Robert F. Tinker (1941-2017)

Concord Consortium Senior Scientist Charles Xie remembers our founder Bob Tinker who passed away on June 21st. For more personal stories about Bob and his impact, and to share your own, visit rememberingbob.concord.org

It is in deep sadness that we mourned the passing of Dr. Robert Tinker on June 21, 2017. Bob was the founder of the Concord Consortium and the Virtual High School. For 18 years, he had been my mentor, friend, and supporter. It is hard to accept the fact that he is no longer with us.

My collaboration with Bob began in 1999, when I was doing a term of postdoc in the field of computational biophysics at the newly-established University of Cyprus. My job was to write computer code to simulate molecular motion and quantum transport in proteins. As it is difficult to imagine these nanoscopic processes from raw data generated in simulations, I had to resort to developing real-time, interactive visualizations of simulations so that I could make sense of the results. It was at this point that our trajectories merged. Around that time, Bob and colleague Dr. Boris Berenfeld just got a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a tool that can visualize the motions of molecules and allow students to mess with them, hoping to create a powerful virtual "microscope" that can bring the obscure molecular dynamics to life on the computer screen for everyone. While Boris was surfing the then-barren Internet to find who had done what in this tiny niche, he came across my Java Molecular Dynamics applet that I created for the purpose of teaching myself Java while experimenting with interactive molecular dynamics. Boris, Bob, and Barbara (Bob's wife) immediately realized that the applet was exactly what they were looking for. After a few rounds of email exchanges, they hired me as a consultant for the project.

While we made progress on the development of what became the Molecular Workbench software later, the plan to employ me as a staff scientist at the Concord Consortium didn't go so well. For some reason, I couldn't come to the U.S. for a job interview (there was no video conference software at that time and it costed more than $3 per minute to make an international call). So Bob decided to stop by Cyprus on his way to an international conference in Israel to make sure that I wasn't just a cat that happened to know how to hit the keyboard in the right places. Even though I didn't know much about the American culture back then, the language of science needed no translation. So we hit it off at the meeting (except that it was kind of weird that the interviewee was actually the host and the interviewer was actually the guest). I made sure that he had enough authentic Mediterranean meze platters and got a chance to submerge himself in the pristine water of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea before he headed back to the States.

I arrived in the U.S. at the end of 2000, basically having nothing but a suitcase. Bob and Barbara welcomed me with an open house and gave me a room to stay for a while until I could find a place of my own. In the next eight years until he "retired," I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to him almost every workday as our offices were right next to each other. As we all remember, he was always optimistic, even in dark times such as September 11, 2001. As the years went by, funding at the Concord Consortium went up and down, but he was such a gifted grant writer that he could always manage to grab some money to keep me focused on the Molecular Workbench project until I became fully independent and found my own path and passion. After he and Barbara retreated to their retirement home in Amherst, they continued to invest their time and energy in the future of the organization. Bob went on to pen many proposals and secured a series of large grants to fund important work at the organization. Unlike many people who think programming and tinkering are "low level" jobs that the Principal Investigators should not have to do, Bob had always been creating his own prototypes and conducting his own experiments all the time to get firsthand experiences. This is probably the reason why he was so insightful with his ideas -- one cannot possibly have a deep understanding about the world if one does not bother to explore in it. He just loved science, programming, and teaching so much that he never stopped learning, thinking, and working until his final days. It is very hard for me to hold back my tears while writing about his last request to me just a few weeks ago, asking me to carry on some work on electronics that he couldn't complete because of illness. With that, he had completely dedicated his entire life to STEM.

Bob's vision about STEM education always put innovation first. He had transcribed the DNA of innovation into the Concord Consortium. His spirit had translated into a culture of innovation that is driving our research and development. With many new emerging technologies, the future ahead of us is full of exciting opportunities. With the combined power and promise of the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and mixed reality (VR/AR/MR), the next decade will undoubtedly bring a new wave of innovation to propel STEM education to a higher level. As a pioneer of probeware for science education who completely understood the pivotal importance of sensors in IoT systems and embedded intelligence, Bob would have been thrilled to set out to explore these new territories with us.

2 thoughts on “Robert F. Tinker (1941-2017)

  1. Cristián Rizzi

    Thanks Charles for this loving portrait of Bob. I didn’t have the privilege to meet him in person, but I’m constantly following his work. For someone like me, living in a development country, with much less financial support and vision, it’s very important to count on with projects like Concord, opened, free and powerful, with tools that allow us to translate some of the learning materials and offering them to our teachers and students. I’m a great admirer of Concord Consortium’s work, and your continously, ongoing growth in search of excellence, always innovating and bringing for free such great STEM resources. Thanks to all of you at Concord and may God bless your hands, heads and hearts to continue Bob’s passion, keeping his legacy alive and updated. Sorry for my English language.

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