Spring 2023 grad: Rob Hall co-founded “Liberated Intellects” to support educational goals of formerly incarcerated people

Rob Hall, a returning adult student who considers the entirety of Wisconsin his home, will be graduating this spring with a bachelor’s degree. He is majoring in both genetics and genomics and in history. In this Q&A, Hall discusses his some of the challenges he faced finishing school, gratitude for the support network that helped him persevere, his research experiences – and his next step as a graduate student at Stanford. During college, Hall helped co-found “Liberated Intellects,” a project to support the educational goals of formerly incarcerated people, which he will continue from Stanford.

What’s your hometown? Where did you grow up?
This has always been a hard question for me to answer, due to moving so much because of economic difficulties. I was born in Houma, Louisiana and then immediately moved to Massachusetts where I lived in multiple towns, before my family settled in Attleboro. I lived in Attleboro until I was 13 years old, at which point my family moved to Wisconsin, in the unincorporated community of Colgate with my Grandpa. Then I moved again, and I completed all my high school in Hustisford, Wisconsin. I moved many times as an adult as well. Through these dynamics, I consider the entirety of Wisconsin my home, especially Hustisford, Green Bay, Waukesha, and Madison.

Why did you choose your major?
I chose my major because I wanted to explore evolutionary biology, and I thought that through genetics and genomics I would experience novel challenges in understanding evolution. Given the number of times I have been perplexed in my coursework and research, I think I was right in presuming that. Today, I can begin to conceptualize how population genetics allows us to see groups of organisms and overlapping species changing throughout time and space. I also understand the importance of developmental genetics, as well as some ways in which experiments can be implemented to test hypotheses in these early, developmental stages of life. Above all, I learned that genetics is a revolutionizing field, and that I am excited to participate in its future.

What other activities were you involved in?
In genetics and genomics, I was a Ronald E. McNair Scholar in the Molecular Ecology Lab, led by Dr. Sean Schoville, and with his guidance I presented all over the United States. The McNair Scholars program supports underrepresented undergraduate individuals in achieving the accomplishment of attending graduate school. The UW-Madison McNair director is Audra Hernandez, who has helped many scholars begin post-baccalaureate degrees, including me.

I was also a Promega DOORS Scholar through the support of Dr. Francisco Pelegri, whose zebrafish facility I also worked in. In two separate summer experiences, I was able to work with Dr. Craig Atwood in cancer genetics at UW-Madison and participate in an Amgen Fellowship with Dr. Joseph Parker at Caltech. Additionally, I was a William K. Fitch, Bromley, and Trewartha Scholar with Dr. Walter C. Stern for a historical thesis for my second major, history with honors.

As an aspiring and public interfacing intellectual, I was a Wisconsin Idea Fellow and Cyrena Pondrom Awardee with Dr. Amber Smith, Ronald Kuka, and Professor Theresa Duello. With these three dynamos I proudly began community outreach and project building to help formerly incarcerated individuals, like me. This project is called “Liberated Intellects” and it received further classroom support through my participation in the Nelson Institute’s Community Environmental Scholars Program, with insights from Dr. Robert Beattie and Colleen Henegan. Lastly, I was a Center for Educational Opportunity Scholar, which allowed me to attend numerous conferences and receive important mentoring from their staff, including Seng Thao, Ibrahim Baalbaki, and Ryan Grady.

What are your future academic and/or career plans?
I plan to finish up my efforts here at UW-Madison before I graduate, including thanking my mentors and friends who invaluably contributed to the path I am on. The fact that I have accomplished so much is reflected by the enormous and various support I have received. To them I owe much more gratitude than I venture I can presently envision, and I believe it will take years for me to fully understand the positive impact they have had on my life. I equally owe thanks to people from UW-Waukesha, especially my mentor Dr. Michael Pauers, who has helped me in all my efforts. My plan is to keep in contact with all of them.

I will spend all my 2023 summer at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, researching in Dr. Todd Macfarlan’s lab, studying genetics and cellular biology of the germline. I look forward to being part of a national laboratory and especially look forward to seeing my friend, Angelo Madruga, who is beginning an NIH postbac in stem cell biology, before he applies for his MD-PhD.

In the fall of 2023, I will begin a rotation-based Biology PhD program at Stanford University, within their Cell, Molecular, and Organismal Biology track. I aim to study evolutionary biology and genetics, to help me think of novel ways in which such knowledge can be implemented to solve complex problems in science, society, and environments.

With the welcomed interest and support of individuals at Stanford, I will also continue Liberated Intellects. I intend to mentor community members, while also promoting ways to increase much needed access to sovereignty, leadership, and self-representation within such justice-impacted organizations.

What were the most valuable/meaningful college experiences you had?
The most valuable and meaningful college experiences I had were making companions with all the people here at UW-Madison and beyond. I lived and excelled through the relationships I made with friends, lab mates, classmates, teachers, mentors, mentees, community members, and administrators. For my own experience, I am a strong believer that the cohort I am a part of and the people I get to know make a longer lasting impact than the programming and coursework. Every conversation with a brilliant intellectual and every chance I had to talk to a new student mentee are the things I value most. Whether it was with the people from CALS Study Abroad, like Brett Schieve, or outstanding individuals at the writing center, like Pinar, Diego, Gabriel, and Seth, I was constantly inundated with thought provoking exchanges. I have made meaningful connections from California to New York, Ghana to Costa Rica, and across Wisconsin. I especially valued the conversations with my friends at The Crossing—Rudy, Lucy, Yushin, and Namita—during our group lunches and dinners.

When you think about your time here as student, what are you proud of?
I am most proud of learning how to be myself by taking steps in being more forthright about my life with others—namely within the last two years of my undergraduate experience. I still have a lot to work on, which is a blessing in disguise, but I think the last two years speak volumes to what happens when I practice honesty about some topics that I am most intimidated to speak about. Two years ago, I was facing housing instability, negative thinking, poor decision making, and even contemplating dropping out of school. I decided not to give up and I asked for help within different academic units, including CALS. It is hard to exaggerate the importance ascribed to the caring people within those first few months of reentering UW-Madison two years ago, like Assistant Dean Thomas Browne, Anne Niendorf over in Continuing Studies, and Becky Fraire along with all the ladies at the Philanthropic Educational Organization. Their unexpected kindness showed me that I needed to purposefully craft a support network with whom I could be honest with if I was going to thrive. I am very fortunate to be a nontraditional student who started at an amazing community college and will next begin a PhD at an amazing university. I owe much of that to my unique time here at UW-Madison. I am proud that I learned to build the network I needed to utilize the opportunities at our university.

Do you have any advice you’d like to share with CALS students?
Learn to push yourself into areas of research and learning which you know will benefit you. Listen to the voice inside you that tells you to be careful but also learn how to ignore the other voice that says you are not good enough to face difficulties. Do your best to differentiate the two. Challenges are often just opportunities, and it can be easy to think that challenges are dead ends. At least for me, giving up without trying was something that plagued my thinking for a long while. In recent years, I have challenged myself in quite a few ways, and I have learned what success and failure can look like as a result—and I am still in one piece despite readily experiencing both. The people who helped me process both my successes and failures are part of a support network which I did not initially have. If you feel like you lack a support network, I advise you to build one from scratch! Take courage for this task in the fact that you get to choose both who and which elements will be a part of it for you. Lastly, be open-minded about who can help you. For instance, almost every single person who has helped me comes from a very different background than me.