Why an 81-year old retired army scientist wants to work abroad

by Loni Klara August 30, 2016

After living in Japan in the 50s, he’s ready for another adventure.

“Stay busy. Don’t stop working, one way or another.”

Dr. Robert McMillan

These are the words 81-year-old physicist Robert McMillan would impart upon his grandkids. After decades of working for the U.S. Army, Air Force and Georgia Tech among others, he knows a thing or two about working.

In 1958 — the year the Tokyo Tower was built––Robert and his wife moved to Japan, just six years after the Allied forces left the country, beginning a remarkable era of economic boom for the East Asian nation.

While he worked for the U.S. Air Force, his wife, a registered nurse, was not able to work. Recalling those years, Robert remarks: “The Japanese … had an agreement with the U.S. that U.S. nurses could not work even in U.S. hospitals unless they were military nurses.”

Nevertheless, the experience was enjoyable for the family. “My daughter and son, who was a baby at the time, enjoyed living there very much, but being in the Air Force is like being in the U.S. with regards to access to things you’re familiar with.”

Tokyo Tower: 1958 vs 2016 / Source: Public domain, Shutterstock

But Japan wasn’t the only place Robert and his family traveled to. Over the course of 60 years together, they did a lot of traveling. In his own words, it’s part of the reason Jobbatical attracted him, and why he signed up. “We like to travel. We traveled to a lot of places. That I guess appeals to me more than anything, and maybe the idea of a new challenge.”

Though he says his age and access to healthcare would limit him from working abroad for an extended period of time, he’s certainly not one to shy away from a shorter challenge: “Working with new people, maybe learning a new language is interesting. Certainly it’s good to learn new things even when you’re older.”

Certainly it’s good to learn new things even when you’re older.

But what inspires him to keep going at 81? It’s simple. Curiosity. It’s what led him to develop cutting-edge technology in millimeter waves at Georgia Tech, and what keeps him working even now.

The Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta / Source: Georgia Tech

“One of the things I’ve been doing lately is combining different statistical distributions. A colleague and I came up with a way of doing that that saves a lot of steps. I had a paper last year in California and [I’m] thinking about submitting another one on this topic if I can work through some kinks.”

Still, there’s another somewhat more practical reason to keep going: “I don’t want to get demented, for one thing. The other way to keep doing that is to stay active, which I also try to do.”

While at the U.S. Army, Robert was the only one in his age group to run a 5K. He also keeps his mind agile by looking to the future. In the field of infrared and millimeter waves, he believes remote sensing and astronomy will be the big frontiers, as well as “sensing stuff like greenhouse gases and pollutants and aerosols like dust and smoke, that sort of thing.”

But in the end, it’s his passion for science that has sustained a decades-long career that shows no signs of stopping. It’s something he has tried to instill in his grandchildren as well.

“We (as a society) need to convince little girls that they can do science. Too many girls get lost from science because of peer pressure in high school. Science is just too important.” — U.S. Army interview, 2009

While organizing conferences in China and attending events around Europe and Asia, he got the chance to meet many of his fellow scientists and is keen to collaborate across countries if an opportunity comes up.

“Even if you’re retired you can do pretty much what you want to do. Do what you enjoy doing, which is something I’ve always been able to do and always been really grateful for.”

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