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Nontraditional Careers

Career Ladder

Career Ladder: Rebecca Robbins

Exploring industry led this former professor to a career as a color chemist at a confections company

by Linda Wang
August 3, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 32


Knack for chemistry

Photo of Rebecca Robbins as a young girl.
Credit: Courtesy of Rebecca Robbins
Rebecca Robbins as a child.

Born in Brooklyn, Rebecca Robbins moved to France at an early age to spend more time with her grandparents. At age 18, she moved back to the U.S. and attended Brooklyn College, where she said she was attracted to a wide range of topics, especially art and the sciences. She knew she had a knack for chemistry because “it came so incredibly naturally.” Despite her interest in chemistry, she earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, which she says helped her “learn how to think deeply and to question things at their root.”

Photo of Rebecca Robbins graduating from college.
Credit: Courtesy of Rebecca Robbins
Rebecca Robbins graduates from college.

Learning to think like a chemist

To prepare to apply to graduate school for chemistry, she spent the year after receiving her bachelor’s degree taking chemistry courses at the University of Maryland, College Park, and then was accepted to the chemistry Ph.D. program there. Her first year was “incredibly overwhelming,” she says. “I could see that I had not been trained enough to think like a scientist.” But she kept at it. She earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1995 and did a postdoc in organic photochemistry at Tulane University.

Broadening her horizons

Photo of Rebecca Robbins growing up.
Credit: Courtesy of Rebcca Robbins
Rebecca Robbins growing up.

After her postdoc, Robbins spent a year tutoring students in organic chemistry. She found she loved teaching and got a job as a visiting assistant professor of chemistry at Vassar College. “At some point, the students asked me what they could do with a degree in chemistry, and I felt unequipped to answer the question, so I thought I would do a couple of stints in other industries.” Her first job outside academia was as a research scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. While there, she became fascinated with phenolics, which are aromatic compounds. When a colleague told her about a job opening at the company Mars, she jumped at the opportunity to apply. Until then, she had been planning to go back to teaching and share her newfound knowledge. “I got sidetracked due to the fascinating research at Mars, and since then, I have been following the phenolics, from flavonols to anthocyanins,” which both naturally occur in foods.

Dream job

Robbins now lives in Chicago and works as a senior principal scientist in color chemistry in the Mars Wrigley Confectionery Color Science group, where she researches natural colors for confectionery applications. She says this is “pretty darn close” to her dream job. “I have always loved art and colors and the chemistry of the natural world. It is amazing that I get to solve problems in this unusual mix of passions.” When she walks to work each day, she thinks about how lucky she is. “How many people in the world get to help design the colors for confections we all know and love?” she asks. “Not that many.”

Photo of Rebecca Robbins today.
Credit: Courtesy of Rebecca Robbins
Rebecca Robbins today.


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