Anne Skaja Robinson became the department head of chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in November 2018. Prior to her appointment at Carnegie Mellon, Robinson was the chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Tulane University. She succeeds Lorenz Biegler, who served as the department head for five years.
Robinson’s lab has two main goals: to understand the disease mechanisms behind neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and to improve the production of biopharmaceuticals on an industrial scale.
When it comes to pharmaceuticals, half of today’s top selling biopharmaceutical drugs are antibody drugs, like Humira, used in immunotherapy to stimulate a patient’s immune system to attack invasive cells.
However, industry faces challenges in producing these biopharmaceuticals, which are made by cells (rather than small molecules like aspirin). Many finished batches of biopharmaceuticals are thrown out, at a very high cost, due to complications that ruin the batch somewhere along the process, but can’t be detected until the final failed drug is produced.
Robinson’s lab is developing methods of making the industrial manufacturing of biopharmaceuticals more robust. In addition to biopharmaceuticals, Robinson’s lab studies neurodegenerative diseases.
Alzheimer’s disease, for example, accounts for the majority of patients diagnosed with neurodegeneration.
There are two hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease that show up in the brain: aggregates, or plaques of a peptide called A-beta, and those of a protein called tau. Robinson’s lab is looking at tau proteins, which become aggregated or “scrambled” when the brain becomes afflicted with Alzheimer’s.
From a very basic standpoint, to cook an egg, one would apply heat in order to change the structure of the proteins in the egg. The albumen, or the clear part of an egg, changes from clear to white, distinctly changing its flavor and texture to serve a new function.
One of the strengths of Carnegie Mellon is its focus on innovation, and the technology it develops from interdisciplinary collaborations.Anne Robinson, Department Head, Chemical Engineering
“In a similar way to scrambling an egg,” says Robinson, “in the human body, the tau protein also undergoes this ‘scrambling’ reaction. When tau proteins change structure, the brain’s cells can no longer function as they are meant to. Unfortunately, you can’t unscramble the egg—or the tau protein.”
Robinson’s lab looks at how and when the tau proteins go awry, to try to understand the turning point. By identifying what causes the brain’s tau proteins to malfunction, Robinson hopes to develop preventative measures and future treatments for those afflicted with neurodegenerative diseases.
In joining Carnegie Mellon, Robinson looks forward to collaborating across the College of Engineering and the university at large to solve these problems.
“One of the strengths of Carnegie Mellon is its focus on innovation, and the technology it develops from interdisciplinary collaborations,” says Robinson. “There are so many strengths around the university that my lab and the department as a whole can leverage, and the collegiality among all of our faculty has me excited to get started.”
Robinson received her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and received her B.S. and M.S. at Johns Hopkins University. She has received national accolades, including the NSF Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering (PECASE) Award, the ACS BIOT Perlman Award, the AIChE SBE Biotechnology Progress Award for Excellence in Biological Engineering Publication, and election as an AIChE Fellow.