Environmental Engineer Robin Autenrieth Retires From Texas A&M
During childhood summers spent in southern Maryland, Robin Autenrieth’s father often took her out on the family’s boat to look at the ospreys that would nest along the river.
Some years, the Texas A&M University professor remembers, there were no fledglings. The blue-striped lizards Autenrieth used to spot also disappeared. The insecticide DDT was used pervasively throughout the area during the time – its use in the U.S. would later be banned in 1972 due to its adverse environmental effects and potential human health risks.
Autenrieth, an environmental engineer who joined the faculty at Texas A&M in 1986, said seeing the effects of DDT and other chemical pollutants on the environment at a young age sparked her interest in the field that would go on to be the focus of her career. After more than three decades in the classroom and as a researcher in the field, Autenrieth is moving on to the “next chapter” in life – retirement.
“I’m a lifelong learner, and there’s lots of things that I want to do, but haven’t been able to,” Autenrieth said.
A native of the Washington, D.C., suburbs who went to graduate school in upstate New York, the longtime professor said she never imagined she’d live in Texas. But at the age of 31, she moved to Aggieland – “Looking at the map,” she remembers, “I said, ‘Where’s Bryan-College Station?'” – and joined the College of Engineering as an assistant professor along with her husband at the time, who was also hired.
“It wasn’t that I was expecting rolling tumbleweeds, but things are a lot more driven here than I expected,” she said. “I think that’s what made me stick around, was the potential here, and the opportunities. I developed excellent colleagues, had really fabulous research opportunities, and the students have gotten better every year.”
Autenrieth’s time at the College of Engineering coincided with years of dramatic change.
Before being appointed head of the Zachry Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering in 2014, Autenrieth worked in the dean’s office when current Texas A&M President M. Katherine Banks was hired to lead the college.
“When she was hired, I was able to participate in some of the planning for 25,000 students by the year 2025,” she said.
Autenrieth also found herself in a unique position early on in her career.
“I was the first woman faculty member in the College of Engineering to have a baby,” she said. “I was the only woman at one point who was married when I arrived with a 10-month-old, and then I had my second child in 1990. The administrators had no idea what to do with me.”
Jennifer Welch, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, had a similar experience. Together, the women wrote a guiding document for administrators on what do when faculty members have children.
“I feel really good about that,” Autenrieth said. “I was also a co-author on ADVANCE, which is now in Faculty Affairs and has to do with healthy workplace environments. I think we had a lot of impact on the culture across the campus. It was STEM-focused initially, and now it’s gone across the campus and been institutionalized.”
She’s also made a difference beyond Bryan-College Station.
Autenrieth’s research in environmental engineering took her to Russia, where she studied chemical warfare agents, and Azerbaijan, where people living in vacated Soviet industrial complexes were exposed to toxic chemicals.
“I have had the opportunity to work with toxicologists and biologists, and a very diverse team of researchers trying to make the connections between environmental contaminant concentrations and exposures and the health consequences,” she said.
One distinction this research brought her: in the mid-90s, Autenrieth was featured as a “way cool scientist” on a set of “Bill Nye the Science Guy” trading cards. The deck, a spinoff of the children’s television program, profiled different scientists and gave kid-friendly scientific facts. The back of Autenrieth’s card listed information about how oil spills are remediated.
Reflecting on her years teaching and exploring the link between contaminants and their effects on human health, Autenrieth said it’s been a rewarding career she would recommend to Aggie engineering students who want to make an impact.
“Civil engineers directly impact the quality of peoples’ lives,” she said. “It’s a great profession because you will have the opportunity to make a difference.”