Dean of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering
Christopher B. Roberts was named dean of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering July 1. He began his career at Auburn in 1994 as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and was named department chair in 2003. Roberts earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Missouri and a master's and doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Notre Dame. He previously held the George E. and Dorothy Stafford Uthlaut Professorship in chemical engineering.
Roberts grew up in the small town of St. Genevieve, Mo., where he was surrounded by music — more importantly, by musical instruments. His father owned a music store and it was where Roberts hung out after school. He said his favorite part was fiddling around with the instruments, a pastime that would largely influence his career choice and chart the course for where he is today.
1. With a family in the music business, what drew you to engineering?
In hindsight, I can now see that there were obvious reasons why I pursued engineering as a profession. Growing up in our family music store, I had never known an engineer, and I really didn't understand what they did. I was always fascinated with the "musical gear" in my dad's shop, and I would spend tremendous amounts of time rewiring my amplifier or rigging up my guitar effects so that they might sound differently. Eventually, I found myself trying to understand why certain things worked the way they did.
Once I started college, I took my first chemistry class and was fascinated with this new world. I really connected with my professor and he truly inspired me. Frankly, he showed me that people in science and engineering are really cool, and I realized that I could use my interest in engineering and science to improve the world we live in. This is why I believe so strongly in our engineering faculty members at Auburn. They are committed to our students and passionate about introducing them to the impact of engineering in our world.
2. Why chemical engineering?
I chose chemical engineering largely because it matched my desire to apply chemistry, physics and math in the development of things that affect people. At the University of Missouri, I worked as a lab technician in the neonatal intensive care unit at the medical school to help pay for college. I worked the midnight shift collecting blood gas samples from infants. I was responsible for measuring oxygen content using gas chromatography in order to aid the doctors in ensuring proper lung development. That was a very formative experience for me; it gave me perspective on what is really important. It also illustrated to me firsthand the impact that technology has in our lives, and reinforced something that I already knew — I was fascinated with the equipment and its design and function. As a kid, I was always more interested in my dad's musical equipment than I was in actually making music with it. In the neonatal lab, I knew the equipment had to provide accurate results because it really did matter! This technical experience motivated me to pursue graduate school in chemical engineering rather than medical school.
3. You hold a master's degree and doctorate from Notre Dame in chemical engineering. Why do you think advanced degrees are important to the future of engineering?
Graduate students, and the faculty with whom they work, are incredibly important to our ability to engage in innovative research that truly does impact our quality of life and our country's economic competitiveness. During my Ph.D. studies, I was privileged to work with professor Joan Brennecke, who in fact was recently inducted into the National Academy of Engineering. I was her first doctoral graduate — she taught me many things, not the least of which was to dream big and challenge my thinking. One of my goals for our college is to increase our emphasis on highly competitive graduate programs, with particular focus on our Ph.D. students. This is so critical to our college's research endeavors and our faculty's ability to compete for extramural funding.
4. You came to Auburn as an assistant professor in chemical engineering. What brought you here, and what has been your most valuable lesson as department chair and leader?
One of the things I loved most about Notre Dame was the connection that people had with each other and their passion for the institution. Of all of the places where I interviewed, Auburn was the only one that had that same feel. I knew after being on campus for only a few hours, that this was where I wanted to be. During my nine years as chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering, I learned that my successes are not my own. The progress we made in the department was the result of our tremendous students and my faculty colleagues who took so much pride in their work. They were incredibly committed to exceptional education and research. It is the same approach that I will take with the college as a whole. We all have something to contribute to the success of Auburn Engineering, and we will work together to continue to build a program that we can all be proud of.
5. What do you see as the College of Engineering's greatest potential?
Our ability to produce engineers who go on to meaningful careers that contribute to our economic development, solve our world's greatest challenges and impact future generations.