Rich Robinson: New Graduate Dean
More than 350 Ph.D. students are enrolled in basic science programs at P&S through Columbia’s Graduate SchoolRich Robinson: New Graduate Dean of Arts and Sciences. Richard B. Robinson, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology, was appointed associate dean for graduate affairs as of Feb. 1, 2006.
     In his new capacity, Dr. Robinson takes the leading role in training the next generation of scientists. Dr. Robinson was director of the graduate program in the Department of Pharmacology from 1989 to 2005. He received a bachelor’s degree in physics and Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of Illinois. He conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Iowa before joining P&S in 1977 as a research associate in pharmacology. He became full professor in 1993.

     P&S Journal asked Dr. Robinson about his new role and his aspirations for the graduate program:

What does the position, associate dean for graduate affairs, entail?
My office serves to coordinate and provide oversight of the individual graduate programs, but those programs are largely responsible for setting their own academic goals and curriculum and monitoring student progress. I see my primary responsibility as helping the programs to implement their individual and common goals. This is particularly true on those issues that extend across programs. I think an excellent example of where this office can contribute occurred a few years ago during Richard Kessin’s time as associate dean. One of the core courses that many of the programs depend on as a requirement for their students was in serious need of reorganization, but since it served many programs, responsibility for the curriculum was somewhat diffused. Dr. Kessin quickly got the course directors together and made sure the concerns of the programs were addressed, and as a result the course was markedly improved.
How do you integrate the administrative and intellectual aspects of the position, and how do you have time to conduct your research?
There certainly is a major administrative component to the responsibilities of the Office of Graduate Affairs, including processing applications and stipend and tuition payments, among other duties. Fortunately, Fred Loweff is an absolutely superb assistant dean, and he and the supporting staff working under his supervision carry much of the administrative burden. My responsibility, in part, is to be the intermediary between the programs and the administration regarding resources, which means identifying program needs and making the case to the administration to support those needs. That obviously involves both an administrative and an intellectual component, in that you have to understand the academic need before you can address the resource issue administratively. As to how I do both while continuing to conduct research, you might want to ask me again when I’ve held the job longer than two months!
What graduate education issues do you want to tackle?
I believe the individual programs are in the best position to set their own agenda regarding how to educate their students, but the Graduate Office can help with other aspects of graduate education, particularly those that cut across
programs. One of the critical aspects that is not always adequately addressed is career education and development. We’re beginning to tackle that by creating an alumni association for our graduates. All graduates belong to the GSAS alumni association based on the main campus, which is a fine organization, but it can’t fully serve the specialized needs of our alumni. At the same time, those alumni are a tremendous resource for career counseling and mentoring that we haven’t been utilizing. One of the first things the new GSAS@P&S alumni association will do is host a career development forum here on campus this fall.
How is our graduate education regarded in the world beyond our campus?
Our graduate programs are extremely competitive and highly regarded. Overall, the programs receive approximately 1,000 applications while admitting a total incoming class of around 50, so we clearly are well regarded by potential students. At the same time, this is a medical school campus and so the needs of the graduate student body may not always be fully considered in all decision making. One of the responsibilities of my office is to see that the graduate students’ needs are heard and addressed at CUMC.
How successful is CUMC in recruiting underrepresented minority students?
In general we do a good job but there is always room for improvement. The Graduate Office does things on behalf of all the graduate programs, such as attending research conferences that host minority students. However, the most successful efforts tend to be at a more individual level. For example, having an undergraduate from an underrepresented minority in your lab for the summer or giving a seminar at a college and meeting with students afterward to talk about career opportunities.
How do you envision graduate education evolving over the next several years?
I’m going to withhold judgment on that question until I’ve been in the job a bit longer. What I will say, however, is that this is a critical time for graduate education and biomedical research. Research funding is extremely constrained at the moment and that has a major impact on the ability of programs to recruit students and place them in labs. It also can have a major impact on the attractiveness of a research career to potential graduate students. What we have to do is help the programs maintain their current strength and a critical complement of highly qualified students during this difficult time.
What is the greatest strength of our graduate programs?
The greatest strength of any graduate program is always its students. To attract the best students, you need to have faculty who are world-class researchers and outstanding mentors, and CUMC clearly excels in this regard. One measure of student quality is the number of awards our students receive every year. That’s why we’ve made an addition to this column in this issue to include a listing of all the awards received during the 2005-06 academic year. That list speaks for itself as to the quality of our students and strength of our graduate programs.
How do we maintain that strength?
I hate to state the obvious, but you need resources. We need a stable source of funding for graduate students, more research space for the faculty who mentor those students, and more social space and expanded housing to accommodate the students, to name just a few things.
What new initiatives do you plan to implement?
The listing of graduate awards is one. The creation of an alumni association for our graduates is another, although that effort began before I came onboard. Those are modest changes, but they’re important because in both cases what we are doing is recognizing the accomplishments and inherent value of our students, both while they’re in our programs and after they’ve moved on. In terms of broader initiatives, one of the first things I did after taking the job was to meet with each of the program directors individually and just listen to what they thought was needed. They know their programs best, and they are therefore the best source for ideas on new initiatives.
What challenges nationally does graduate education face?
The explosion of knowledge means that programs have had to adapt their curricula to cover ever greater material while maintaining a reasonable training duration. At the same time, you still need to teach core disciplines, and as a result there is a trend for specialization and the loss of some distinctive disciplines, which is unfortunate. For example, while the techniques of molecular biology are tremendously powerful, we still need researchers and educators who understand other areas, such as physiology, pharmacology, or medical informatics. Ideally, you want to train students to be conversant in the methodology of several disciplines.
How do we fare amidst those challenges?
I think we fare very well, because of the nature of the Coordinated Program here at CUMC. The Coordinated Program provides an umbrella for the individual graduate programs, so each program can have its own distinct identity and curriculum while facilitating cross-fertilization among those programs and among the students of those programs. Most programs have their students take several courses that are common to many of the programs but also require other courses that are unique to their particular discipline. In addition, the ability of a student to carry out a research rotation or thesis research with any faculty member of any program, regardless of specific affiliation, is extremely valuable in terms of breadth of training.
How will this job differ from your work as director of the graduate program in pharmacology, a position you held from 1989 to 2005?
Obviously, I learned a lot about graduate education in my time as the pharmacology program director. But a program director is concerned, on a day to day basis, with the details of his/her program’s curriculum and the progress of the individual students in that program. The associate dean generally doesn’t get involved at that level of detail, unless a specific problem arises that requires his intervention. So I hope to be spending my time dealing more with “big picture” issues that will impact multiple programs here.
What impact does the growing trend of translational research have on graduate education?
Well, that’s one of those “big picture” issues. In a sense, most of us do translational research to one degree or another, because we always are thinking about the implications of our research for understanding diseases and developing therapies. But there is an increasing awareness of the value of more explicitly recognizing the link between basic and applied research and thereby shortening the time until society sees the benefit from a commitment to basic research. From the perspective of a basic researcher, I think the impact can only be positive, because the more people understand that there is a real connection, that is a “translation” from basic research to therapy, the more supportive they are likely to be of basic research in general and of educating graduate students
in basic science disciplines in particular. In fact, we have plans to enhance our graduate training in clinical and translational research.

Graduate Students Awards, Fellowships, Honors, 2005-2006
(mentors noted by parentheses)
Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research: Ben Chih, “Control of Glutamatergic and Gabaergic Synapse Formation by Neuroligins” (Peter Scheiffele), and Mary Goll, “Biological Role of the DNA Methytransferase Homologue DNMT2 in Diverse Eukaryotes” (Tim Bestor)
Anatomy and Cell Biology: Ellen McCarthy, Samuel W. Rover & Lewis Rover Award for Outstanding Achievement (Thomas Ludwig); Thomas Huckaba, Samuel W. Rover & Lewis Rover Award for Outstanding Achievement (Liza Pon)
Biochemistry: Chien P. Chen, Samuel W. Rover & Lewis Rover Award for Outstanding Achievement (Barry Honig)
Biomedical Informatics: Adam Margolin, IBM Ph.D. Fellowship, “Computational Inference of Genetic Regulatory Systems” (Andrea Califano)
Cell Biology and Pathobiology: Gina Finan, NIH Fellowship, “The Role of Sortilin in Alzheimer’s Disease” (Tae-Wan Kim)
Genetics: Mary Goll, Samuel W. Rover & Lewis Rover Award for Outstanding Achievement (Tim Bestor); Sumeet Sarin, NIH Fellowship, “A Novel Gene Affecting Neuronal Cell Fate Specification” (Oliver Hobert); Marcus Vargas, NIH Fellowship, “Cooperation Between Compartments During Organ Growth” (Laura Johnston)
Integrated Program in Cellular, Molecular and Biophysical Studies: Roberto Neisa, NIH Fellowship, “Subcellular Localization of Cyclin A1 in Leukemia Cells” (Debra Wolgemuth); Ryan Phan, Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award, “The BCL6 Proto-Oncogene Regulates Responses to Genotoxic Stress in Germinal-Center B Cells” (Riccardo Dalla-Favera); Tristan Sands, NIH Fellowship, “Pathogenesis of Tuberous Sclerosis Cortical Lesions” (Arnold Kriegstein); Claire Vech, Department of Defense Fellowship, “The Role of Capillary Morphogenesis Gene 2 in Breast Cancer Neovascularization” (Jan Kitajewski)
Microbiology: Teresita Arenzana, NIH Fellowship, “Role of Zfx in Lymphocyte Development and Function” (Boris Reizis); Clarissa Nobile, Richard C. Parker Graduate Student Award (Aaron Mitchell); Nadim Shohdy, Richard C. Parker Graduate Student Award (Howard Shuman)
Neurobiology & Behavior: Lucas Campos, NIH Fellowship, “Re-Engineering Spinal Circuits to Bypass Spinal Injury” (John Martin); Gregg Crabtree, NIH Fellowship, “TRPV1 Modulation of Spinal Cord Synaptic Transmission” (Amy MacDermott); Angela Eickhorst, NIH Fellowship, “Mechanisms of Presynaptic Differentiation” (Peter Scheiffele); Annegret Falkner, NSF Fellowship, “The Role of Central Pattern Generators in Vocal Behavior” (Michael E. Goldberg); Daniela Hernandez, NSF Fellowship, “The Role of Poly(ADP)rybose Polymerase-1 in Learning and Memory” (David Sulzer); Natalia Landman, NIH Fellowship, “P75 Neurotrophin Receptor Proteolysis in Alzheimer’s Disease” (Tae-Wan Kim); Timothy Petros, NIH Fellowship, “EPHB1 Signaling in Retinal Axon Guidance” (Carol Mason); Patrice Riquelme, Society for Neuroscience Scholars Program, “Study of the Cues That Regulate Neurogeneis in the Adult SVZ” and NIH Fellowship, “Latent Stem Cell Potential In Non-Neurogenic Astrocytes” (Fiona Doetsch); David Sussillo, Fulbright (for study at Technische Universität Graz, Austria), “The Affects of Dynamic Synapses on the Stability of Conductance Based Spiking Networks” (Rafael Yuste); Rachel Ventura, NIH Fellowship, “The Roles of ID Proteins in Central Nervous System Glial Fate Decisions” (James Goldman); Brendon Watson, NIH Fellowship, “Circuit Mechanisms of Cortical Synchronizations” (Rafael Yuste)
Nutrition: Sonia Gulati, 2006 Elsevier-ASBMB Award for Best Oral Presentation by a Young Investigator, “Retrograde Transport (uptake) of Sterol in Eukaryotic Cells via ATP-Binding Cassette (ABC) Transporters” (Stephen Sturley); Nuttaporn Wongsiriroj, American Society of Nutrition Wyeth Fellowship, “Retinoid Processing” (William Blaner)
Pharmacology: Kerri Holick, PhRMA Foundation Fellowship, “The Role of 5-HT4 Receptors in the Mechanism of Action of Antidepressant Drugs” (Rene Hen)
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