Class of 2022: Commuting hundreds of miles per week, Trevohn Robinson has the drive to succeed in chemistry

May 9, 2022

The crossroads of I-64 and I-95 in Richmond have long been a part of Trevohn Robinson’s journey to get his education. At the beginning, during a summer program before his freshman year at Virginia Commonwealth University, he could see where the highways intersect from his room at Cabaniss Hall, a former residence hall on VCU’s MCV Campus.

More recently, Robinson, graduating this month with a B.S. in Chemistry in the professional chemist track and a minor in mathematics at VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, has spent more than two years on those highways on his roundtrip commute of more than 160 miles, traveling between his home and VCU in his Honda Civic to finish his degree. Now, following the mentorship he received at VCU, he’ll be moving a few hours down one of those highways to earn his Ph.D.

“I don’t know where I’d be, probably lost, but my mentors gave me the keys to success to open up these doors in life,” Robinson said. “They told me, ‘It’s OK if you don’t like this door, Trevohn; you can close that door and go to the next door.’ There’s infinite ways, and I think I chose the right door puzzle in my life. They gave me the tools to build my house, to build my foundation of knowledge before I go to grad school.”

Robinson spent the summer before college in Richmond participating in VCU Acceleration, a summer session and living-learning community program run by the Division for Student Engagement and Impact in the Office of the Senior Vice President for Health Sciences.

“It was basically introducing me to college. I think it was a fantastic program,” Robinson said. “It was a summer program where we go into the medical field to see the pharmacy school, medical school, talk to the doctors, network with the professors. That’s where I met my first family, my first Ramily, and I still talk to them to this day.”

He’d felt sure he wanted to become a pharmacist, but as the program went on, he realized the profession might not be for him, which he said he was glad to learn early on so he could explore other options. He began studying mathematics and chemistry under the guidance of his VCU Acceleration adviser Jorge Piocuda and VCU Department of Chemistry faculty such as Everett Carpenter, Ph.D., Charlene Crawley, Ph.D., and Mike Hunnicutt, Ph.D. The guidance opened his eyes to what a career in chemistry outside the fields of health and pharmacy might look like.

His sophomore year, Robinson was a part of the community service-oriented living-learning community VCU ASPiRE — now VCU Transform — but when the pandemic hit, he moved home with his parents in Carrollton, Virginia, 84 miles away on I-64, 78 miles via Virginia Route 10 and I-95.

“I can’t imagine how tough it is to commute that distance, achieve a 3.5 overall GPA, a 3.8 GPA in his major and have the energy to participate in the ASPIRE and the VCU Initiative for Maximizing Student Development Scholars Program,” said Hunnicutt, an associate professor who taught Robinson last year and was floored by Robinson’s determination, compassion and positivity.

Once or twice per week in the early days of the pandemic, he commuted up I-64 to the MCV Campus to continue his lab work on the crystallization of hemoglobin as part of research to address sickle cell disease in the lab of Martin Safo, Ph.D., a professor at VCU School of Pharmacy. Safo is Robinson’s mentor in VCU’s Initiative for Maximizing Student Development Scholars Program, which provides research training for students from traditionally underrepresented groups in biomedical research.

“Dr. Safo has really played a big part in my experience of being a Black scientist,” Robinson said. “One of my goals is, once I get a job in the industry, I want to go back to college and pave the way for new diverse scientists, allowing them to make an impact on the world without the fear of being lost. And Dr. Safo told me we need more Black scientists in the field.

“That whole experience sparked my chemistry interest as well.”

But what really made Robinson sure chemistry was his field was when he had to hit pause after a medical emergency last semester. Following emergency abdominal surgery, Robinson sat in his hospital bed, and all he could think about was chemistry.

“I was almost about to die and all. And I was just sitting in the hospital room, and I was like, ‘Oh, I'm missing my chemistry class.’ I was just thinking about chemistry,” Robinson said. “But I think it was my turning point where I was dedicated to getting back on my feet and doing chemistry as my career.”

His mother drove him to and from VCU daily for several weeks as he recovered. It’s one of several times he shared he was grateful for the help of his parents, including a moment the same semester when his dad drove up to Richmond after Robinson’s car wouldn’t start.

Given all the time spent in his car as part of his education, it was only fitting that he share one of the happiest moments of his college career with his mom while riding in the car. Sitting in the passenger seat in January, Robinson checked his inbox to find an email from his top-choice doctoral program, just a few weeks after applications were due in December.

“I was scared because it was so soon after I applied. I was in the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel with my mom, and then I opened it, and I was like, ‘We got in!’ We wanted to hug, but we had to watch out for the road,” Robinson said with a laugh.

Robinson made a point to share the news with his mentors that he had been accepted to his top three graduate programs, all of which were among the top programs in the country, Hunnicutt said.

“After bursting into my office to share the great news, he went on to express how thankful he was for his parents and the VCU faculty in the chemistry and math departments who had supported him every step of the way. Vintage Trevohn,” said Hunnicutt, who nominated Robinson for a VCU Department of African American Studies Black History in the Making award, which he won earlier this spring.

“He came by later and gave me a card where he talked about his experience in the hospital. At the time, he had never let on that he was sick, never made any excuses. When I got the card, I was in tears,” Hunnicutt added. “He was not your typical Type-A student; he was driven but just the most pleasant person I think I’ve ever met. It was such a gift to have him in my class. When I say he was a role model to all of us, I don’t think I’ve said that about anybody, let alone a student.”

Robinson will go on to a Ph.D. program in Analytical Chemistry at his top choice, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill — just a few more hours’ drive down from the I-95 interchange with I-64 in Richmond. He won’t forget his “Ramily,” he said, as he already has a drive back up to Richmond scheduled later this summer to speak to future VCU Acceleration students about his journey, courtesy of his adviser Piocuda.

And, it’s only a little longer than his daily commute last semester for him to drive the one-way trip home to visit his family, including his parents who gave so much to him during the pandemic, Robinson said.

“My family has been there the whole time,” Robinson said. “I love them. My family were the ones that put me in this place, and I’m really humbled that they allowed me to live at home during college. … They’ve been really proud of me, and I told them, ‘You shouldn’t be proud of me; you should be proud of yourself for raising me up because I learned everything from you.’”

Story by Mary Kate Brogan