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New faculty: Renã A. S. Robinson, associate professor of chemistry

Renã Robinson, associate professor of chemistry (Daniel Dubois/Vanderbilt)

Renã A. S. Robinson’s interest in aging dates back to her childhood. Her mother spent her spare time as a caregiver attending to elderly people with dementia. “The physical and mental changes I saw in these individuals touched my heart,” Robinson recalled.

Now an analytic chemist, Robinson is investigating the science behind this very human condition. She is employing the emerging field of proteomics to study the process of aging as well as neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

A beloved teacher at her Louisville, Kentucky, high school inspired Robinson’s interest in chemistry, spurring her to earn a bachelor’s in chemistry at the University of Louisville before pursuing a doctorate in chemistry at Indiana University. At the time, her laboratory at IU was doing pioneering research studying proteins in simple ways using an instrument called an ion-mobility mass spectrometer, which can simultaneously measure the size and mass of big biomolecules like proteins. This put her at the forefront of the emerging field of proteomics—the study of proteins that come in myriad sizes, shapes and configurations and are the basic components of living cells.

After two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Kentucky, Robinson joined the chemistry department at the University of Pittsburgh. There she established a research program using proteomics to study aging, Alzheimer’s and other applications relevant to human health. Her efforts prompted Chemical and Engineering News to give her its Talented Twelve Award in 2016, identifying her as one of the world’s brightest young minds in the field of chemistry.

When her Vanderbilt lab is set up, Robinson plans to explore the role that peripheral organs—such as the heart, liver and kidneys—play in Alzheimer’s. Specifically, she will be looking for changes in the proteins that these organs produce that are carried to the brain and might trigger the disease, demonstrating its systemwide complexity. She also will be studying the role of lipid-related proteins in Alzheimer’s and their contribution to health disparities in the disease.

Robinson said she enjoys figuring out ways to improve the complex scientific instruments involved in her research. “My dad was a mechanic, so I am comfortable fixing things. I don’t have any problem with taking apart a mass-spec instrument to see how it works or troubleshooting to bring it back online,” she said. One of the projects she will be pursuing at Vanderbilt is the development of technology capable of fingerprinting proteins in considerably more samples at the same time than the current state-of-the-art instruments.

Robinson is an inaugural recipient of the Dorothy J. Wingfield Phillips Chancellor’s Faculty Fellowship. Named in honor of Phillips, BA’67, the first African American woman to receive an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt, the fellowship supports midcareer faculty members who are leaders in diversity in STEM at the university.

One reason Robinson chose Vanderbilt is that the chemistry department, campus and Medical Center have all the resources that she needs to propel her research program to another level. “There’s something special and very exciting happening here at Vanderbilt, and I feel enthusiastic to be a part of this evolving time in the university’s history,” she said.

View the complete list of new Vanderbilt University faculty for 2017-18.