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Class of 2016: Jeff Robertson carries on family legacy

December 14, 2016

Young man sits in front of a computer.
Jeff Robertson will graduate summa cum laude from the College of Engineering's Department of Computer Science this month. He and his father, brother, and sister all have degrees from the college.

You might say Jeff Robertson doesn’t only embody the Hokie Spirit — it’s in his genes.

“Growing up in Blacksburg, I was one of those people that there wasn’t really any other option for college besides Virginia Tech. I always knew I wanted to pursue my undergraduate education here. I can’t imagine having gone to school anywhere else,” said Robertson, who will graduate summa cum laude.

He was also always certain he would major in computer science. Maybe it’s because the Hokie Spirit and the sciences run deep within his family.

His father, Paul, attended Virginia Tech and obtained degrees in electrical engineering in 1981 and computer science in 2012, and his older brother, Greg, graduated with a degree in computer science in 2014. Robertson’s older sister, Ellen, obtained a degree in electrical engineering (’14) and has recently returned to Virginia Tech to pursue her Ph.D. in the same field.

When he set foot on campus, Robertson was well-prepared to embark on his undergraduate education. Before attending college, he completed advanced classes in computing at New River Community College. In his intermediate school years, he took advantage of competitions hosted on the Virginia Tech campus including, FIRST LEGO League. FIRST LEGO League competitions required months of planning.

Teams from more than 80 countries researched real-world topics, such as climate change, food waste, and biomedical engineering, and their relationship to computer science in order to design, build, and program a robot using LEGO technology, and ultimately compete on a table-top playing field.

As an undergraduate, he embraced the ideals engendered in Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).

Robertson's desire to imbue his academic work with a commitment to public service prompted him to get involved in projects that he felt would allow him to give back to society.

“The Hokie Spirit and culture of community service here have allowed me to succeed,” he said.

His most recent research endeavor was an interdisciplinary collaboration that stretched into the field of bioinformatics and sought to better understand the process of cell division.

“Cell division affects everything from the genesis of genetic disorders to how cancers form within cells,” he said. “I feel fortunate to have been able to contribute from a computer science perspective to the field of computational biology.”

Over the last several months Robertson has looked at cell division in yeast, a surprisingly similar genetic cousin to homo sapiens. In his lab, under the direction of Lenwood Heath, professor of computer science, he and his collaborators looked at six specific genes in S. Pombe yeast cells — eukaryotic cells that contain a nucleus surrounded by a membrane.

What he was in search of were motifs, or patterns, that appear in DNA sequences.

“We could look at patterns and see that they appear in certain strands and know that it is very unlikely that those motifs would appear randomly,” he said. “Ultimately what we were trying to do is to figure out how to represent those motifs on a computer.” 

Off campus Robertson has also spent summers interning in urban posts like New York City where he put his expertise to use at financial software and media giant Bloomberg developing software to run security tasks.

But it is the opportunities to give back that excited Robertson most in his three and a half years here.

Through campus ministries he traveled to Nickelsville, Virginia, a rural town that sits in the triangle of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee in Scott County where he spent school breaks re-fitting cabins and houses with new metal rooves and stocking food pantries for residents.

“There are so many opportunities to give back to others in this field. That’s what motivates me to keep going.”

And Robertson will indeed keep going after he graduates — he’s starting a master’s degree program in computer science.

Where?

Virginia Tech of course.

Written by Amy Loeffler

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