ChBE Alumnus Profile: Randall Robinson

Class of: 2001 (Ph.D.)
Advisor: Professor Richard V. Calabrese

After a first career in General Electric's nuclear division, Randall Robinson joined the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board and returned to school to earn a doctorate in chemical engineering. He is the recipient of a Robert E. Wilson Award, given by American Institute of Chemical Engineering's Nuclear Engineering Division in recognition of an individual for outstanding chemical engineering contributions and achievements in the nuclear industry.

We chatted with Randall to learn more about his experiences at the University of Maryland and his current work.

You're what we could call a "non-traditional student"‚ you received your Ph.D. when you were 60, and you already had a notable engineering career behind you! What made you decide to go back to school?
Well, the story goes back quite a ways! I worked for 29 years with General Electric as a principal investigator in the nuclear side of the business, doing research and development for the nuclear fuel cycle. My boss at the time, Dr. Carl Ruiz, was a radiochemist and he kept telling me, "Randy, you're doing Ph.D.-level work‚ I encourage you to get a Ph.D." This was out in California, and so he said, "We can get you into U.C. Berkeley or Stanford." I was raising kids at the time and didn't think I could actually do it. But he kept encouraging me. He was my mentor the whole time [I was with GE]. He died while I was working with him and left me with the feeling that I should probably go back to school.
Eventually I got a job with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board and came out to the Washington, D.C. area. By then, my kids had graduated from college, and then my wife said, "I think I'm going to get my Ph.D." Meanwhile, my employer encourages their employees to further their degrees. So we both ended up working on our Ph.D.s at the same time at the University of Maryland. And if you can imagine a household where that's happening and we both had full-time jobs [laughs]‚ not a lot else gets done!
I was trying desperately to try to get my Ph.D. before my 60th birthday. I was also hoping to get my Ph.D. before my wife did so when she got on the podium I could hood her. Instead, right at the end she shifted into high gear and finished her dissertation about 6 months before I did. So, as it turned out, she hooded me at my graduation. It was an eventful thing for both of us. I dedicated my dissertation to my mentor, Dr. Ruiz, who had encouraged me all along.
What was your experience like, given you were considerably older than a lot of the other graduate students around you?
When I came to the University of Maryland, Professor [Emeritus Jan] Sengers was the department chair. I think I'm about as old as Professor Sengers–not quite. I'd written a couple of books on chemical engineering, so when I went in for an interview to get into the Ph.D. program, I brought one of them with me. Professor Sengers was very impressed, and said, "You'll have no problem getting into our program." I said, "Well, I'll probably have to retake the GREs‚ I took them back in 1969." He said, "Nah, nah, you don't have to do that. You've got more than enough qualifications." You know, it was kind of funny.
I once took a class in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, so I wasn't known in that department. The first day of this class, most of the students were sitting there, and they didn't know who the professor was. I walked in and I heard them say, "Gee, I haven't seen that professor before!" When I went over to the side and sat in a regular chair, they were wondering "What is he doing?" I have consistently been in classes where I was older than the professors, and certainly older than all the students.
Did the fact that you were not living on campus, and working full time, make a difference?
Oh, it did. But toward the end [my advisor] Professor [Richard V.] Calabrese really encouraged me to be on campus essentially full time for 6 months to a year, and my employer let me do that. So I finally got to mingle with all of the other graduate students. But I got a lot of questions like, "Why are you doing this now?" from them. They were all in their 20s and 30s. I said it had been a goal for me for a long time.
What kind of research did you do while at UMD?
We were trying to determine whether or not the software used for measuring or calculating velocities in mixing systems was accurate. There seemed to have been a disconnect between the computational codes and the actual mixing in these containers. What we showed was that the commercial computational fluid dynamics codes could not represent some of the energy relationships in mixing. Essentially, my dissertation showed a failure in commercial applications.
What we were doing is called validation‚ we found out that we couldn't validate the software that was being used. What [industry was] using was a simplified version of connecting the turbulent kinetic energy with the kinetic energy dissipation. There was a simplification used in the code that turned out not to be the way to go, at least for mixing applications. Now they use what are called large eddy simulations, which takes a lot more computer power but is a more accurate model of mixing.
What kind of work or research do you do for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board?
For the 29 years I was with GE, I was in the in the nuclear energy division, and in their laboratory in California that did nuclear work. The work I did there was supporting power reactors. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board is the part of the nuclear world we call "The Dark Side", where we oversee the dismantlement of nuclear weapons from the SALT treaties, and we also oversee the cleanup of the Defense Nuclear Complex used to make materials for nuclear weapons. That's really a huge job–it's probably going to last for another 50 or 60 years. We also oversee the safety of places like the Hanford Reservation in Washington State, Los Alamos Laboratory, the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, the Savannah River site in South Carolina, Oakridge in Tennessee, and a couple of other places like the Nevada test site. So my expertise in nuclear materials chemistry and nuclear chemical processes comes in very handy. I work almost like a consultant, in the field of nuclear chemistry and nuclear chemical processes.
It was an interesting change for me, but right now I don't do a lot of engineering work‚it's a lot of safety work, reading documents and overseeing some of the engineering calculations done by someone else to make sure they're correct.
Why did you choose UMD and the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering?
Mainly for its reputation in engineering. I didn't see the same opportunities at other universities [in the area].
What was the best thing about your UMD experience?
In taking the core courses again, I got a whole new experience of going back to school. I really liked that. In fact, I could probably become a professional student if I let myself go. When I retire, I'm considering going back to school to take some courses I've always wanted to take. I liked the professors, I liked the attitude. My undergraduate degree was from the University of California, which I think is a great university but it's so big and a less personal experience than I got here.
What advice do you have for undergraduates considering graduate studies in ChBE, or for professionals who are thinking of going back to school?
I would recommend undergraduates not continue in the same school they got undergraduate degree from. You'll get a better and more rounded education getting your graduate degree from another school, because you'll get different viewpoints. But sometimes you don't have a choice because [your alma mater's] the only [school] available to you, especially if you're working.
For older students‚ I think I'm qualified to advise older students–I would say, don't wait until you're 60! There were some very long problem sets that were very difficult for me to do as quickly as some of the younger students. The tools that students are using today allow them to work faster and more accurately, and it took me quite a while to learn those tools, like the new calculators and computers in general‚ I had to learn how to use Mathematica [software] and things like that.
Are you involved in any other interesting activities, either personal or related to engineering?
Sure! I make musical instruments. I like to work with my hands, and I've been building a harpsichord. I've been working on it for 5 years and I'm very close to finishing it. One of the things I plan to do when I retire is to find a music teacher again and get my skills back up, play my harpsichord, get some friends together and do some group work. I also build clocks on the side.