By Susan Shinn, Catawba College News Service
In the spring of 1970, there was one overriding factor that brought Robin Roberts to Catawba College.
"They offered me a job," Roberts says.
Dr. Albert E. "Robin" Roberts is retiring in May after 40 years on the faculty.
Roberts is chairman of the psychology department and Dr. Sheila Brownlow will take over those duties in fall 2010.
Roberts is approaching retirement with his typical aplomb.
"It's just one of those things," Roberts says — just something that comes next.
He began his undergraduate degree at Butler as a chemistry major.
"But I did not do very well that first year," he remembers. "I had a B in psychology and I decided that was for me."
He received a master's degree from Western Michigan, and, since there were no job prospects, went on to get a doctorate.
He had three criteria for where he wanted to go for that degree — a race fan, he wanted to be within driving distance to Indianapolis, he wanted a warmer climate than snowy Kalamazoo, and he wanted some bigtime college football.
He found all that at the University of Tennessee.
Roberts learned very quickly that with a Ph.D. in psychology, he'd need to teach.
He set out again looking for his next stop. Because he'd been to Butler, he wanted a small school.
He saw a flyer for Catawba.
At the time, he said, only about one-third of the faculty had doctoral degrees.
It was time for accreditation and the school needed to boost its number of Ph.D.s.
"North Carolina seemed reasonable," Roberts says. "I had a visitation here and our interests overlapped."
His wife, a registered nurse, took a job at the hospital.
After he arrived, Roberts realized the school's convenience to Greensboro and Charlotte.
"It was a nice climate and people seemed nice," he says.
The plan at the time was to learn how to teach, then move on to a larger school. But then as now, the job market was tight, and Roberts stayed.
"The idea of upward mobility evaporated," Roberts says. "They didn't pay us diddly squat. On the other hand, it was a paycheck."
Roberts notes that his first paycheck was $10,800 a year.
But, he adds, "I just liked it. It gave me an opportunity to do what I wanted to do. I didn't have to do research, but I could do it."
Roberts had students working with him — it helped him, and it helped their academic records.
"Show me your data" became his mantra.
Roberts says he's surprised at how many of his students have gone into research, and advanced degrees.
"Some of them wouldn't go to grad school on a bet," he says, but then they changed their minds.
"I'm always happy to see that," Roberts says of students who receive master's and doctoral degrees. "I'm pretty amazed to see what students are doing."
It's hard to predict what some wind up doing, he says. Usually, it's something they'd never dream of.
On the other hand, he says, it's an orderly progression. "You just can't predict that. That's a hard thing to get across to new students."
Another thing that's hard to convey, he says, is the range of careers available to psychology majors. "Any place you have people dealing with people can have a psychology major.
"We educate them, then graduate school trains them. We want to try to help them get that first job. After that, we see where their interests take them."
Psychology was once a male-dominated field, Roberts says. Now, it's female dominated. And women have options.
They can choose to stay home and have a family, he says. "That is a career, too. Women who work at home are surprised how much they use their degree. When they do volunteer work and community service, they find that a background in psychology helps them out."
If they choose, they also have a direction to go when their children go to school. Roberts notes that "networking" was first coined by a psychologist.
Like most researchers, Roberts went through his "rat phase," which he'd begun in Tennessee. He eventually ran out of "rat questions," and other hot topics came to the forefront.
He met a neurologist at Bowman-Gray in Winston-Salem, who was interested in his background in cognition research and statistics.
For a decade and a half, Roberts worked in neuroimaging. When he first began, his research was in stroke and stroke prognosis. He later moved into Alzheimer's research.
Roberts used a transcranial Doppler device to measure brain activity. It was cheaper and more portable than an MRI device, he explains.
When someone approaches a task, blood flow in the arteries increases, and that is what Roberts measured and studied.
"Most neurologists see older people who have impairments," he says. "What about younger people? What about older people who aren't impaired? What's normal? That was my niche."
Roberts found that in younger subjects, they jump right into a task, and their blood speeds up immediately. In an older subject, the process is slower.
"But everybody gets to the same outcome," he says.
With Alzheimer's, Roberts says, the goal is to measure changes in the brain long before symptoms occur. "You want to intervene and alter the course if you can. It's an unrealized goal, but it's still very valuable."
Away from school, Roberts is still a big fan of Indy car racing and an armchair football fan.
"I put the 'fan' in 'fanatic,' " says Roberts, who still follows Tennessee and the Washington Redskins.
He helps his daughter with genealogy, and has found that his research background helps.
"That's an area where you have to be mentally flexible," he says. "You want to find out who these people are and what they were doing."
He collects antique German beer steins. His collection, he says, has "crept up on him" over the years. He also likes to find out the history behind each piece — again, his background in research comes into play.
With his students, he's tried to instill a "disciplined curiosity."
Technology is a terrific research tool, but students must still work to find original, reputable sources.
"You have to be a discriminating reader to track information," he says.
Roberts is telling folks that he has no specific plans in retirement.
He and his wife have a son and a daughter and four grandchildren, all of whom live nearby.
"They keep us busy," Roberts says.
Roberts expects he'll spend time ferrying his grandchildren to dance and guitar lessons, and you get the feeling he's looking forward to that.
"The story that you can spoil them and send them back is true. Child rearing is not wasted on the young — that's why we send them back."