Throughout his career of teaching, research, management and consulting, Robert Gray has worked on a number of tough environmental issues ranging from the effects of energy technology development, nerve agents and nuclear materials on human health and the environment, to water quality standards, to the worldwide decline in the number of amphibians. Gray will tell you that it was his doctoral education at Illinois State that prepared him for his challenging career.
Gray will also tell you that he has a desire to see current graduate students studying environmental issues achieve their educational goals. In 2005, that desire led him to establish the Robert H. Gray Biology/Ecology Scholarship in Illinois State’s Department of Biological Sciences. The permanently endowed scholarship provides financial support to academically talented and highly motivated graduate students studying ecology, evolutionary biology or ecological sciences.
“I am indebted to Illinois State for the education and experiences I had while there,” said Gray. “My reasons for establishing the scholarship are simple. I want to give back in hopes that others can have the same opportunities that I had and continue to experience.”
Gray earned his Ph.D in zoology and ecology from Illinois State in 1971 and joined the staff of Battelle, Pacific Northwest National Laboratories in 1973. During a 26-year career with Battelle, Gray made protecting the environment a priority during many projects focused on national defense and energy solutions. He also served as a member of the American Institute of Fisheries research biologist delegation to East Asia and as a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency scientific panel on environmental monitoring.
As a professor, he mentored graduate students at the University of Minnesota and Washington State University, many of whom have gone on to impressive careers of their own. Now an independent consultant, Gray has evaluated the potential environmental effects of the construction and operation of an incinerator for the disposal of nerve agents at a U.S. Army facility and has studied water quality issues in the semi-arid Southwest U.S.
Gray fondly recalls his days as a doctoral student and the interaction he had with biological sciences faculty members such as Lauren Brown, Dale Birkenholz, Richard Wiegel and Harry Huizinga. “I was fortunate to attend at a time when the faculty included both older experienced professors and young energetic faculty just starting their careers,” Gray said. “The faculty I knew believed in teaching excellence, combined with independent study, research and publication. I learned to educate myself by identifying a problem, asking questions, defining a hypothesis and designing the appropriate steps to work on an issue. The faculty was always available for consultation on any issue, served as mentors and role models, and I never felt like a number in somebody’s grade book. Because of that I’ve had a successful and exciting career.”
The ties with the biological sciences faculty did not end when Gray left campus to embark on his career. He cites a long-standing collegial relationship with Professor Emeritus Lauren Brown. “We are still in frequent contact and have reviewed each other’s papers prior to submittal for journal publication,” said Gray. “We have coauthored several book chapters based on data I collected during my graduate studies at Illinois State and on Dr. Brown’s extensive knowledge concerning questions surrounding the worldwide decline of amphibians and observations of increased amphibian malformations.”
Gray notes that during his time on campus that sense of collegiality and community extended beyond the academic department. “We had a great graduate student body in Biology while I was there,” said Gray. “Everybody got together on weekends to socialize, share stories, triumphs and troubles. Many of us were married and had started families, and the wives and kids all got along well.”
Gray also recalls that things were not always as serious as a dissertation defense. “Back in those days, Normal was a dry town. All we had to do was cross Division Street to get to Bloomington. Yep, that’s where we purchased the necessary essentials to have a party. Unfortunately, Normal didn’t get the tax revenue.”
Normal may have missed out on some tax revenue in the early 1970s, but Illinois State gained a great deal in 2005 when Gray established a scholarship to benefit future scientists. Given the growing environmental challenges now facing the world, the need for dedicated and well-trained scientists has never been greater. Robert Gray has made the environment the focus of his career, thanks to his education at Illinois State. Thanks to his generosity in establishing a scholarship, future graduate students will also have the chance to follow in his footsteps.