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Rodney Robertson

Executive Director
Auburn University Huntsville Research Center

Rodney Robertson is the executive director of Auburn University's new Huntsville Research Center. His background includes positions in federal science and engineering programs for 30 years, more than 22 of which have been in the Huntsville area. He served as director of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command's technical center in Huntsville from 2005 to 2010. Robertson earned a bachelor's degree in engineering at Auburn and a master's degree and doctorate in engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

1. At what age did you get hooked on science?

I got interested in science in about the second or third grade. My grandfather worked on radios as a hobby and I started helping him at an early age. He was the type of guy that, if it was broken, he could fix it! My grandfather also had a subscription to Popular Mechanics, so I always enjoyed looking at the photos and reading the magazine.

2. Tell us about a favorite science experiment in grade school.

One of my favorite science experiments was related to seed germination. I planted several seeds in small individual trays and varied the type of soil, amount of water, amount of fertilizer and amount of sunlight that the seeds received. The neat thing about it was that it worked. I saw the results of conducting a controlled experiment! Seeds that were planted in good soil with the appropriate amount of sunlight, water and fertilizer grew well and appeared to be healthy. Seeds that were planted in bad soil, with too little sunlight, water and fertilizer, did not grow and they did not look healthy. Seeds that were given too much fertilizer either never came up or the plants died when they started coming up.

3. What college class did you find the most difficult?

The most difficult college class that I had was Strength of Materials, which was taught at 7 a.m. during a summer semester. There were about 40 people who started the class and six of us persevered long enough to take the final. The class material was very interesting, but the class experience was not enjoyable. Materials are such an important part of our engineering work today and I wished that I was more knowledgeable about the subject. We have requirements to build everything lighter, while simultaneously making them stronger and less expensive to produce. Advanced materials are the key to meeting those requirements. Fortunately at the Space and Missile Defense Command, I had the opportunity to be involved with an advanced composite and materials development and testing program.

4. When did you become executive director of the Auburn University Huntsville Research Center and what is your background?

I joined Auburn as executive director on July 1, 2010. We are working closely with the area's industry and federal agencies. Each year, more than $30 billion in federal funding flows though the Huntsville area in government contracts.

5. What are the goals of the center?

We want to match Auburn's research capabilities with opportunities in Huntsville. Faculty will have more opportunities to collaborate with high-tech industries, the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Alabama A&M University. Our students will have new doors opened for co-op jobs while in school and for full-time positions after graduation. North Alabama is a key area nationally for research in defense, aerospace, cyber security, information technology and homeland security. It also has advanced work being done in biomedical sciences, agriculture, manufacturing, industrial engineering and business.

Feb. 21, 2011