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About this episode
#6 — Many of us owe a debt of thanks to Paul Robinson of Purdue University for developing and maintaining the flow cytometry listserv, and for writing the Handbook of Flow Cytometry Methods. In this episode of Flow Stars, we’ll learn more about how these projects came about. We’ll also discover more about Paul’s passions, his scientific inspirations, and what compelled him to climb Mount Everest. In this thought-provoking chat, we’ll hear about some of the challenges that Paul has faced in his career, how he has overcome them, and why he keeps an ice axe in his office!
This is an automated transcript and may not be 100% accurate.
Peter O’Toole (00:12):
In this episode of Flow Stars. Paul Robinson tells us more about, how nothing should get in the way of good lab photo shoot.
Paul Robinson (00:20):
I actually used to do stuff in those days, but yeah, the fact that I I’m at eye level with, with where the lasers would be coming would be a real no brainer for most people. And why
Peter O’Toole (00:34):
Walking away sometimes takes the most courage.
Paul Robinson (00:38):
It’s much better to do those things when you’re young and stupid, as opposed to when you’re older and stupid,
Peter O’Toole (00:43):
How we came to climb Mount Everest.
Paul Robinson (00:46):
I walked away from running a big core lab because I I decided that it was restricting what I needed to do myself
Peter O’Toole (00:56):
Well in this episode of Flow Stars,
Peter O’Toole (01:01):
Hi, I’m Peter O’Toole and today on Flow Stars, I’m joined by Paul Robinson who I think everyone will know. And actually when I, when I started flow cytometry, he was the lead name out there. And I remember my first ISAC meeting and Paul, I think it was the president at that time, back in around 2004, five time. So to Paul was, you know, one of the gods of Flow cytometry that we all looked up to. So actually it’s brilliant to welcome Paul today. Paul morning. Yeah, it is morning. It’s a dreary afternoon over here today for us. So, Paul, obviously I know you from your career, but where were you born?
Paul Robinson (01:47):
Well, I was born in the Bush actually in Northern New South Wales in a small country. In the other side, it was Pacific.
Peter O’Toole (02:00):
What’s that that’d be Australia then.
Paul Robinson (02:02):
Oh yeah. Some people use that term. Yes.
Peter O’Toole (02:07):
Yeah, just that small country itself. So that, that explains your cause you teach you a PhD in immunology if I correct. In university of new south Wales, which is in Sydney? Yes. Do you miss it?
Paul Robinson (02:22):
What immunology Sydney, New South Wales,
Peter O’Toole (02:26):
Sydney itself in Australia. I
Paul Robinson (02:29):
Do. I really miss it at the moment because we’re, we’re unable to travel. So I usually am in Sydney at least a couple of times a year. And right now with this virus, we’re unable to travel. So yeah, Sydney is a great city and yeah, we’re very grateful to you lot because if you hadn’t shipped us all out there, we, we wouldn’t exist.
Peter O’Toole (03:00):
Okay. I got so many jokes I could play on that I’m not allowed to say them, I guess the easiest way you’re a man of conviction is probably the right word to use.
Paul Robinson (03:10):
I liked that one. Yeah.
Peter O’Toole (03:15):
I, I was in Sydney, not that long ago before, before this and I got to say I find it one of the friendliest cities I have actually been to ever, York is wonderfully friendly, but oh my goodness. People in Sydney seem so chilled. Everyone says hello, if I’m out running early doors. So super friendly. So I don’t know what it’s like where you are now, is it a super-friendly place that you’re living now? Or how does it compare?
Paul Robinson (03:40):
Well, you know when we, we moved to the United States we, we, we moved to small college towns and a sort of unique about America. Oh, and I, I’m not even going to attempt to compare these small college towns to the small college towns, just outside of London that you might’ve heard of. But this is the way America exists. They’re these small towns that have large academic institutions in them, very what we would call decentralized in Australia, where everything is in the cities. And here you have these small towns, which are really great for bringing, bringing up families and very safe, but they’re, they’re not exactly the most exciting environments, perhaps, you know, the, the the, there, there are no beaches. And you know, there are a few things that are missing. Let’s put it that way.
Peter O’Toole (04:53):
So why did you move to the USA?
Paul Robinson (04:56):
Well, I I came, I came to do a post-doc actually, and it was only intended to be a two year postdoc and it, it sort of extended.
Peter O’Toole (05:12):
So you enjoyed your postdoc. So what was your post-doc in, what were you actually doing? Your post-doc?
Paul Robinson (05:18):
I, well, I visited I visited two places. I visited the NIH and and, and then Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I interviewed in both places. And I actually vividly remember walking into Tony Fauci lab in 1983. And I was visiting John Gallons lab at that time. And then I came to Ann Arbor and came home and Michigan made me the offer. I took it immediately thinking, you know, okay, take whatever, whatever comes. And I worked in Peter Ward‘s lab at the University of Michigan. And it was focused mostly on burn injuries, the immunology of burns, which was a big area in Peter’s lab. So that’s really where I, I cut my teeth.
Peter O’Toole (06:23):
So from there, what was your first contact with a flow cytometer?
Paul Robinson (06:29):
Well, it was well before that I when I was, when I was a graduate student in, in St Vincent’s hospital in Sydney, which is where the University of New South Wales immunology department was I was a graduate student and typical in those days, there was a lot less administratium around. And I I ended up sort of managing the department managing is a big word, but no one did anything. No one was in charge of anything like ordering materials. And I just sort of took over that job because I found out that as a PhD student if you took over those roles, you could order anything you wanted. So I, I, I mean, it was purely selfish, but my boss came into the lab one day and said, we need a flow cytometer. And I had no idea what he was talking about. This was like 1979. And he said, oh, there’s there’s a paper in the literature. And we have journal club and he told me please review this paper. And I distinctly remember having to explain to our journal club what a histogram was and I had no idea what I was talking about. I really had no idea. I, it was completely foreign to me and I probably just made it up. And I was it was fascinating. And then he said, okay, we go to buy one of these things, go, I go find out, you know, what the, where that, where you can get one. And so I did some traveling and we ended up bringing the first Coulter Epics 5 into into Australia. There was the only one when everything else was ortho, I think at the time. And so that’s where I cut my, my teeth on flow cytometry. I really didn’t do any flow cytometry much. I, I helped a little bit. Graham Chapman said w was hired and Graham ran ran the unit. And I learned a little bit, but then I went to Michigan and we did just tons of flow cytometry. So that’s where I started.
Peter O’Toole (09:19):
And never looked back after that. So I, you, you, obviously, your career’s developed significantly to where you are now. We do professor cytomotics, which I guess professors cytomotics wouldn’t have even existed as a position back in the early eighties. So how did you, how did you progress your career into, into your current position?
Paul Robinson (09:48):
Well, I was, as I started as a post-doc and then I got a junior faculty position and I wrote an NIH grant as a post as a post-doc and, and got that grant only to find out that to take the grunt, I actually had to have a permanent residency in the United States, which nobody had thought about in 1985, I think it was or six. And so I got we had to, we had to decide to stick around and it was a lot of money, so it was definitely worthwhile. And I, I, I moved then after I got that grant I got laid off it, a jobs, which I also found rather fascinating sort of thing that happens in the United States that I would never have thought about, I think, in Australia at the time anyway. And then I got made an offer to come to Purdue to set to, to build my own lab, which was a bit of a shock, you know, really had to start off from scratch. And I moved from a very active, big lab to my own lab where I had to do everything on it. So, so in those days it took about three months to purchase anything. You needed a pipette or a reagent. You would fill out a form with a, with a pin. And you would submit that to somebody who would type it up, who would submit it to somebody else who would re-type it. And it would get submitted around the system. And about three months later, if you were lucky, the item would turn up. So there was nothing to do. I mean, I had an empty lab that was trying to order everything, and that’s when I sat down and wrote the handbook of flow cytometry methods, because I had, I had to train people. And there were no methods. How, how do you do basic phenotyping? I had a flow cytometer, but I didn’t have anything, any, any, any instruction book. So I ha I wrote out the handbook of flow cytometry methods, and I thought that’s really where my career started with that stupid book.
Peter O’Toole (12:43):
So, well, yeah, it was that
Paul Robinson (12:48):
Peter O’Toole (12:52):
So you probably really did write it out.
Paul Robinson (12:57):
Probably actually I wrote it. I did, I did, I did do it on a, on a, on a computer and wrote it in word, actually the earliest version of word that probably came out and
Peter O’Toole (13:14):
We print it was that word or Word Perfect.
Paul Robinson (13:18):
Could have been Word Perfect. Yeah, yeah.
Peter O’Toole (13:22):
Back at that time. So this must have been very close to that time.
Paul Robinson (13:27):
Oh my glory. Well, as you see, I dye my hair now.
Peter O’Toole (13:32):
That’s an amazing picture. It’d be hard to recognize you there. Where as actually, if you go back in time, oh, that’s
Paul Robinson (13:38):
A, that’s when I was in the St. Vincent’s hospital. Yeah. That must’ve been in the early eighties. It’s definitely me because it’s got my name on it. But apart from that,
Peter O’Toole (13:49):
Wow. I can tell you, you sent loads of pictures. What are you drinking?
Paul Robinson (13:52):
I think somebody puts some dry ice into something that I was drinking and and it, it, somebody took a photograph. Yeah.
Peter O’Toole (14:03):
As I said, so now this is looking far more familiar. I think that’s what, what are you actually working on here?
Paul Robinson (14:10):
I don’t think I was working on anything. Some, publicity person wanted to take a photograph and I had to pretend that I was doing something. I actually used to do stuff in those days. But yeah, the fact that I I’m at eye level with, with where the lasers would be coming would be a real, no brainer for most people. But publicity people took that photo because it’s far too good a photo for, for us to taken in the lab.
Peter O’Toole (14:41):
And I guess it is still so quite a famous you’re dickie bow which you were quite famous for, for a short while as well.
Paul Robinson (14:46):
That one was published in the wall street journal when they were talking about the administrative load in universities and the that’s also a posed photograph, obviously taken by a professional that’s. Most of my photographs are actually real life.
Peter O’Toole (15:03):
I love, I love if I ever came to a lab, we just found you standing like that. Most of the time, the more surreal I take, you started to get camera shy by this point.
Paul Robinson (15:14):
Yes. Well, some of your colleagues in the UK did that at an ISAC meeting. It was great. Yeah.
Peter O’Toole (15:22):
That was Paul Smith and co I presume.
Speaker 2 (15:25):
Yep, yep. Biostatus. I think it was, yeah. Yeah. I
Peter O’Toole (15:30):
Actually Paul, I actually, as part of these, I’ve talked to Paul Smith as well, because he’s got an amazing track record, very diverse track record. I don’t know how he does so much in his time.
Paul Robinson (15:42):
I don’t know. I, he really is amazing person.
Peter O’Toole (15:46):
It’s, it’s quite incredible. Just how diverse everything does. So obviously we all know you for Purdue, but I guess most famously at Purdue, it’s a flow cytometry listserv, the Purdue listserv itself, which is you’ve got to have had loads of impacts in your scientific career. But I would argue, this is probably the biggest, fundamental impact that anyone could have. It sets up Alyssa that is so successful. How many people know subscribed to this listserv
Paul Robinson (16:18):
It’s four and a half thousand. We add 15 or 10 or 15 a week and a few people drop off, but it’s, it’s been steady at four and a half thousand for couple of years.
Peter O’Toole (16:34):
That that is huge. And for those who don’t know what the listserv you really should get that. There’s one for microscopy, for advanced microscopy. This I believe is the one for flow cytometry, which is just, if you have a problem, I’m in a flow cytometry problem, not a personal problem. This is where you can post your question and you’ll get an answer, you know, very, very rapidly from all over the world. You get good advice, tips, tricks. If you’re uncertain about which way to go on something, the advice is always there. The troubleshooting, the best way to design a protocol for something to troubleshoot it, to have that resource is better than any textbook, any publication, because you get the real methods, the real answers, and then you’ve got the contact you can follow up afterwards, offline if you want a bit more detail and stuff. So, so actually thank you for that. Cause that is just awesome listserv. It takes an effort to do anything like this and to get enough momentum. And these are the listservs that have been tried or different forums, but they never gained traction. So where did the idea come from and how, how did it become so successful?
Paul Robinson (17:51):
It, it started in 1989 when I started doing email and I used to check my email, at least once a month was, you know, you wanted to see if anyone had actually sent you a message. And Steve Kelly came with me for Michigan. Steve ran our computer systems. And when I moved from Michigan to Purdue, Steve came with me and we set up our systems in the lab. And we, we started talking about the, how to share data. And so we, we, we Steve set up I actually made a few phone calls. I called people, Hey, you know, you have an email. And most people said, what are you talking about? And I would explain. And, and so we got about 10 people and we started communicating, you know, and by about 1990 we had 50 or a hundred people on the list. And it it’s, we started this sort of communication and by, by the early nineties and enough people have the email that they found it useful. And we, so we still have the archive back, I think to 1991 or 92. I can’t remember. We lost the first couple of years just in moving computer systems from one to another. But yeah, I remember so when a [Inaudible] and Cambridge came to my lab in the early 1990s and I showed, excuse me, I showed it to him and he was amazed and he said, help me get an email address. And when he went back to New York, he called me and he had someone from their IT person. And I, we, we set him up his email address and he got onto the list. And as you know, people like [inaudible] and others, Howard Shapiro, Maria [Inaudible], the, the, you know, the core people in the field use it all the time. And SPE SAC was one of those people. So that’s how it, that’s how it was set up. And, you know, I’m, I’m on it to that darn thing every single day. it, every morning, because it is a monitored list. you, you mentioned in jest that people don’t put their personal problems, but actually some do. And that’s the reason it’s monitored. some people accidentally send private messages. And so it, you know, if I see that, I, I sort of send it back to them and say, you know, I don’t think you want this to go out to the list. but it takes work. Everything that, that I think is worthwhile doing takes work. And so it’s been a labor of love, I think.
Peter O’Toole (21:23):
Yeah. Cause, cause this is completely neutral. Th there’s, there’s no sponsorship, there’s no money for this. This is something that is purely a personal charitable contribution to the, to assist to the, you know, the network, the group to the world of flow cytometry and actually reading, checking, all of them in first thing is quite a task to be checking. Everything is kosher and not inappropriate because obviously every now and then technical squeak through on some of the other listservs. And yeah, I actually, I kind of makes it exciting
Paul Robinson (22:05):
Occasionally, occasionally there’s a, there’s a, there’s a small blow up. Somebody gets angry with somebody and and there’s there’s, there’s some interaction, but it it’s I think it’s a very scientific and stable environment and, you know, we haven’t changed it, much. People have said, oh, can you add this and do that? And we’ve thought of it many, many times, but the amount of work would go up exponentially and since it works the way it is now, I’ve, I’ve just left It as it is.
Peter O’Toole (22:40):
Talking of going up exponentially, you climb Mount Everest. What year was that?
Paul Robinson (22:47):
Peter O’Toole (22:48):
Clearly Mount Everest is a massive feat.
Paul Robinson (22:51):
Yeah. It’s probably my highest achievement.
Peter O’Toole (22:54):
Well, certainly you reached the peak of your career at that point, I guess.
Paul Robinson (22:59):
Yeah. Well, if you haven’t got I could, I could bring this, this, and if you why this, this, I keep this in my office mainly to keep graduate students under control, but it’s this has been to the top
Peter O’Toole (23:20):
That that’s a giant toothpick.
Paul Robinson (23:23):
It is a giant toothpick.
Peter O’Toole (23:27):
You climbed Everest again, you paid for yourself to climb Everest and it’s not insignificant in the training. If you have to climb so many peaks, I believe, and it costs quite a lot of money. Thank you. Paul quite a lot of money to actually train to before you can even start to climb Everest and accepted to do that, but it’s your endeavor. You paid for that, but not everyone does that. A lot of people raise money for charity and use some of that to do it. Well, you didn’t do that. You did, you paid for everything yourself, but then raised money a hundred percent for charity. And that challenge tell us about the charity you raised it for.
Paul Robinson (24:10):
Well, I had this crazy idea that, that in the, in the days when CD four was one of the most important tests for HIV and I had the idea that we should be able to do this very inexpensively and also in remote regions. And we we designed a small flow cytometer, very small, very inexpensive. And I tried to get companies to buy into the idea. I, I really, I hit my head against a brick wall. And it’s sort of is obvious when you look back at it, but, you know, if you can build a small instrument for a few thousand dollars, that just does one thing, there’s no profit in it. And so companies are not going to get involved. And, you know, I even went to the, I don’t know whether I should mention names, but I went to the Gates foundation and tried to get them to buy in. And they, and I met with them and explained the idea and they were heavily involved, you know, in HIV. And they, they said to me, well, you know, if you can’t build it and distributed for $500, we’re not interested. And I just said to them, what are you drinking? You know, this is, this is insanity. You will not do it for $500. But it, it drove me to distraction. Actually. I, I really I think I got angry about it. And I said to myself, one day, you know, in a fit of anger, it would be easier to climb Mount Everest than it would be to, to get the small instruments to solve this problem in remote regions. And it occurred to me that, well, I really failed to, to, to solve this problem. I just couldn’t get the buy-in. And, and, and, you know, lots of companies were spending tons of money, but very expensive instruments and doing their best. I’m not trying to, I’m not being critical, but it just seemed to me that it wasn’t solving the problem. And so that’s when I decided to set up this foundation which we called Cytometry for Life. And I, I went off and did what just to prove to myself that it, it wasn’t me just, it wasn’t just me that was failing, even though I think I considered it a huge failure to not be able to solve this problem. And that’s really the, that was really the driving force. And it was probably not the most intelligent thing that, that I, I have done because it, it sort of, it does impact you. It it’s much better to do those things when you’re young and stupid, as opposed to when you’re older and stupid.
Peter O’Toole (27:53):
So how much training was involved to climb Everest?
Paul Robinson (27:57):
I didn’t really appreciate what it would take. And I wrote to Russell Brice, who was, he ran a Himalayan experience. So the company that a lot of people would probably know about sort of the, the, the, the, the big, bad man of, of Everest. And he told me, you know, you have to go and do McKinley. You, you would have to climb an 8,000 meter peak on oxygen and you’d have to do all of these other things. And then, then you would have to apply and maybe you could do it. So I did, I started, I went and did all these things. And I, I, I climbed a Manaslu with Russell in 2008, and we got stuck there actually it was when the economic crash occurred. We were on the mountain in July, August and September. And there was a horrific crash. A lot of people killed on one of the flights going into loop into Lukla and all the helicopters were were taken by the government. And we couldn’t get out of, out of Manaslu for oh, I dunno, for four weeks we went, we were stuck at base camp. We, we could, we’d finished the climb, we just couldn’t leave. And we didn’t have a clue by the way that the, the, the world had collapsed economically. We didn’t know, we didn’t have any communication. So that was training. And then after I got down from Manaslu I, I remember literally coming back from took two or three days to get back to base camp from summit. And I walked into Russell Bryce’s tent, and I said, right, Russell put me on the Everest team, which was a stupid thing to say, because he did. And then about six months later, I went back to Katmandu and and then we, we did Everest. So it was a lot of training. I, I, I, I swore not to use an elevator or escalator for a year, so I even climbed up a 22 story building when I was at a meeting in San Francisco with my bags, that was like the sort of brutal punishment that I, that I did.
Peter O’Toole (30:41):
So how it fits in sporty way before you started on this mission.
Paul Robinson (30:48):
Well, you know, tennis and cricket aren’t exactly the, the cricket, at least it’s not a sport that requires that sort of training that you need forever. So I would say not much
Peter O’Toole (31:03):
Cricket in America.
Paul Robinson (31:06):
No, I, I, I watched cricket in America, unfortunately, it’s the only thing that I can do in cricket.
Peter O’Toole (31:13):
So cricket was one of your sports to get fit. And you would, you, you participated through watching games. Okay. Five days of sitting there waiting for something to happen, brilliant.
Paul Robinson (31:32):
What can I say.
Peter O’Toole (31:35):
Anyway, for all this, you did manage it and you raised money for cytometry for life. And you talked a bit, a little while ago about the importance of creating low cost diagnostics, but it’s not the diagnostics itself, it’s the equipment. And quite often to enable the experiments to be undertaken, and I can see why the companies struggle with this. It’s not even if you made the instrument cheap enough for someone to build themselves in financially more challenged countries than ourselves to get a clinician to adopt that, to build it, to support it. So even if they could build it the first time, they need to make sure it stays within specifications. So, so the assay results are coming robustly back. It’s not trivial for non-expert who’s actually then, but for main priority, seeing patient after patient, after patient, I can see why it’s so hard to sell and to get something that it’s possible it has to be possible, but I can see the challenge behind it. So to where, where are you now with this ambition?
Paul Robinson (32:52):
Well, one always has ambitions achieving them takes, I think some, a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work. And and even more planning. I have some interesting ideas for future technologies. I consider the current spectral instruments as intermediate three step actually. I think I call them gen one instruments and I have some, some ideas for gen two quite different, but expanding on the spectral technology significantly. And I think addressing a lot of the issues that the clinical world has concerns about and things that we aren’t addressing in, in the field of flow with, we really we’re very we’re traditionalists. We we, we do like to, to do things the same way for a long period of time, because it works. And so I think there is a bright future and I am, and so, yeah, I have some ideas that I’m not going to tell you all of them right now, but
Peter O’Toole (34:31):
He say, no, no, I’ll write it down, but you’re being recorded. So it’ll be fine. You can just give away all your ideas now. So I think technology is still got a long way to go without question. It’s like, and I know the flow cytometry field I think as you said, likes, doesn’t, it, it doesn’t take change very easily. It will do steps, but those steps are quite hard to, to get like the step once your up the step, the flood gates open I think that’s very true for flow cytometry not necessarily of other fields themselves. I wonder how much of that is driven by the companies resisting to a degree because their large market is a clinical market and the clinical world takes a lot longer to, to progress to, to, to move up. And maybe that’s why in the research field, I think we are far quicker to adopt new technologies, new ideas but maybe some of the companies don’t follow that as swiftly as maybe it would help the research community. Whereas in the world of microscopy it’s all research that’s the big driver is the research side, so that I guess they get handed over and they get their wishes rather fast to market, faster to market than we do in the flow world. I say extraordinary time. How long did it take for the, for the spectral flow to go from idea through, to a commercial product?
Paul Robinson (36:00):
Well, the idea started when I visited Scott Fraser in his lab, it was like 20 years ago. And I noticed that he had developed this thing that turned out to be product that Zeiss sold called the meta and a spectral. And I looked at that and thought, you know, we could do this on a flow cytometer. First thing I did when I got back is order this 32 channel PMT from Hamamatsu. And then we had to work out how to collect the data. And that took a couple of years to, to get a 32 channel ADC and build the system. We probably built five, six versions of that system using every type of of grading and holographic grading. And we pulled spectrometers to pieces. I tried to make a custom grading and it was going to cost me about $25,000 at the time, just to make a single custom grading. I couldn’t afford it. So we did the best we could. And we, we spent about three years building iterations of the instrument that were monstrous, built them on an epics elite. You probably recall. And the first data we got, we had no idea how to interpret it. And we actually had to go back and start again and add a functional six channel flow cytometer on onto it and split the light. And the irony of this is Peter. I wrote an NIH grant to develop this technology. And it was considered to be the, the pink sheets, which in what we call used to call the review sheets because they used to come on pink paper, believe it or not. The pink sheets said that it was an interesting, but a really unneeded technology. And it wouldn’t work anyway because there wouldn’t be enough photons to split across so many detectors. And yeah, there’s a lot of irony about the way NIH grants and others get reviewed. You probably got stories of, anyway, I still have those pink sheets. I keep them because they remind me that you shouldn’t believe what review is always say about, but anyway, they took some years and it wasn’t until 2012. I think that Sony who licensed the patent produced the first commercial instrument. So there was like 12 years from, you know, thinking about how to do it to when someone could actually buy a machine.
Peter O’Toole (39:03):
It’s an incredible length of time. I like the bit about the pink sheets, because that is true. And actually anyone starting out in their career, I know when, when you get a knock back, so when you get that rejection you’ve made the post, you’ve read the reviews, you think, okay, I might still have a chance. I might not have a chance, or I don’t know. In our case, we get to see the reviews quite often and get a chance to rebutt them and then go back and you cross fingers. Will you get funded or not? Sometimes you doing, sometimes you don’t and then you read the reviews back and it can be upsetting for a while, but, but what is your reaction when you get a grant rejected? What, what is your, what’s your process at that point?
Paul Robinson (39:46):
Well, I, at that point in those days, I was probably, you know, very upset about it because the people that reviewed this were the leaders of the field. They were, you know, I don’t know the name of the individual who wrote that particular review, but I know everybody who was on the study section and, and, you know, who’s going to be given in a study section, us, I’ve said on, I don’t know, dozens and dozens and dozens, maybe hundreds of study sections altogether. So, you know, but I, I think these days I still get grants rejected. I mean, we all, anyone who doesn’t get grants rejected, probably isn’t writing enough grants. You, you just have to get used to it. But when you Go back and start again
Peter O’Toole (40:38):
Or not writing any grants because then you can’t get rejected either.
Paul Robinson (40:45):
Well, yeah, that’s, I don’t, I don’t advocate that pathway. If you want to maintain a research environment writing grants is important because it’s making you think through what the objective is, what the potential results will be and what the impact will be. And you, you, you, you know, you cannot argue that grant reviews are not valuable. They are, even if you don’t agree with the reviews, you have to take them into consideration. If they didn’t, if you didn’t write it in a way that, that the review is appreciated, your position will do you need to rewrite it. And that’s the reality of, of, of research. Isn’t it really?
Peter O’Toole (41:32):
Yeah. I don’t think I’ve ever gone back. I think when I re never be submitted a grant per se, but you take the same work and you spin it in a slightly different way and put it back. I think the second application is always stronger than the first one that I’ve put in. I still think the first one should have been funded of course, but I can see sometimes how it’s actually benefited to having that 12 months and maturity over the idea, maybe assembling a slightly different team of collaborators to make it stronger, has helped not hindered. So actually I’m only upset until I go to sleep. And the next morning I wake up wanting to go back stronger. So, so only affects me until I go to sleep and the next morning, get back at it. And that let’s show them, let’s prove it wrong. Let’s make it strong. Let’s address those weaknesses and concerns. So what has been, I it’s quite a serious conversation. What has been the most challenging time then in your career?
Paul Robinson (42:29):
Well, I think the, the most challenging time was when, when, when I, I went through this period of time in my life of of struggling with these low cost instruments in setting up the cytometry for life. And at that time too, I was running a big core lab with flow cytometry and imaging all together. And I actually dropped that. I, I, I decided that actually in the middle of this year of climbing is when I, I, I walked away from running a, a big core lab because I, I decided that it was restricting what I needed to do myself in many ways. And that was a big challenge for me, that, that period of time in my life when I really had to do something different and I did so many things different. I, I, I stopped running a core lab. I had to move people in my lab into all the jobs. I had to go find jobs for them around the university, because I reduced the size of my lab. It had been quite large, very large, and I decided to make it smaller and focus on, on, on, on just research rather than, you know, doing the things that all the core labs have to do. So that was probably the most challenging time. It’s a big thing, you know, when you have a couple of hundred people that rely on your lab, and then you, you stopped doing that and hand that to somebody else and then go off and do something differently,
Peter O’Toole (44:24):
But did those jobs not go with the core facility part? Cause obviously the core must have maintained to a degree. So did they not move to, to sort of new ownership as it were for the core facility?
Paul Robinson (44:36):
They hired new people and basically built a new core
Peter O’Toole (44:42):
We won’t carry on down that path. Any regrets?
Paul Robinson (44:48):
Well, I must say that I regret not living in Sydney, having spent many years there, it’s a beautiful city. And it’s very different living in the Midwest of the United States. Of course we can. Well, we used to be able to go and get on a plane and actually travel anywhere we wanted. So it really probably doesn’t make much difference, but I don’t think I have too many regrets, I think I think life’s been very good to me. And I’m I’m quite satisfied.
Peter O’Toole (45:30):
Okay, so really quick fire questions, coffee or tea
Paul Robinson (45:38):
If i’m in the United Kingdom or Australia. It’s Tea if I’m in the United States, it’s coffee,
Peter O’Toole (45:45):
Coffee’s got better over here. You can drink coffee as well, you know, sweet or savory
Paul Robinson (45:52):
Peter O’Toole (45:53):
Beer or wine.
Paul Robinson (45:55):
Oh, absolutely. Red wine there isn’t
Peter O’Toole (45:59):
Okay. Australia or USA.
Paul Robinson (46:03):
Oh, I think Australia is most definitely a greatest country.
Peter O’Toole (46:07):
Okay. You better hope that Donald Trump doesn’t get reelected. Otherwise you’re a base be your one ticket way. You want to take it back at that point?
Paul Robinson (46:15):
I I’m I’m I’m going to stay away from the, the current political environment. It’s too.
Peter O’Toole (46:22):
The politics are always interesting. Certainly over here. There’s a, it’s not a good time to be a politician though. Either in any, in any way, walk of life. What was your, what’s your, what’s your favorite? Great. Then red wine.
Paul Robinson (46:36):
Oh, cabs, cabs have for sure.
Peter O’Toole (46:40):
Even the American choice, surely is zinfandel.
Paul Robinson (46:45):
Peter O’Toole (46:49):
Well, plus there’s zinfandel down. You can’t beat a zinf,
Paul Robinson (46:52):
Not in my cellar. I might have one or two bottles, but probably
Peter O’Toole (46:58):
Not a true
Paul Robinson (46:59):
Lots of Shiraz because being Australian, Australian big Shiraz tenfolds. Yeah.
Peter O’Toole (47:10):
You have your coffee, you get some chocolate, you’re drinking your red wine. What do you sit back to? Did you watch book or book or TV? What’s your preference ?
Paul Robinson (47:20):
Books I, I, I’m not a big TV person though.
Peter O’Toole (47:26):
Okay. So are you reading anything at the moment?
Paul Robinson (47:29):
Well, I’ve read I’ve read a lot of books on the current political climate because they seem to be coming out about every other day. So I’ve read probably six or eight of the sort of recent political books. And it’s quite useful to, to get this background from people journalists who, who, who, who live this stuff. So that’s been what I’ve been reading, mostly books.
Peter O’Toole (48:07):
And what about music? What genre of music are you into
Paul Robinson (48:13):
Dark side of the moon? Pink Floyd? Yeah, I don’t listen to a lot of music. I’ve I find that that I can’t work so well. Like I used to when I was young listening to music and working. So it’s a, it’s, it’s something that I, I can only do when I want to just listen to the music.
Peter O’Toole (48:36):
Okay. That’s interesting. Pink Floyd, dark side of the moon. Is that because of the album cover or just because if you even thought about that, the fact that that is a perfect illustration of spectral. If we use it as an example when we teaching students think about dark side of the moon, most nerdy album cover, and you’ve got your spectrum split. So is that just by coincidence?
Paul Robinson (48:59):
Probably not because I still have I think two copies of the original album. I used to buy two copies of every record when I was in college. Because I would play one on my turntable and the other one wouldn’t be played because once you play it a couple of times it doesn’t have the same quality. And I used to buy two copies of every record. I mean, so I still have I think an unopened copy of dark side of the moon 19…40 years ago.
Peter O’Toole (49:41):
So Paul back back to work itself. You have a funniest moment, a funniest moment in work, whether that be a conference or in the lab.
Paul Robinson (49:52):
You know, I really I really can’t think of of funniest moments. I, I suppose oddest moment would be in 1995, or I, I think early 96 before the the Italian ISAC meeting, we produced our first CD when we produced all these CDs in those days. And we had to make the CD, we had to package it and all the pieces of the case and the covers. And we had my whole lab lined up at our conference table with all these piles and everybody was putting pieces together of these CDs. And it’s sort of an ironic moment. I, I have a photograph of it somewhere, I think, but it’s odd to think there was a time A when we used CDs and two when CDs were the latest, greatest thing that ever existed, and many people in the modern generation will probably never even buy a CD. And why would they? Right. So they didn’t appreciate the difficulty that perhaps we had to deal with.
Peter O’Toole (51:20):
Yeah. At least the biochemist to CD now means circular dichroism again. So there is benefits to this
Paul Robinson (51:26):
Or, or yeah. A cluster of differentiation. Yes.
Peter O’Toole (51:32):
Good, good, great. Could we highlight what things has been the highlight of your career? Most proud moments.
Peter O’Toole (51:38):
I don’t know. I think from the perspective of, of the, my field of interest was, was when, when I had the opportunity to, to be president of the ISAC society. I think to me that that was my, my proudest time. Where when your fellows recognize when your peers recognize the, the the impact you have, I think that’s, that’s definitely a highlight for me.
Peter O’Toole (52:17):
Well, certainly, certainly I think you had a lot of influence when you were there as president for ISAC and certainly raised its profile significantly as well. So you also made a career highlight, you made a big impact at that point. And that I think when you become president of a society, that’s really important. You can’t just sit there and you didn’t, and you did make a change and I think that’s, yeah, well, done again. So again, be credit to the cytometry community as a whole. What about your favorite publication or that you’ve been an author or co-author on,
Paul Robinson (52:51):
Oh, I don’t know. It’s probably a paper that nobody ever saw a paper I published in 1990 on on a different way of analyzing flow data by collecting all the data in a single file and then displaying it in some very odd ways. We called one a Phoenogram. And I think it’s been referenced three times in the literature and yet I think it was a classic paper aware. It, it recognized that, you know, just looking at a histogram that we, we, we see or a dot plot is not just a simple way of analyzing flow data that you need to diversify. You need to think of it differently. And we did. And but nobody cared at the time and that I think hurts from a scientific perspective. But I look back at that paper in 1991 or 92 as, as one of the, one of actually a really important paper, the fact that nobody saw it. But now I think if you look at all the sorts of interesting ways that people analyze data, [Inaudible], you map all these things. We weren’t doing anything as sophisticated as that, but conceptually we were transforming data into different ways of display, so different that it was not even understood at the time. So that’s, yeah. I think three references to that paper.
Peter O’Toole (54:30):
Yeah. So Only 30 years ahead of your time at that point.
Paul Robinson (54:36):
Peter O’Toole (54:37):
Maybe seven give or take a few. Who’s been your inspiration in both your career driven. I, I guess there’s many people who who’ve inspired you over time, but what are your big mo who who’s helped motivate you and inspire you throughout your own career?
Paul Robinson (54:56):
I think Zbigniew Darzynkiewicz um and Howard Shapiro we’re two individuals that have had tremendous impact on me. Zbigniew was when he was president of ISAC invited me to be on a committee and I’d never been on a committee in the society. And that committee work got, I got to know the people on the committee and it was the membership services committee. And it was from that, that we put together a handbook. I took the handbook to Handbook of Flow Cytometry to the committee and we ended up publishing with everybody’s names on that committee. And those names including Darzynkiewicz name was what people saw. They didn’t have a clue who I was, but people like Zbigniew, I think is definitely one of my scientific heroes and a hero in our field. And, and of course, Howard and I’m probably forgetting many other people, but those are two that would absolutely stand out
Peter O’Toole (56:17):
Times move forward, but that’s great to hear those very inspirational people behind own career, couple of last points. So I end up on a, on some bits. Do you have any secret vices and any sort of i, mine is watching trashy TV. So do you have any secret vices yourself to, to relax and chill and just, just not to have to think about work and to free the mind up?
Paul Robinson (56:42):
I like to build stuff. So go down into my basement workshop and I build stuff. I, I I’ll try to build anything. It doesn’t matter. I w I will try it. I, I, you know, I’ll, I like building stuff and construction, you know, plumbing, blue brick laying, electrical, anything that takes me away from reading scientific literature. I bought a hammer in my hand or a chisel or a drill. Yeah. That’s my, my vice and I have a great workshop. I love it.
Peter O’Toole (57:21):
So I I’ve now got an impression of you in a basement, brick laying and plumbing in a basement
Paul Robinson (57:28):
With a drill.
Peter O’Toole (57:29):
This is just, I’m not even going to ask anymore. And finally, do you have a favorite science joke or just a favorite joke?
Paul Robinson (57:39):
No, but I always tell my students about Murphy’s law that Murphy’s law says that it takes 80% of the time to do the first 80% of the work. And it takes the other 80% of the time to do the other 20% of the work. And I know it sounds stupid, but Murphy had some really important things to, to gain from him and or her, whoever Murphy was. And that to me speaks to how science works.
Peter O’Toole (58:17):
Okay, cool. We are at the top of the hour now. So it’s been, thank you for agreeing to do this chat with me. I’m flattered that you’ve agreed to it, and you have been brilliant to talk to listen to I hope everyone else has really enjoyed listening to such a great career. So many different aspects from cytometry for life, the Purdue site, the climb of Everest, and even the challenges you’ve had throughout writing grants. And yeah, even the greatest get grants, kick back with some of the best ideas. And the secret is don’t give up, never give up on those things. So, Paul, thank you so much for today.
Paul Robinson (59:03):
Pleasure was mine, Peter. Thank you. Bye. Cheers.