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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.

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