demonstrated tremendous recollection of names and faces, asked people about their relatives - often by name - and received updates on various projects and renovations.

Tony's dad says his recovery is ongoing and he is on a long, arduous road, complicated by delays in physical therapy because of staffing issues. Still, he has picked up a guitar and keyboard and gets out and about whenever he can. His friend and former colleague Cynthia Littles, in IT, said she never thought she would see this kind of progress. When he had the stroke the doctor suggested that Tony's prognosis was bleak. Guess he hadn't heard. Tony is a Trinity Tiger. Always will be.

Professor Bob Blystone meets his old friend Tony at CSI.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Raw cuts

Sports columnist Peter King writes a column called 10 Things I Think I think. I am borrowing his format as it is too early to form a cohesive opinion, post-election, but I want to get some random thoughts in writing. Trying to not make this political, actually.

First, I want to share a story from my friend and colleague Melissa Flowers. She is bi-racial and says her white mother has taken heat for supporting Donald Trump. People are accusing her of being racist. Now, you can have racist views even if you are a person of color. Melissa's mom married a black man in a time when mixed marriages were not common nor acceptable and she endured threats of violence as a result. To label, to generalize, and to dismiss others is unfair. Compassion, understanding, and humanity matter now more than ever.

1. I think a college campus is a great place to be during an election: This is the first time for many people to vote; it is where people should be having deep and challenging discussions; faculty experts can illuminate topics/issues with great skill, background, and authority; and finally there is a lot of support for those wanting to process outcomes and discuss with others.They call it rarefied air.

2. The scheduled conversation held on campus the afternoon after the election was really terrific. Thanks to some foresight, this was planned in advance regardless of the outcome (good call, Stacy Davidson). I would have napped and tweeted a picture there, but wanted to respect people's privacy. You would have seen people packed into a room in upstairs Coates. It was gritty and it was raw. Both supporters and opponents of the President-elect were were represented and students were really articulate, emotional, and very candid.

3. Why are people emotional? For many, their identity and worth has been invalidated. The status quo has been reinforced. Privileged, straight white men remain in power. The issue for many is that they are being excluded. People of color, of different cultures, and of different gender identities are scared. If people can't see that then they are visually-impaired (yep). I think we need to work harder than ever to show students every one of them matters. Unless they keep complaining about our food.

4. I think it is interesting to watch campuses across the nation respond as though this were a campus crisis such as a fire, a virus, and active shooter. List-servs are lighting up. Make no mistake, every campus is responding to the concerns and fear of students and employees. This shows that we are in a different place than we have ever been.

5.We didn't ship in a new population of voters this November. What this election did was bring into the light those who agree with the positions of the President-elect and/or who didn't find his style should eliminate him from contention. So while the election result seems like a validation for some - and that invalidation for others - it simply is the outcome. It could have gone the other way. The campaign exposed a big divide. We were going to have to deal with that anyways. Or maybe we wouldn't have. But it wasn't going away.

6. I get it when people worry about the future. Is the person with his hand on the button stable? Will his ego affect his decisions? As a person who denies climate change, will he ignore or reverse progress to save the planet? Does this election tip the Supreme Court toward conservative decisions for decades to come? Is this the end of the world as we know it?

7. Or, do we give him the benefit of the doubt? The current President was undercut from the day he was elected. Why not give this President a chance? Maybe the worst of his hateful rhetoric was simply rhetoric. Well, it could happen.

8. I think this has brought out the best in some of our campus leaders: Danny Anderson, Deneese Jones, Jamie Thompson, Ben Stevens, and students Brenna Hill and Nick Santulli to name a few.

9. I think sometimes the Tigers for Liberty are their own worst enemies. But I think they have a voice we need. They aren't in right field... Well, they actually are, but you know what I mean. Their guy did get elected. I know many of them and they are good people and they shouldn't take grief for their positions or for being excited that they get to see what can happen under the new President.

10. I think that prospective and current students should be nervous. What will happen to federal aid and access? How will this affect diversity on campuses? What will happen to Title IX as it has been interpreted and enforced by our current administration?

On campus, we are moving from processing emotions to processing information, with teach-ins being scheduled. The campaign and the election are not just the beginning. We will have lots to talk about in the weeks and months ahead. I can think of no better place to be.

What do you think you think? Please comment.

Push-up Blahs

Sigh: Bad form, bald spot...
The first time I agreed to be a part of the spectacle was in 1985 as a graduate Resident Director. I agreed to let people throw pie in my face for some promotion, charity, etc. A resident who had been in trouble for being basically a horrible person paid for the privilege and paid for the opportunity to pretty much punch me in the face with a pie as his front for doing so. It would be another 30 years before I would take a pie again - at a football game last year. It was almost as bad as my administrative assistant Yvonne let her little boy Phillip do the honors. What must she say about me around the dinner table?

I try not to take myself too seriously and generally agree to participate in promotions when asked. People generally want to see the Dean of Students take one for the team. I felt somewhat affirmed in this when during his first year I watched new president Danny Anderson be a contestant in bat races, also at a football game. A few years ago we did a Trinity Night at the Missions game and professor Dennis Ugolini also did his duty, participating in a tricycle race.

He must have had that in mind when he showed up on October 26 to watch me do 174 push-ups. I agreed to this was part of the 24 Hour Challenge to promote institutional giving by students. I had pledged to do one push-up for every student who would donate. Last year the number was around 100. Do-able, with a break of course. This was the least I could do in a promotion that overall would yield over $200,000.

As the time arrived though, the flood of anxiety that I am prone to started creeping in. I have stopped hiding my issues with social anxiety as I see increasing numbers of students face the same issues. I used to be terrified to even introduce myself in a group or go to a social event with new people. In speaking publicly I would go into a funk days earlier and after. I tried exploring a different career, went to counseling, took a public speaking seminar, tried therapy with breathing exercises and controlling my pulse rate, but all to no avail. Turns out I wasn't shy or doing anything wrong. Until I stumbled on beta blockers and then Paxil, I always thought I was broken. Unless people have ever given a talk and looked at an audience thinking "why are they looking at me?" they will never grasp the horror of choking in front of a group.

This comes out once in awhile in small ways, so it is safer to avoid the spotlight, but that's not the kind of job I have. Years ago, pre-Paxil, some students wanted me to rap some words on a video and I said no. I might do it now, but I was basically paralyzed in fear of looking silly. But I did agree to be in a student music video to the song "Crush" a few years later. It was a smash hit, in part because it was good and in part because I looked like a total dope in a scene in which I was laying on a grand piano. (In my defense it was a dream sequence so it wasn't REALLY me!) I have since asked that it be taken down because I got tired of it following me around.

But the worst was when I was judging Trinity Idol and was heckled by a student in the crowd who shouted "who cares what you think???" That was also pre-Paxil and I froze. Now I would just tell the student to bugger off, but I didn't have the courage then. On a side note, turns out that student was drunk, had a drinking problem, and we would become close, as I tried to help him face his issues.

There are other examples: dunk tanks, many student video projects, cameos in the school paper and more. So I carried all of this with me into paying off my debt, very publicly in the University Center, on push-up day. Everything started just fine as I was able to knock-out 50 push-ups as the audience counted along. I needed a short break and then did another 24 or so. As I started to sweat and breathe more heavily the counting seemed less spirited. Then, as the breaks increased and the crowd started to trickle away on my long slog toward 174 the room seemed more like a Hillary Clinton victory party than a parade for the Chicago Cubs. Mercifully, sometime later that afternoon I completed my task. 

Unfortunately this was all preserved on video as it was live-streamed on Facebook. Not that anyone besides me really cares, but it is like "Crush" 2.0: out there for posterity. I was happy to see one comment about me being in decent shape among the sea of comments related to my form and balding and graying scalp.And then the alumni started sharing their fond memories of Dean Grissom. I can't win.

I should add that my daughter, Joelle, who works here, echoed my request for someone, anyone (but specifically professor Andrew Hansen) to take a few of these push-ups off my hands for me, literally. But no one stepped up (or down), including Joelle.

And there you have it. It's not really about me - it's about the program, the cause, and the interaction. And yet as a person with anxiety, it usually feels like it is always about me. But I have come to a peaceful place that it is likely somewhere in the middle. A pie, a video, a set of push-ups... We all worry that people are sometimes laughing at us and not with us. I am a believer though, that we should take safe risks as often as possible. Even if we end up with egg on our face. Or even pie.