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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Sept. 22, 2006

Robertson risks repatriation and rugby

by Dan Kuester, News Service

When you get that first firm job offer right out of school, it feels pretty good.

The job is at a great place, it's in your field, and it's just what you trained for.

Malcolm Robertson

Malcolm Robertson, program assistant in the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, also serves as coach of the ISU men's rugby club. He and his wife Alison, an assistant professor in plant pathology, are from Zimbabwe. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Then, you turn it down.

No real reason, you just hope you get a better offer from somewhere else.

That takes nerve. And can cause stress.

Add this to the stress: if you don't have a job within the month, your student visa expires and you may get deported.

Sounds crazy, but that's just what Malcolm Robertson and his family did.

After all, when you grow up in Zimbabwe and have stared down lions and avoided charging elephants, a simple job hunt must seem like nothing.

Robertson works at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, where he is a program assistant for special projects. Part of Robertson's immediate work is to look at ways to study external costs for various production systems. He also looks for ways to track improvements in crop and livestock diversity.

His steady, no-nonsense position at the Leopold Center must seem tame for the Africa native. After all, he had a long, exciting journey to get here.

Robertson left his home in Harare, Zimbabwe, to attend college at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, in South Africa. After graduating with a degree in horticulture, he decided to take a risk by pursuing a career in which he had no background and no training -- drip and microjet agricultural irrigation.

Soon, Robertson split from his employer and started his own high-tech irrigation business. And, like his past adventures, he was successful. But the 18-hour days were taking time away from his marriage and he decided to steer his career back toward his horticulture degree. He took a position with the country's largest agricultural chemical company as its senior horticulturalist.

Bush tales

He also was a risk-taker in his personal life.

In college, Robertson met his future wife, Alison, currently an assistant professor in plant pathology at Iowa State. Alison and Malcolm grew up seven miles apart in Zimbabwe, but never met until they went to the same university in South Africa.

The two share a fondness for the outdoors, and for adventures.

"Once we were backpacking and we came up on two lionesses. It was a unique experience," Malcolm explains calmly.

"And once, Alison and I were in the middle of nowhere," Malcolm says of an exciting hiking trip into the bush. "And we were charged by an elephant."

He explains that elephants in this area are not normally aggressive and will try to avoid confrontations with humans. But due to some recent poaching where the Robertsons were hiking, the elephants probably were a little skittish around humans.

"Alison turned to run and the weight of her backpack threw her off her feet. So I went down to cover her up," he said.

"When we were on the ground, we were below the grass line, so he couldn't see us. Then, the elephant stopped charging," he said.

"Actually, I was trying to run away, and I tripped over her," Malcolm jokes about the experience.

Crossing the pond

In 1999, the couple came to the United States so Alison could pursue her doctoral degree at Clemson University in South Carolina.

While Alison was getting her doctorate, Malcolm worked for Clemson as a state inspector for invasive bug species. He also got a master's degree in agricultural and applied economics. Their daughter Kirsten was born in August 2002.

As Alison was finishing her doctorate, she got a job offer from Mississippi State University. She also got an interview at Iowa State.

The problem was that the couple really wanted to wait for a possible ISU offer. Since MSU needed an answer before the ISU job was offered, the couple chose to decline the MSU job in hopes that the Ames job would come through. During the entire process, their student visas were expiring.

"It was a bit of a worrying time. We knew we were not going back to Zimbabwe, and our visas were only valid for one month after Alison graduated," Malcolm said.

Finally, the ISU job came through and the pair made another move in 2004 -- this time to the unfamiliar cold of the Midwest.

"This white stuff is really unique to us," Malcolm says of the snow. "I am very apprehensive about driving on the snow and ice."

Hey, coach

Always willing to try new things, Robertson has taken up a new adventure -- coaching the Iowa State men's rugby club.

Never having coached before, he leapt into the job with his usual enthusiasm, spending three nights a week at practice sessions and Saturdays coaching games.

From Africa to South Carolina to Iowa. It's been a long trip. And it looks like the Robertsons may be at the end of the journey.

"We love it here," he said. "Obviously, we miss our family. We only get to see them about every three years. But Iowa is our new home now.

"We love America, and its people. Although Zimbabwe is home to us, Ames has become home away from home."

After walking up on a pair of lionesses out in the bush and being charged by an elephant, life among the corn and soybeans in Iowa must seem pretty boring.

"I'm old now, I've got a family," he said. "Boring is nice."


"Once we were backpacking and we came up on two lionesses. It was a unique experience."