Growing up in the small town of St. Genevieve, Mo., Chris Roberts was surrounded by music — more importantly, by musical instruments. His father owned a music store and it was where Roberts hung out after school. 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 — dean of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering at Auburn University.
BS: With a family in the music business, what drew you to engineering?
CR: In hindsight, I can now see that there were obvious reasons why I pursued engineering as a profession, and I am very glad I did. However, when I was 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 trying to rewire my amplifier or rig 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 made me realize that people in science and engineering are really cool, and I began to realize that I would be able to 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.
BS: And . . . are you an engineering nerd?
CR: I may be a little bit of a nerd, but that’s okay, because right now, my 11-year-old daughter Natalie thinks it is cool to be an engineering nerd.
BS: Why chemical engineering?
CR: 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 and my job was to collect blood gas samples from infants. More specifically, 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. That experience also reinforced something that I already knew — that 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 is what further motivated me to pursue graduate school in chemical engineering rather than pursue medical school.