When Gene Robertson was a student at Arizona State University, people used to ask him what he was going to do to help people.
At the time, Robertson didn’t know what he wanted to do. The alumnus started his undergraduate studies as a chemistry major before changing his mind and switching to microbiology.
“I realized after that first semester, it really wasn’t what I expected it to be,” Robertson said. “I’d also taken biology and I was very interested in the life sciences. The next semester, I took the
“Introduction to Microbiology” course, and I could tell right away — that’s where my passion was.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in microbiology, Robertson continued his studies in a master’s program at ASU, and found himself working in the lab of SOLS professor Henry Reeves (now Emeritus). When Reeves was named vice-president of research for the university, he needed someone to supervise his lab. Robertson signed on to help by extending his master’s program into a PhD.
Reeves’ previous research focused on the metabolic pathways of E. coli, and in Reeves’ lab, Robertson explored the way specific enzymes allow the bacteria to generate enzymes. After purifying and studying the enzymes with specialized techniques, Robertson and the lab made a breakthrough discovery. The team found that the enzymes could be turned on and off — something that had never been observed in bacteria before.
After graduating, Robertson received a call from Abbott laboratories in his home state of Illinois.
“As it turned out, the techniques I used in my research were really cutting-edge and they allowed me to be considered as potentially, a very strong candidate to work at Abbott laboratories,” Robertson said. “At the time, they were doing work with infectious diseases. They studied and purified proteins from viruses just as I had done with bacteria. It was an awesome opportunity.”
At Abbott, Robertson investigated the high number of false positives that occurred when screening blood for diseases. With a team of researchers, Robertson worked for six years developing a new instrument to screen blood. When HTLV-2, a lesser-known blood disease emerged, he worked for 18 months to help create a test that could detect it.
After some time, Robertson and his family wanted to move back to Phoenix. He connected with Blood Systems Laboratories, a company that screened and distributed blood around the valley for the United Blood Services.
Robertson’ worked there for more than 10 years before changes in health care forced the labs to consolidate. Eventually, he became vice-president of a new business called Creative Testing Solutions.
Today, he oversees four labs around the country, which test more than one third of the nation’s donated blood supply. Now, Robertson can finally answer the question he was asked as a graduate student in the ‘80s.
“Interestingly, and though I couldn’t have seen this when people first asked me in graduate school ‘what are you going to do to help people?’ I’ve done a tremendous amount with my colleagues to ensure a safe blood supply,” Robertson said. “We’re all very proud of the work we do.”