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Honoring a Lifetime of Research

$100,000 for endowed summer undergraduate research fund

In the late 1940s, with World War II over, many who had fought in it had returned to America’s institutions of higher learning to earn their undergraduate degrees. At Pomona , one such veteran, a young man named Dale Robertson, was getting his first real taste of the scientific life: experimenting with organic compounds in a laboratory under the tutelage of chemistry Professor Corwin Hansch.

Robertson wasn’t just doing busy work. His research helped form the basis of an academic paper Hansch co-published in 1949, the year Robertson graduated. In the fall of the following year, Robertson and Hansch co-authored a paper that ran in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. “His undergraduate research started him out on all this,” says Dale Robertson’s wife, Alice Robertson, referring to his lifelong career in chemistry. After Dale Robertson passed away in the spring of last year, Alice Robertson donated $100,000 for an endowment to help fund summer research grants for Pomona students. “I wanted to do something in his memory,” she says. “We had planned some sort of gift for undergraduate research because he got his start at Pomona.”

Alice met and married Dale when they both were graduate students in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, where their work helped establish warfarin as the anticoagulant drug of choice for preventing blood clots. Their dual careers took them from Pittsburgh to Boulder, Colo., to New York City and New Jersey. Alice worked for Dow Chemical, Johnson & Johnson and Merck. Dale also worked at Dow before leaving for Arapahoe Chemicals, where he became assistant director of research. He later worked for the biomedical research center of the Population Council, an international nonprofit  dedicated to studying public health issues.

It was there that he did research that led to the development of the Norplant contraceptive device, which makes birth control effective for several years at a time. The contraceptive has proven especially effective and useful to women in underdeveloped parts of the world and was the accomplishment of which Dale Robertson was the most proud, says Alice, noting: “I think that it had a direct effect on people.”

During their productive careers, the Robertsons also raised a son, Scott, who became a biochemist and somehow found time to learn how to fly single-engine planes. “It looked like something that might be fun,” Alice says.

Alice Robertson’s career took a turn when she was unable to land the job she wanted as a chemist at Dow Chemical. She instead accepted a position in the patents department of the company, learned on the job, and then later earned a law degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder. 

That same practical approach made her decide to make a gift to Pomona for summer research. “I think it’s wonderful that Pomona has such a program,” she says. “In summer, students can really concentrate; they’re not distracted by having to do other schoolwork.”

Pomona Chemistry Professor Cynthia Selassie agrees with Robertson on the importance of undergraduate research at the College: “Nothing beats experiential learning, and you get to learn in a laboratory so you can see the science actually being done.” Selassie, who also is an associate dean and head of the summer research program, adds that it gives Pomona students an advantage when applying to graduate schools. “Some of these students are actually receiving National Science Foundation grants before they even get to graduate school.”

Looking back on her and her husband’s careers, Alice believes that the importance of training scientists in the practice of their craft is greater than ever. “Nowadays, there’s more interrelation between the sciences,” she says. “You may not be a chemist, but you have to know quite a bit of chemistry. I think it’s basic, it’s essential.”