Making a Difference through STEM: An Exclusive Interview with Dean Barabino

This issue, in honor of Women’s History Month, the Harlem Times is proud to present a special interview with a local woman leader in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) – Dr. Gilda A. Barabino, Dean and Berg Professor at the Grove School of Engineering at the City College of New York (CCNY). Dr. Barabino has appointments in Biomedical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and the Sophie Davies School of Biomedical Education / CUNY School of Medicine. With this interview Dean Barabino talks exclusively with the Harlem Times about diversity, interdisciplinary research, and her drive to use STEM to have a positive impact on Harlem and the Harlems of the world.

HT: How did you first get introduced to science?

Barabino: I was the type of kid who was extremely inquisitive and asked a lot of questions. I always wanted to understand how things work and how the world around me operated. My first recollection of being introduced to science was when I was in chemistry in the 11th grade at a predominately white college prep high school in New Orleans. I remember the teacher implying that chemistry wasn’t a subject matter that girls were expected to do well in. And my nature was to prove him wrong. While still in high school I took college chemistry and ended up majoring in chemistry and minoring in biology and math. At the graduate level, I studied chemical engineering as a way to apply chemical principles to solve real-world problems.

HT: It’s interesting that someone telling you that you couldn’t do something actually inspired you. If somebody didn’t tell you that you couldn’t do chemistry, would you have still tried it? How do we get people with a competitive nature excited about science?

Barabino: I think for me I would have found my way into some sort of STEM field anyway. Like many students who end up pursuing STEM career paths, I excelled in math and science. If you have skills, traits, and characteristics that you’re really good at, you should use them and use them well, and use them in way that allows you to follow your passions and make a difference in the world. In my own case, I was driven to apply engineering principles to solve medical problems and the problem I focused on was sickle cell disease since it disproportionately affects African Americans.

HT: But you sort of came full circle with biomedical engineering, right?

Barabino: (Laughs) I did, I did. Choosing to pursue research on sickle cell disease for my Ph.D. thesis allowed me to draw on my previous background in basic science and achieve my goal to give back to my community. It also allowed me to have a connection to medicine which I was encouraged to pursue as an undergraduate, but I was hesitant at the time because I was not sure that I wanted to be a clinician.

HT: How has this desire to use STEM to have a positive impact on your community evolved over time?

Barabino: As a young person I was always interested in equal opportunity and social justice. So if there was a field like STEM for example, and there were those who had limited opportunities to participate in the field — that was a cause for me. That same drive I had as a kid, has only strengthened as my career has progressed. My mission at every stage of my career has been to make sure that those who haven’t had opportunities are given opportunities: That we change the system if it needs to be changed. We better prepare the students. We do everything we need to do, so that anybody who wants to participate in STEM can have a chance to do so.

HT: Let’s talk about inclusion. Some folks working in STEM (women and men alike) have expressed to me that they feel some of the diversity policies around women in the workplace are limiting, in terms of making women feel like they’re different. What is your take on this?

Barabino: It is important that we are actively engaging in work to support inclusion and that we evaluate our efforts. First of all, we need to recognize that there are issues and be able to talk about them. Then we need to be able to get past the talking to actually doing something. If there are policies enacted, we need to make sure that the policies are doing what they’re intended to do. We need to make sure that we’re not always putting the responsibility for diversifying the field on those that have been kept out. It’s a shared responsibility. In terms of targeted activities to increase diversity, should we do them? Absolutely. The only way you’re going to reach underserved groups is to target and serve them…A major problem is systematic exclusion and the policies put in place to keep it that way…Another problem is the labeling and negative connotations placed on people participating in targeted programs and that often makes individuals shy away. Changing policies and avoiding negative labels will go a long way toward promoting inclusion.

HT: How did you end up getting into education?

Barabino: I think I was born to be a teacher, I really do. I think I’m an active, lifelong learner. When I was kindergarten age, where we lived at the time there was no kindergarten for me to attend, so I created an imaginary classroom with me as the teacher. I helped classmates with their assignments throughout school and I tutored chemistry at Xavier…When I was entering college, what I really wanted to major in was education. I was told I was too smart for that and encouraged to major in something else. Given my penchant for teaching, it’s not surprising that I later became a college professor.

HT: I really think that there is way too strict of a division between the arts and science. They’re the same in many ways. What are your thoughts on interdisciplinary research and work?

Barabino: I’m a strong advocate of interdisciplinary research. My own career has always been interdisciplinary because as an engineer conducting research with medical applications, I always had to collaborate with a clinician. I also believe that real innovation comes at the intersection of fields. If we don’t work across fields and boundaries, we’re going to miss out on so much innovation.

HT: So what do you think can be done to promote collaboration between fields?

Barabino: We need to look at the impediments to working collaboratively and across disciplines, and start to remove the impediments…The world is moving towards team science, especially as our problems become more complex. This idea of this individual working alone, coming up with this brilliant “Aha” moment is gone…I encourage interdisciplinary work…encourage our students and our faculty to think collaboratively on how they can solve problems – I want the engineers at the Grove School of Engineering to be drivers in pushing the field forward through collaboration….An example that I’m most proud of was to get a group of engineering students and a faculty advisor, an electrical engineering professor, collaborating with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The project is called, “Extend the Life of a Dancer.” What they’re working on is how do you better understand body mechanics involved ballet, to prevent injuries. The students have already come up with an app called “On Pointe.” They record dancers movements and match them to pressure measurements obtained using pressure transducers sewn into the socks placed in ballet shoes. Later in April, they’ll be testing their prototype with the ballet dancers.

Stay tuned to the Harlem Times for more coverage on Dean Barabino and the and the amazing innovations coming out of the Grove School of Engineering.