Dr. Gilda Barabino's Interview

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PostedWednesday, September 14, 2022

  • Q
    Think back on the day when you first learned that you were elected to the NAE. How did you feel?
    A

    I was taken with the specialness of the moment when I opened the email informing me of my election to the NAE—a combined sense of elation at being recognized at the highest levels of the academy and a sense of responsibility to prepare and help clear a path for others.

  • Q
    What does being an engineer mean to you?
    A

    I am motivated by my desire to make the world a more just and equitable place. My chosen vehicle for making a difference has been engineering and science research and education. Throughout my career, I applied what I learned as an engineer to researching sickle cell anemia, a painful and deadly disease that disproportionately impacts Black people. I wanted to do what I could to contribute to finding novel therapeutic approaches to this disease and contribute to my community.

    Being an engineer means using knowledge to solve complex problems that can often seem intractable. It is important to understand how we can use principles and skills from engineering and science to meet the needs in real people’s lives and improve the world. Tackling complex problems to make the world a better place is at the heart of engineering. Putting humans at the center has always been important to me; it’s part of my identity and it’s why I was intrigued by Olin College. At Olin, engineering starts and ends with people. We really want our students to understand the impact of their work.

  • Q
    How has your background strengthened your engineering experience?
    A

    I was raised in a military family. My father’s assignments determined where I attended school. In first grade, I attended a predominantly white elementary school in Delaware and was the only Black student in my class. In second grade, I attended three schools in one year including a short time in Germany. I learned very early on how to adapt and even thrive in different environments and cultures.

    As I progressed in my career, I joined a major research university as a new chemical engineering professor and researcher. I faced barriers associated with being a female, African American, nontenured faculty member and working mother. My male colleagues and the students, unaccustomed to a Black female professor, seemed to be at a loss as to how to include and support the new member of the community.

    As I look back on my experiences, I see now that I learned early on how to break down barriers and enter spaces that were not necessarily designed for me. I believe this made me a better engineer, better able to empathize with people who are, after all, at the heart of engineering. It also made me aware of how important it is for engineering students from underrepresented communities to have mentors and teachers who share their life experiences and who can demonstrate that science and engineering can be applied to improve one’s community.

  • Q
    What inspired you to become an engineer?
    A

    I believe deeply in the transformative power of education because my parents instilled that value in me. Yet, in high school, I faced a harsh reality. The women in my high school chemistry class were often ignored and made to feel like chemistry was not for them. So, to some extent, I pursued my education in chemistry to prove my male chemistry teacher and others wrong. Along the way I learned the power of science in understanding our world in ways that could make a difference.

    A program at Xavier University and my own research motivated me to explore engineering specifically because of its real-world applications. I think of engineers as doers and problem solvers, and that resonated with me early on.