Staff Spotlight: Mitch Robinson, Snippets of a three-decade career
Lea Gardine

Mitch Robinson is retiring after 33 years at the Geophysical Institute. Throughout those decades he has been a quiet, steadfast part of the UAF and GI community.

In January of 1989, Mitch Robinson began a career with the Alaska Earthquake Information Center (now the Alaska Earthquake Center). In April of 1989, he completed a software package named XPICK. This software was ground-breaking because it allowed seismic data analysts to process earthquakes in near-real-time. The analysts could now edit earthquake phase arrivals via a graphical user interface. The program was used for many years by the center and was deployed and used by organizations around the world. As a token of appreciation for the software package, Mitch received an award from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

When asked, Mitch says he is most proud of his work on the development of XPICK. However, there is far more that those who worked with him will remember fondly.

“No individual has been more entwined with AEC over the past three decades than Mitch Robinson,” said Michael West, director of the AEC. “He helped lead the center through the transitions from analog to digital telemetry, from MASSCOMP computers to virtual servers, from short-period to broadband seismic data, and from phone lines to VPNs. Systems and hardware have evolved tremendously over these decades. At each step, Mitch kept pace and helped keep the GI at the forefront of scientific technology.”

Mitch has provided system administration across the multiple computing environments at the center through the years, from Sun Microsystems, Macs, and PCs to virtual machines.

“I’ve known Mitch since I came as a graduate student to UAF in the mid-1990s. Since then and throughout my professional career Mitch has not only been supporting my computer needs, but also became a good friend,” said Natalia Ruppert, senior scientist with AEC. “There has never been a question or a request that I’ve asked him that he has not answered. Regardless of how cryptic the error messages were, or how poorly stated my explanations of the problem were, and even if it took days to troubleshoot and resolve, Mitch always found the answer! I learned so much from him along the way.”

Mitch has always striven to support the computing needs of those around him. He’s even been known to put out the occasional fire.

To support the real-time data acquisition and processing needs of the center, Mitch networked the third floor in the days before ethernet was widespread. Former and long-term members of the lab remember the elaborate network of cables that used to run along the ceiling and down the hallway connecting Elvey 301 and 307. That network made the third floor of Elvey one of the first floors wired for ethernet. The cables are now hidden behind walls and in cable tracks, but the memory of “Mitch-net” lives on.

“For many, many years, Mitch was more or less responsible for keeping the center functioning,” said Matt Gardine, systems manager at AEC. “The first task I received when I was hired in 2013 was to learn enough so that Mitch could take a vacation. The entire organization lived in perpetual fear of the day he requested a week off to go fishing.

“Since then, our systems have only grown more complex, and there is no way that we could have kept up with all of the changes and growth without Mitch’s vast experience and perpetual willingness to learn something new,” Gardine said.

Since XPICK, Mitch has written many other software packages that are used across the center. He was fundamental in setting up and maintaining real-time threshold exceedance systems that are used to help provide earthquake shaking notifications to various Earthquake Center stakeholders.

Mitch was on call for any system-wide issue. On numerous occasions he would spend the night during power outages, running cables down to the GI basement to connect to the generator and making sure the whole system and everyone’s desktop computers were up and running before leaving. Even ice storms and a pandemic didn’t stop him from coming in to ensure continuity of operations. During summers he supported the field crews out installing and maintaining the center’s monitoring network. He would be in frequent contact and made sure data from the remote sites were received before the technicians left the site, no matter the time of day.

Mitch’s support of the center didn’t stop at systems administration. He was a frequent contributor to lunch table conversations, regaling everyone with stories that would leave them in stitches and brighten their day. Those who remember the “shrieking monkey” that signaled time for a coffee break can’t help but smile every time they fill their cup.

“Mitch became my lunch table buddy, we ate many meals talking about our families and swapping stories,” added Ruppert. “I will surely miss his presence around the lab."

Mitch has received two Geophysical Institute Staff Performance Awards, in 2001 and 2008, but his 2013 Community Service Award showed that his desire to help extends beyond the GI community. Mitch is a devoted blood donor and charitable contributor. One year, he became a “Shavee” as part of a fundraiser for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation’s quest to fight kids’ cancer. He raised money and then shaved his head in support of children who’ve lost their hair during treatment.

Mitch is looking forward to having more adventures with his wife, and fishing with his children and grandchildren. While we will miss his sense of humor and kind heart in the lab, we wish him all the best.

Mitch Robinson showing off his wonderful sense of humor around the office. Photo courtesy Mitch Robinson.
Mitch Robinson having his head shaved after fundraising for the St. Baldrick's Foundation's quest to fight kid's cancer. Photo courtesy Mitch Robinson.
Mitch and Mary Robinson off on an adventure and looking forward to many more. Photo courtesy Mitch Robinson.
Mitch and Mary Robinson off on an adventure and looking forward to many more. Photo courtesy Mitch Robinson.