Heart of a scientist, tapped to lead

Photo Credit | Adlernico Brioch

He’s been selected to work on behalf of two U.S. presidents through his love for science. But it isn’t his moniker of being one of the country’s first black nuclear chemists that’s led him to repeatedly lead Florida A&M University.

FAMU interim President Larry Robinson says he’s just “flattered” the university’s board of trustees approved him to take the helm of the state’s only public Historically Black College or University (HBCU). This being his third time as interim president, Robinson can be deemed a leader by nature, but he’s truly a scientist at heart.

“The one thing you can count on is I will do my best while I’m here,” Robinson said. “It’s a tough job, but it’s a very important job. That’s why we fight through whatever the minor pains are to get to the greater glory, which is providing opportunities for you (students).”

He started his education at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis and later transferred to University of Memphis, where he received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry. But it was his Ph.D in nuclear chemistry from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. in 1984, which made him one of the country’s first black nuclear chemists and a premier scientist.

“I’m a first-generation college student, like so many of the students that we have here,” Robinson said. “Most (believe) people (those) who have Ph.D.’s were somehow born with it. You know your grandfather got the Nobel Prize and things like that … but that wasn’t the way it went for me.”


President of the United States

In 1984, Robinson’s life took two big turns: he got married to “the love of his life,” Sharon Robinson, and he started working at one of the country’s most prestigious labs: Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

Robinson worked as a research scientist and group leader at ORNL from 1984 to 1997. His tenure at ORNL marked the first time Robinson was called on to work on behalf of a U.S. president.

The country’s 12th President Zachary Taylor was believed, by a descendant, to have been killed by arsenic poisoning in 1850. In 1991, according to the ORNL Review, it was Robinson and his team that analyzed Taylor’s exhumed body and determined — through specialized testing of the hair and nails — that the president did not die of arsenic poisoning.

Today, Sharon and Larry Robinson have three daughters: Nicole, Arlin and Talia.


FAMU Years

Despite reaching new levels in research, Robinson wanted to do more. From 1997 to 2003, he was the director of FAMU’s Environmental Science Institute where he led efforts to establish B.S. and Ph.D. programs. This was the start of Robinson entering leadership roles at FAMU.

“I took on administrative responsibilities fairly early,” Robinson said. “I was a group leader managing groups of scientists and technicians. When I came here (to FAMU) my official title was ‘professor/director.’ Then I had to manage an emerging institute in its early days. I must’ve done that reasonably well.”

He briefly served as FAMU’s provost and vice president of academic affairs in 2003, and in 2007 he was called upon by FAMU’s board of trustees to serve as interim chief executive officer. That same year he was named interim president. To hear him tell it, he never would’ve thought he would be where he is today.

“When I came to the campus of LeMoyne College, had you told me I would be sitting in this seat, I probably would’ve argued with you,” Robinson said. “Now, if you told me I was going to be a scientist at a laboratory – (now) that makes sense!”

Although he isn’t working in a lab, Robinson said he saw his leadership role at FAMU as another opportunity to give back to students.

“How could I have a positive impact on students who may come from similar backgrounds as myself, but aren’t quite sure how to get there?” Robinson asked.


Called on by President Obama

It wasn’t until 2010 when Robinson got the opportunity of a lifetime. He was selected to join U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration as assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). During this time, NOAA started efforts to help alleviate the BP oil spill crisis.

“Other than working for FAMU, it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” Robinson said. “I was sworn in downstairs at the steps of Lee Hall on May 10 to expedite my ability to participate in NOAA’s role in the spill.”

The BP explosion led to 11 lives being lost and about 4.9 million barrels of crude oil released into the Gulf – making the Deepwater Horizon spill the biggest to occur in the U.S.  Robinson says the experience of working with NOAA in the aftermath of the spill fully educated students on what they had been doing in a classroom environment. 

“In the School of the Environmental Sciences … a lot of the work that we did was associated with the same ecosystems that were either being threatened or impearled by the spill,” he said. “We have a dozen or so students, and counting, who have done their Ph.D. research in the northern Gulf of Mexico. This demonstrated a particular area of expertise in marine and coastal-related issues that we’ve had here.”


Third time’s the charm

Robinson has been in and out of the FAMU president’s seat. The Sept. 15 trustee nod of approval is Robinson’s third time as president.  Although he said he’s not “campaigning” for the president’s seat, Robinson said he’s going to do what’s best for the students.

“I’m going to focus on my time doing what’s in the best interest of FAMU, not what I think needs to be done to keep me in this seat,” he added.

It’s his national and local reputation that led trustees to unanimously approve Robinson’s third term as interim president.

“Dr. Larry Robinson has a proven record of success when it comes to leading the University during transitional periods,” said trustee board chairman Kelvin Lawson by news release. “He is respected among the higher education community as a leader, researcher and educator.”  

In his presidency, Robinson wants students to know that he has a special message to extend to new Rattlers. He said he cares for all students and once they arrive “across the borders into the land of the Rattlers,” they’re taken care of and welcomed.

“I’ve said this to any student, every student who has time to listen, once you come across the borders into the land of the Rattlers, you are ours,” he said. “I don’t care how you got here. I don’t care what you came with. You are ours and … our responsibility … It’s sort of like a family.”