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Pitt lab director Robinson lauded for Alzheimer's research

| Monday, Sept. 5, 2016, 9:24 p.m.
Renã Robinson, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, was recently named to the 'talented 12' list by Chemical and Engineering News.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Renã Robinson, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, was recently named to the 'talented 12' list by Chemical and Engineering News.

Renã Robinson's adviser quickly learned he had stumbled onto a one-in-a-million mind and a tenacious scientist 12 years ago when the young woman from Louisville, Ky., walked into his lab at Indiana University in Bloomington to begin work on her doctorate.

Professor David Clemmer still marvels at everything Robinson, a professor who directs a research lab at the University of Pittsburgh, accomplished in his lab.

By the time Robinson finished her doctorate, Clemmer said, she had done groundbreaking work, detailing the aging processes in the brains of fruit flies and developing techniques in high-definition mass spectrometry that are now used in cutting-edge labs around the world.

Today, others are taking note of the 37-year-old scientist whose research lab at Pitt is pushing the boundaries of chemistry in the study of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Last week, Chemical & Engineering News, a trade publication that covers the industry, named Robinson one of the “Talented 12,” an annual designation reserved for the nation's most promising young chemists, those pushing the boundaries of discovery.

“This group is monitoring our food supply for contaminants, tackling unyielding diseases such as Alzheimer's, and finding better ways to convert sunlight into electricity. ... We expect them to help safeguard the planet for future generations,” Chemical & Engineering News boasted in an introduction to the young chemists.

Robinson arrived at Pitt seven years ago after finishing her postdoctoral work at the University of Kentucky. She lives in Dormont with her husband and their two children, ages 3 years and 18 months.

In the interim, Robinson, a self-described fitness nut who loves spinning classes, has fallen in love with Pittsburgh and claimed an active role in her Hill District church as well as a number of professional societies that celebrate the accomplishments of African-American women in the sciences.

She said that knowing that blacks and Hispanics are two to three times more like to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's has added to the urgency of her quest to identify triggers for the disease.

She marvels that her research has come this far. To get a lab up and running with a crew of talented postdoctoral students in seven years is more than Robinson imagined she would accomplish.

Their work focuses on finding clues at the molecular level in the aging process that could point to what sets off the changes that lead to Alzheimer's. She said others then might better be able to develop drugs or other therapeutic interventions.

“It's a huge public health issue. A lot of people don't realize that Alzheimer's is very costly to treat, there is no cure and it takes a lot to support the people who have the disease,” Robinson said. “We really have to do something about it, and the numbers are going to get worse in the next 10 to 15 years.”

Clemmer is not surprised that Robinson is tackling big issues. He recalls that she brought a sleeping bag and pillows to his lab when it became clear that her doctoral research would involve countless hours of work.

“We were looking for thousands and thousands of proteins, and she was an absolutely tenacious student. If she had an opportunity, she did not squander it,” Clemmer said. “Near the end of her Ph.D. work, Renã had set up aging experiments with 25,000 to 100,000 fruit flies.”

Near the end of nearly five years of research, Robinson found a flaw in her early work.

“She showed up at my house on Sunday night with as many books as any young person could carry and told me what had happened. That said a lot for her integrity. It set her completion date back about two months. But she had set up a very clever system of crosschecks. Anyone else, it would have taken two years,” Clemmer said.

It's a long way from fruit flies to the human brain, and Robinson is very cognizant of the opportunities afforded her group.

“My postdoctoral manager, Allan Butterfield at the University of Kentucky, showed me how to put value to things you do in the lab, working with precious tissues from people who donated their brains. And just how precious it was for us to work with those tissues and how important it was to be really skilled in the labs,” Robinson said.

Butterfield has high hopes for his former student.

“I trained her in brain chemistry and Alzheimer's disease research. Our lab was the first to describe free radical oxidative stress in the Alzheimer's brain. She was key. She has taken those techniques and expanded them at the University of Pittsburgh,” he said.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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