Engineering professor Marc Robert remembered

By Hajera Naveed 9/21/22 12:25 AM

Marc Robert, a professor at the Faculty of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, died on September 2 at the age of 72 from complications related to COVID-19.

Robert, a physicist, became a professor at Rice in 1984 after earning his PhD in physics from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he was born and raised.

In Lausanne, Robert met his first wife, Behnaz Payandeh, an Iranian student who was also studying physics. The two met while working in the same office in 1975 and married shortly thereafter. After her unexpected death in 2008, Robert compiled and printed a book in her memory.

Marriage to Payandeh, according to a 2014 interview with Rice Magazine, sparked Robert’s lifelong interest in Iran, whose culture, history and people he deeply valued. During his sabbatical in Tehran in 2013, Robert met his second wife, Farzaneh Meybodi, at an art exhibition and got married the following year.

“He was so full of energy. He was so dynamic. He was so knowledgeable,” Meybodi said. “He could talk about anything [and] every field: music, physics, mathematics, literature, cultures of different countries.”

Robert’s research interests were statistical mechanics, thermodynamics and quantum field theory. According to Michael Wong, Chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Robert studied fundamental interactions of materials at the molecular and nanometer levels.

Andre Droxler, a close friend of Robert for over 30 years, said he was connected to him through their shared Swiss heritage as faculty members at the university.

“I didn’t really know Marc as a scientist, I really knew Marc as a person,” says Droxler, professor emeritus in the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences. “I found out about him and appreciate him for being outside of his scientific interests. He had many other interests, in particular he loved music. He was a fabulous pianist and organist.”

Droxler said that somehow Robert got a key to the rice band and would go in the middle of the night to play the organ.

“That was one of his passions – music,” said Droxler. “Every time we went to his house, he would go to the piano and we would play this song called ‘Gracias La Vida.’ This has always been a way for us to be thankful for who we are and how good our lives have been.”

Meybodi said that Robert had many passions outside of academics, including playing the piano, bird watching and table football. However, she said he was also very fond of teaching.

“He was a real teacher who was always teaching,” Meybodi said. “Even for me he was a teacher. I learned to play the piano from Marc. Any opportunity he sought to teach you something, he was so generous [with his time].”

Wong said that Robert had an unconventional teaching style as he was very interactive and informal with his students.

“Before the pandemic, I was able to attend one of his classes, so I finally got to see him teach,” Wong said. “In that moment I could see him talking to the students and interacting with them in an almost casual way – in a way as if science had nothing to fear. He made it as low key as possible. That was his personal style and I took that to heart, and [it’s] something to bring to my classroom.”

Meybodi said that Robert was very committed to his students, especially international students who needed extra help and support.

Tai Chou Lee, a Ph.D. Student, who graduated in 2002, joined Robert’s lab in 1998 as a student from Taiwan. Lee, now a professor at National Central University in Taiwan, said he was grateful for Robert’s hospitality to new students like him.

“I always remembered him talking to us about trees, birds, science and life under the sun on Rice campus during the welcome party just as I was coming to Rice,” Lee said. “He taught me how to pursue the truth, no matter how difficult it is. He is always my role model, a great scientist, teacher and mentor.”

Another of Robert’s graduate students, Cheng-Ying Chou, said that Robert’s rigor in research and writing and positive outlook on life had a long-term impact on her.

“As his graduate student, he asked us to address him by his first name,” said Chou, now an associate professor at National Taiwan University. “He treated his students like friends with respect and appreciation. When he visited Switzerland in the summer, I would go to his house to feed his [blue jay].”

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