Q&A with UArizona’s Dr. Robert C. Robbins

Finding Solutions to Society’s Challenges

By Rodney Campbell

A researcher and surgeon, Dr. Robert C. Robbins found a fitting home when he became the University of Arizona’s president in 2017. When Robbins moved to Tucson from the Texas Medical Center in Houston, he found an environment that was ready to grow its research efforts.

Four years later, UArizona produces more than $734 million in annual research and is ranked in the top 20 of public research universities in the country. Much of that work takes place in the biotech field where faculty and researchers are finding solutions to society’s issues and staff is turning those ideas into commercial successes.

Robbins says he is proud of UArizona’s role in helping to make Tucson a burgeoning biotech hub and promises more big things are coming from his university’s talented workforce.

How important is it for UArizona to have ways of making bioscience advancements and the ability to get products into the market?

At the University of Arizona, we have world-class faculty and researchers who are working on solutions to the world’s grand challenges every day. Translating their research into products on the market is one of the best ways we can have a positive impact as an institution. Through translation, we see technology innovations being developed to directly address needs, creating solutions as the need arises.

UArizona played a role in finding ways to battle COVID-19. What were some of the advancements that were made on campus?

Our Test, Trace, Treat strategy depended on COVID-19 research here at UArizona that was based on our existing strengths in immunology and related areas. I am very proud of the advancements that were made on campus, including the antibody test developed by Dr. Janko Nikolich-Zugich and Dr. Deepta Bhattacharya, the Saline Gargle PCR test developed by Michael Worobey, wastewater-based epidemiology from one of our newest Regents professors, Ian Pepper, and the Covid Watch App developed by a team led by Joyce Schroeder in partnership with a nonprofit launched by a UArizona alumna now studying at Stanford.

What’s an example of a good public-private bioscience partnership that the UArizona has going?

The University of Arizona proudly collaborates across sectors, and we have a lot of strong public-private partnerships in the bioscience. Over a decade ago, UArizona developed its first incubator, the UArizona Center for Innovation, to support both university and community entrepreneurs. It is one of the leaders developing the innovation ecosystem in Southern Arizona. Today, it is recognized as the longest continuously running incubator in Arizona, with outposts across the region in collaboration with community champions. And last December, we celebrated the grand opening of our new biosciences incubator in Oro Valley. This incubator’s first tenant is TheraCea Pharma, an Arizona-based biotechnology startup that develops fast and high-yield chemical processes for the preparation of diagnostic agents for biomedical imaging. This can be used to detect cancer as well as cardiological, neurological and infectious diseases.

Why is Tucson such a good home for bioscience incubators?

Tucson is home to incredible partnerships and collaboration across sectors, which in turn makes an excellent home for biosciences incubators. Certainly, UArizona’s role is significant, and translating research and supporting companies as they launch is only successful in unison with corporate partners and government support. Globally, corporations are partnering with universities to lead the charge on their R&D activities, and we are seeing small business rapidly grow into corporate giants. By collaborating with leaders across business, government and academia, we can emphasize the need for these new technologies to be designed with future-oriented goals that will empower our community and region. 

Competition for talent is always going to be an issue. How much effort is put into recruiting and retaining the brightest minds in the field? 

Talent recruiting has two meanings at UArizona – faculty and staff, as well as students. In terms of number of students we serve, the amount and quality of research we produce, we rank among the 2021 US News and World Report Top 100 U.S. National Universities and among the Top 100 Global Universities. Our incredible enrollment management and admissions team, led by Kasey Urquidez, has done heroic work to expand our capacity to attract and retain the best and brightest students, despite the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, I personally traveled to high schools through Arizona, California and Texas to speak with students and guidance counselors and tell them about the amazing opportunities they would have at the University of Arizona. Faculty and staff want to come to the University of Arizona because of our longstanding culture of interdisciplinary collaboration, and the singular opportunities for impact that can be found here through centers like the BIO5 Institute, which has been out in front of what we now call the Fourth Industrial Revolution for more than a decade.

What do you see as UArizona’s most important priorities in bioscience over the next decade?

We need to operate and continue our mission in a world that has been changed by the pandemic. One of five pillars in our strategic plan – grand challenges – provides a roadmap for tackling critical problems facing society and leveraging 4IR advancements and our existing strengths in research. It tackles pressing grand challenges in the areas of space, human and intelligent systems, health, and the natural and built environment.

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