Dr. Robbyn Weaver has been named the 2023 Distinguished Alumni of the Year! Robbyn discovered her passion for science at NHCC and hopes to inspire others with her story.
Robbyn will also be accepting her award and speaking on the importance of a positive work culture, this Friday, February 24 at the BOLD Leadership Summit! Networking starts at 7am and the program begins at 7:30am. Register today!
Get to know Robbyn below!
Were you a traditional high school age student when you started at NHCC?
I was. I knew I had to go to college to be successful, that was beat into my brain. But I didn't really have clear guidance. My parents had done some college and were successful in their own rights, but this was a new area for them. I didn't apply to any colleges until last minute. I was waitlisted, or outright rejected from every place I applied to. I kind of felt heartbroken, like I missed the opportunity. I scrambled and decided, ‘Okay, I'll just go to North Hennepin and start there.’
Did I hear correctly that you started out in graphic design at NHCC?
Yeah, it was art! When I very first started, I enrolled in art classes, and I was very interested in that and literature. I knew I had talent in the arts, and so I thought, because I had talent in it that I should do it as a job. I thought my career would be in 3D modeling, book illustrations, or graphic design. I didn't know what I wanted to do school wise, and I didn't gravitate towards anything. I focused a lot of my time on the associate of arts degree and the Minnesota Transfer Curriculum when I was starting out.
How did you go from being an art student to being a biology student?
I think I can pinpoint the exact transition. I always did like science, but I wasn't sure about having a science career. Until one day, North Hennepin hosted a seminar with a woman from the U of MN. She came in and presented her work on stem cells and therapeutic cloning. (That’s taking a human being’s own cells, and then maybe growing an organ for transplant, or for curing any and all diseases ever). In that moment, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to work with stem cells. I wanted to use them to cure everything and grow organs, and it just kind of blew up from there.
How did you get more experience in the science fields?
It started slow and I got involved in NHCC’s undergraduate research program. I had a class with Paul Melchior (who's probably been my biggest supporter and mentor through all of this, although the entire biology team has been there and has supported me). But Paul had undergraduate research going on and he kind of tapped me on the shoulder, saying he thought this would be a good fit for me. Then, I started doing actual lab benchwork, outside of our usual course work in the labs and I worked for Paul on some of the plant studies. That particular benchwork, might not have been in the field I was interested in, but it was still really engaging. It also solidified that I wanted to do bench science.
Did you ever join any science focused clubs?
No clubs. But the undergraduate research I did (which included sponsorship from some grants,) was a way to earn money while studying. We were able to present at seminars and flew across the country to share our work. The fact that North Hennepin had undergraduate research was very unique!
When did you graduate from NHCC?
I graduated in 2008 with my associate of science degree. I satisfied the Minnesota Transfer Curriculum, because at the time I had planned to transfer to a 4-year university. I applied, and was accepted into both the U of MN and The University of Wisconsin-Madison. But, I was also concerned about my future, and whether I'd be able to complete, or afford a 4-year degree.
What did you do after graduating from NHCC?
I made a conscious decision to linger a little bit longer at NHCC and get the bachelor’s degree itself while I was here. Science was becoming my passion and it made sense for me. The joint NHCCxMoorhead State biochemistry/biotech program just came to campus, and it was really convenient for me. I also loved this program because I'd already been working with the faculty. I really liked and respected them and felt supported by them; so being able to continue to do undergraduate research, without leaving seemed like a no brainer to me.
Do you have anything else you want to share about your overall NHCC experience?
My experience was overwhelmingly positive. I can't say enough good things about North Hennepin and the biology faculty (most of my time was spent in the science wing with them). North Hennepin’s affordability was great. I graduated without any student loans. Some of that was just my privilege, but I had grants both from the State and then that undergraduate research did supplement a bit of the income. That was super! Those grants would have been a fraction of a 4-year university. I also appreciated NHCC’s campus; I didn't really want to live in a dorm, and I had an apartment. The small class sizes were nice. Being able to have your professor actually teach you, without relying on student aids, or passing information off to somebody else, was, I think, very valuable. You could tell the professors clearly put in their time and showed up. I very much appreciated that. I felt like the people studying at NHCC were serious about their education and made the choice to prioritize it. I liked that learning environment and level of engagement from other students. Which ties in with the last thing that sticks out to me and that was diversity in student demographics for sure. I had classes with high school PSEO students, all the way up to people who were 30 years into their career and making the switch. I think diversity is instrumental to creativity and idea exchange. North Hennepin brought that diversity piece, and it was wonderful. What a great, affordable way to begin one's education, or to transition. NHCC delivers an outstanding education to their students. This is a great place for students to see where they're at and if education is right for them. Take your time, there is no rush. I felt rushed that I needed to get my degree right away and I thought if I didn't get my degree right away that I would fail at life. That's just so not true. Take your time. North Hennepin specifically is a wonderful institution to do that.
When did you graduate from Moorhead?
I graduated from the Moorhead program in 2010. Mayo's graduate program started in the summer. So, I had one month to move to Rochester and get everything together before beginning grad school. In my second to last year at Moorhead, I was accepted into a summer undergraduate program at Mayo, (which was admittedly a really competitive position). It turned out to be a super amazing learning experience. Because I knew at that point, I wanted to work with stem cells and aging and therapeutics; I went into a bone health and bone aging lab for that summer. The program sort of solidified that I knew what I wanted, and this is exactly what I wanted to do, so I applied to their graduate program. I didn't know this at the time, but you certainly don't need to get a master's before you get a PhD. The type of research program I wanted to go into was not a prerequisite. It's not the stepwise thing that people sometimes think it is. I went straight from my undergraduate studies into the PhD program. At first, I didn't know they had a graduate program, I thought they were just a medical school. That was new to me too, but I applied and was accepted into their program. This type of program was very, very, very heavily lab based. I was in the lab every single day, 60 to 70 hours a week. It was quite intense. Eventually, I graduated and defended with my PhD on Halloween in 2016.
What is your PhD in?
It was based in cell biology, cancer, and aging. Detailing how a certain group of proteins that help our cells divide, when they become dysregulated, cause cancer and aging. We studied a lot of mouse models of cancer. There was a well-known mouse model of aging; when you have too low of one of these proteins, they age really quickly, they tend to get cancer and they're great for studying that rapid aging and those types of characteristics. There was a lot of mouse work and then a lot of cell culture biology.
After your time in Rochester, what did you discover?
I learned that I did not want to do academic research and use stem cells to save the world anymore. I learned a lot and came out of it published, but I resolved to transition into a different environment. There's a lot of things about academia that are hard. Finding the funding was hard and the publish or perish world was just not something that worked for me. I wanted to go into the industry. I gave myself two or three months off to recover and then I started applying for jobs. That's when I found Cargill. They were a household name growing up, but I didn't realize they had a research and development department. I assumed they were all just feed and cows. They had a location 2 miles from where I grew up. I saw a position that was close to what I had done in grad school. It was a lot of cloning, but it was for a very different application. I started out as a contractor and now I’m a permanent employee, with a large and diverse team. Most of my time is spent in strain development. We take little microbes and tweak them, so they ferment products that you can then sell. I like their emphasis and focus on sustainability and nourishing the world. It felt similar to me, in the way that I wanted to help people. This helps people, just in a different way. There's a lot of overlap with my values in that regard, even if I’m not curing cancer. I appreciate the alignment with sustainability. We have one planet, let's not ruin it.
How do you spend your time now, do you still like art?
Yeah, I still do. But I don’t do it as much anymore. Art is a good compliment to my other hobby of birds. My spouse and I, we like going out and birding, so I should just draw the birds. We're big bird nerds. We just did a day trip on Sunday, drove three hours north to find some boreal birds. Luckily people have lured them with feeding stations, but Northern MN is a well-known hot spot for certain species. Birding is a lot of looking, driving, walking around and you'll learn quickly. My favorite type of bird is definitely owls! We have 12 in Minnesota, and I've seen 9 of the 12. Still got to track down some of the little ones, but I’ll find them!