Meet President Gilda Barabino!

Welcome to the September issue, and the first, of the 2020-2021 academic school year! I hope you all have had a chance to settle into your new places for the fall semester.

This article comes from a collaboration with the Marketing and Communications department, who reached out to me about interviewing President Barabino, who became president of Olin College on July 1, 2020. I want to thank President Barabino for taking the time to meet with me, as well as Anne-Marie from MarCom for guiding me through the process and polishing the questions and interview with me.

Thank you as well to the students who submitted questions for this interview (and also told me what you want from FS this fall) and to my wonderful editors, Anusha Datar and Dianna Sims (and also to Mark Goldwater, who’s a consultant)!

This interview happened through Zoom on a Monday, August 17, morning at 9 a.m. Thankfully, the call was recorded and transcribed. This interview has been edited for length and in some cases clarity. Let’s get started!

Serna: How has this stay-at-home period been like for you? What’s something positive that’s come with it?

President Barabino: Staying at home has actually meant a lot of Zoom meetings. But the one thing that I think has been a benefit of [having] Zoom meetings [is that] it enables you to bring a broad range of participants from different locations who may not have otherwise been able to gather at the same time.

One exciting opportunity was the Ask Me Anything [AMA] evening. We were all spread out in remote locations; we would not have been able to gather that way ordinarily since we weren’t able to be on campus. Zoom allowed us to do that, and it was a great opportunity to get to know members of the community and for members of the community to get to know me.

Serna: What’s something you are looking forward to this semester?

President Barabino: What I’m looking forward to the most is actually the start of the new academic year. There’s been so much anticipation of taking on the presidency and being the academic leader, and there’s something about the excitement of the fall, the newness of the academic year and the new semester. There’s an excitement around renewal that you just can’t escape. That’s the most exciting thing for me, and [also] to get to know more of the community in a deeper way.

 Has the assigned reading been shared with everyone?

Serna: I believe it’s The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom.

President Barabino: Yes, I picked it! I’m excited for us to have something that we as a community can read together and discuss together, as just an additional way to get to know each other.

Serna: How exciting is it going to be? How would you convince others to read this?

President Barabino: To me, there’s something we can learn about people, the people who we know or would like to get to know better, if there’s something we can learn about one another by having a shared reading experience. I think the fun is in the sharing and learning. We’ll see, when we actually get an opportunity to talk about it.

Serna: We’re planning a convocation, and I don’t know if you know, but we’re planning on having you talk during this. And I think knowing what you have to say about it will make reading the book worth it.

President Barabino: People want to know one another as one individual to another. They want to know about your life, about your experiences. It turns out, usually, there’s something about someone’s experience that you can tap into: “That happened to me too.” Even if it’s not the same thing, there are similarities that people bond over. Humans like to connect; that’s why we want to be on campus together. That’s why we want to connect even if it has to be on Zoom.

Serna: No one would be Zooming if we didn’t care.

President Barabino: That’s right.

Serna: Tell us more about being a tempered radical. I saw your interview with WGBH where you said, “One who is radical and trying to be a change and has an understanding of working in the system. Creating change within.”

President Barabino: So, part of what that concept means in addition to that: If you think about “tempered” in the sense of a metal becoming tougher from alternately being heated up and cooled down – if you’re a tempered radical, maybe in a certain setting you increase the heat, you push harder, you put on more pressure. There could be, in certain situations, certain contexts [where] it makes sense to cool down, back off a bit — having a sense of when and how to be more forceful or not, to speak up more or not. It’s the tempering that allows you, hopefully, to be more effective, because different situations call for different kinds of reactions. If you want to be effective, it may be that one time is a time for screaming loudly and other times not so much because you wouldn’t be heard.

Knowing when and how to use that voice, knowing when and how to have agency — I think that’s the broader concept of being a tempered radical. And to do that, you have to be in a system. How can you stand on the outside looking in and have an impact? You have to be a part of the system you are trying to change.

Serna: Do you want to share an experience?

President Barabino: Part of my experience is, when going into a new environment, and and observing or experiencing things that are unfair, being able to call it out. If I didn’t call it out, I’d lose the opportunity to make a difference, because it would go unseen. [It’s about] knowing when and how to do that.

So [here’s] one of the things I have done in the past: If I’m in a situation and I’m the only woman or woman of color, and I know there are reasons why women or women of color are not being afforded the same opportunities as others, then I will call that out and say, “Here’s the reason why you are not having more people who come from certain backgrounds participating.” Drawing attention to it will, hopefully, give people an opportunity to come up with some strategies that can make a difference.

I’ll give you a concrete example. I was an associate chair for graduate studies in the biomedical department at Georgia Tech, and the graduate student population did not have a lot of diversity in terms of underrepresented minorities or even women. So when I became an associate chair, I looked at the data. I looked at where we were recruiting. I looked at how we were actually carrying out our selection process, and asked questions about what we could change so that we would actually yield a more diverse population in [both] the applications and those that we accepted. So it’s really being there in that system and actually calling it out when you see it. After I got involved, the very next class that came in was the most diverse class that the department had ever accepted.

Serna: What is the biggest obstacle you have faced in your career that almost made you give up, but you pushed through and realized what you could have missed? [question submitted by Dianna Simms]

President Barabino: I don’t think that there is any one thing. I would point to something that is a long-standing obstacle: persistent and ingrained biases. They are persistent within people, within organizations, within institutions, [and they] tend to — when acted upon by people —advantage some and disadvantage others. It’s even harder because it’s harder to see it, name it, call it out, and act on it, but it is there. So these biases that are ingrained become part of people’s thinking — people who are in power and set rules and practices that advantage some and disadvantage others. 

That, I think, is the kind of obstacle that is the worst, because it is persistent and it is ingrained. And it can hold talent back; it can hold certain people back. Part of what I’ve done is to really stand for what is equitable and fair, so that opportunities are equitably distributed.

Serna: I really appreciate your response and I totally see where it’s coming from. Like … [Makes a fist.]

President Barabino: And people don’t usually talk about it. People don’t typically talk about more deeply rooted biases that effect access to opportunities.

Serna: A part of that … I think it took me a solid two to three years of college to be like, “Wait, wait a second, what is happening here?” Once you figure it out, who do you tell? You just have to — at least for me, as I feel like my mom has been trying to tell me my whole life — you have to slowly swallow it and know you are swimming against the current, even though I never accepted that until I was actually pushed back by the water. Then I was like, “Oh gosh, my mom was right.”

President Barabino: See, it’s true, and the important thing is to know it, understand it — do not internalize it, and don’t let it keep you down. Because I think a lot of it is our mindset and how we look at things, like if you let people tell you [that you] are lesser than and then believe it. I’m not letting anyone tell me that.

Serna: I mean, it’s hard when the entire room is telling you, at least in my experience.

President Barabino: I think knowing that it exists is helpful. What I did, knowing that, [is] I started researching organizational behavior, personal and organizational dynamics, because I thought, “Okay, wait, so people act a certain way, and what I need to do is understand how people act in what context so that I can be in a position to navigate those situations, because it’s all about people in the end and how one human interacts with another human.” I thought, “Huh, I need to better understand how this works. So that when I see a particular type of  behavior, I am in a better position to protect myself from biases or speak up on the biases, a better position to handle it, and not let it derail me.” Because it’s easy to get derailed. So I don’t let other people’s expectations [take over]. If someone’s saying, “I don’t think you can do this because you’re a Black woman,” well, I’m not going to buy that. That’s ridiculous. So I think if we understand that and understand what’s motivating sometimes — when someone is driven to put a person down, because they’re trying to push themselves up — we can overcome that and in fact we can all pull one another up. That makes more sense to me.

Serna: I’m going to be bold and assume you’ve made mistakes that make you cringe. A step you shouldn’t have taken or a step you did. How did (or do) you cope with the feeling of knowing you’ve been wrong and can’t change it?

President Barabino: The older we get, the more we learn to handle mistakes, because we’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to have mishaps; we’re going to say something the wrong way; we’re going to do something we wish we hadn’t done. For me, the ones that I usually worry about the most, honestly, because I’m really a people person, [are] how I made someone else feel or how I helped someone else or not. That really bothers me — if I wasn’t at my best to help someone else be at their best.

So if I said something that I could’ve said better, or maybe I shouldn’t have said it at all. I really do rethink those things. What I try to do is learn from it. I make a note, I really do, a note to self: “That didn’t go so well. You could’ve handled that differently.” I think about if the situation presents itself again, how can I better try and understand the other person. When people are having interactions and it’s not going so well, we’re very quick as human beings to say, “It’s your fault, not mine. I’m not doing anything wrong.” I have tried to own my piece of the situation — that has sort of helped me through the cringe moments.

Because I’ll own up. I’ll tell somebody I made a mistake. I think we have to be willing to admit to our mistakes and then try to do better the next time.

That was a good question.

Serna: In case you didn’t have a good response, I was thinking about the story that you had lost your test tubes and months of research, when you were on the subway and someone bumped into you.

President Barabino: It was depressing. It was like, I was like, “Okay. Start over.” It was crushing. [She laughs for a long time.]

Serna: I laugh a little at your optimism, looking back at it and being like, “It was so depressing and crushing, but okay, start over,” with a big smile on your face. That’s so good.

President Barabino: I think that has been my attitude for everything: “Alright, pick yourself up.” What are you going to do? Wallow in self-pity? It doesn’t fix anything.

Serna: But it feels so good.

President Barabino: [She laughs again for a while.] Right? You can allow yourself a certain amount of it, but not too much of it.

Serna: You get to treat yourself a little.

President Barabino: That’s so right. So I actually try to remind myself that every mistake, literally, you can learn from it. You might not see it right away, but eventually you may see how you can learn from that previous experience. Like it’s all bringing us toward some greater good later, even if we don’t see it right away.

Serna: Okay. I will take that to heart. 

Given your long history with biomedical engineering, do you plan to change or revive Olin’s bio-engineering program? In my opinion, it is a degree that hasn’t really been developed nearly as much as the others, and I wonder how it might change in the future. [question submitted by a student]

President Barabino: Yeah, I think that’s an easy one for me. It’s part of my passion. It’s part of what I’ve done my entire career. I look forward to enhancing what we do here in that space. And I will work with people, with students, with faculty, with outside potential partners like companies, to say, okay, what is it we can do at Olin to enhance our capacity, our learning, our teaching, and our contribution in the biomedical engineering space? And it will be fun! [Big smile.] There’s plenty to do. Yes, I plan on working on that. 

Serna: Do you have words of advice for those who feel lonely?

President Barabino: It’s important to identify if those feelings of loneliness suggest something bigger and more serious, perhaps the first signs of depression, in which case I encourage anyone in that situation to seek professional guidance and counseling. But if you’re asking about the kind of loneliness that can occur when a students is away from home for the first time then I would say look at ways to not be isolated and to focus on something positive. Things like reaching out to another person, or thinking about something that makes you feel happy and that makes you feel energized. It could be exercise. It can be really just thinking about how to use some alone time productively, just to get in sync with good thoughts. Think about the good things that have happened. Think about good things that [you] have contributed or things that [you want] to do.

I like music. I think music is a good pick-me-up. And reading or just doing … something. Sometimes if you get too isolated, too lost in thoughts, the act of moving, dancing, exercising or all of the above can serve as a oick me up. Of course, it’s always helpful if one person can find another person to connect with.

And let’s not forget the power of laughter which is therapeutic in its own right.

Serna: Do you have any words of advice or hope for people living off campus? As you might know, this is the first time that a majority of Oliners are living off campus.

President Barabino: My advice is, no matter what situation they find themselves in, to make the most of it. What [can] you do in that environment that makes the most of that environment? How do you connect with one another in that environment? How do you take it seriously? … Listen to science and be connected to each other. We’re Oliners; we think creatively. We can figure out how to do those things that keep everyone safe and help everyone feel connected. That would be my advice. But again, make the most of whatever situation you find yourself in. 

Serna: What about people living on campus?

President Barabino: In the same vein, like that way of “Here’s the environment I’m in — how do I best use this particular setting and take advantage of it while being mindful and serious and following the science and what we know. Just being smart about how we behave. Be smart about our interactions and our decisions in thinking not just about ourselves but [about] other people as well. So I think that whether you’re on campus or not, those are some really important things that people should be thinking about. 

Serna: Why did you choose to do the research you’ve done?

President Barabino: I was very purposeful in the research that I chose to pursue. I was interested in applying engineering to medical applications, and I was interested specifically in investigating a disease that impacts underserved communities, underrepresented communities, and health disparity populations (or those who don’t have the same level of access). I picked sickle cell disease because it disproportionately affects African Americans and I wanted to make a difference, in a way that makes people’s lives better by treating a medical condition. That was my real motivation to use engineering to study and solve medical problems. And I’m still active in that work to this day.

Serna: Do you plan to carry it over to Olin?

President Barabino: I won’t have a research lab at Olin, but I will be collaborating with others who are still doing this type of work.

Serna: So it would be external?

President Barabino: Yes, I would continue the work through external collaborations.

Serna: Would you want your own lab space at Olin?

President Barabino: At some point. I won’t necessarily want a dedicated space just for me, but I would love to participate and collaborate in spaces that already exist here by working with others. One of the things that’s fun for me is the ability to work with faculty and students on education and research on all sorts of topics. I’m looking to expand the areas that I’m working in. It’s rich here. There’s so much to pick from.

Serna: What’s your favorite type of ice cream? [question submitted by a student]

President Barabino: Chocolate.

Serna: What’s your favorite type of dessert? Cake, pie, ice cream? [She got really excited about dining hall ice cream when I mentioned the different flavors.]

President Barabino: I like all of them. Cake and pie with ice cream. If I had to pick one, I would choose ice cream.

Serna: What’s a question you wish I asked?

President Barabino: I saw that question, and I don’t know. I thought the questions were so wide-ranging and pretty thorough. I don’t know what else you could have asked right now. I thought it was pretty good. And it was fun! You’re a pretty good interviewer. Most times, interviewers don’t always know how to make their interviewees feel comfortable.

We should do more interviews. So that we all get to know one another. I just love getting to know students in particular because I learn so much from students. I see myself as a lifelong learner. Part of why I went into education, higher education in particular, is that I wanted to be in an environment where I was surrounded by youth and people who were excited to learn — people who bring new ideas to the table and fresh energy. That kind of energy helps energize those of us who’ve been at it for a while. New students bring the new energy we all need. The start of the academic year brings that.

We’re off into the new year. Come along for the journey!

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