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MIT postdoc, Max Robinson, on finding great mentors and creating success from failures

Max Robinson: MIT Engineer and Co-Producer of the GLiMPSE Podcast

Max Robinson has been studying engineering since he was an undergrad at Trinity University. His doctoral thesis at Vanderbilt University focused on harnessing the power of photosynthetic proteins for use in highly efficient solar cells. In his current postdoc, he’s developing gas sensors as a chemical engineer at MIT. Yet the complexity of Max’s work belies the relative simplicity of the guiding philosophy that he used to map his career. For some the journey to becoming an engineer may be as meticulously planned as their latest project, but for Max the road had a straightforward mantra: be around people who excite you.

In Pursuit of Intrigue

Max’s childhood wasn’t characterized by dreams of becoming a polymer chemist. For that matter, even high schooler Max hadn’t decided science was for him just yet; he applied to college as an English major. But a particularly great science teacher had shown him that science class could be a fun place to spend time, and an engineering task for that course had revealed an innate ability to succeed in the subject. (We’ll let Max tell the whole story, but it’s a project that starts with procrastination and ends with the kind of successful loophole that only a budding engineer could concoct, even if the methodology would later be banned from implementation by future students).

Armed with a penchant for creative problem solving, Max made the switch to engineering when he started undergrad. “From what I’ve heard, if you don’t start out in engineering, it’s really hard to get back in,” Max explains. So rather than regret forgoing a potentially interesting path, he followed his intrigue early, even if he wasn’t necessarily sure what he was going to do with his engineering degree. 

More often than not, Max has found success in chasing things that excite him over any particular career goal or scientific discipline. The pursuit of a PhD wasn’t really on his radar until he studied abroad in New Zealand and spent time tramping with a compelling group of geologists, which inspired him to go to graduate school in search of a similar community experience. Upon arriving at Vanderbilt, he wasn’t sure who he would want to work with until he met someone who struck him as an engaging mentor. And when it came time to move on from his PhD, he still wasn’t certain that he would go for a postdoc — let alone one in a subfield of engineering that he had little experience in. Yet his impression of his future postdoc advisor was so strong that he figured the scientific ability would develop in time.

If there’s a strong relationship that’s built into [the work], it’s hard to really do badly, if you’re driven to make it work.

Max Robinson

A Rewarding Way of Life

Max has consistently prioritized surrounding himself with thought-provoking and interesting people over everything; success and fulfillment have followed. Max firmly believes that “if there’s a strong relationship that’s built into [the work], it’s hard to really do badly, if you’re driven to make it work.” It’s an outlook that has shaped his work outside of research as well. As a co-producer of the GLiMPSE podcast, Max gets to spend his free time absorbed in stories from scientists within and beyond his own corner of academia (an ethos we embrace ourselves here at Once a Scientist). He also works as the VP of Professional Development for the Consulting Club at MIT, which has granted him opportunities to peek into the world of startups and get a look at nascent trends in business. Max’s fundamental goal in life has been to keep good and interesting company, and it continues to reward.

Max’s Favorite Books

Once a Scientist is made possible by support from our listeners! Each week, we ask our interviewee to tell us about their favorite books. If any of these reads catch your eye, you can support the show by using the links below to buy a copy for yourself!

Notes for this episode were written by Caroline Sferrazza.

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