AAAS Profiles Gilda Barabino
Author: Freelance Writer Jenisha Watts
Gilda Barabino teaches chemical engineering at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. She decided to study chemistry in college after her high school teacher told her class "chemistry was not for girls." Walk into Dr. Gilda Barabino’s office at Georgia's Institute of Technology in Atlanta and scan the room. Each wall is lined with shelves, filled with thick science journals, hardback copies of Langston Hughes poems, and soft vintage novels by James Baldwin. Tucked between the shelves, a poster with a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the bold words, “The Right to be Free.”
It is a commemorative of Brown vs. the Board of Education, the landmark 1954 case where the Supreme Court ruled that state laws establishing "separate but equal" public schools for white and black students was unconstitutional.The ruling paved the way for integration and the civil rights movement. For Barabino, an African American woman, the words on the wall are more than an inspirational slogan. They serve as a “daily reminder” on how far black people have advanced in America. Gazing up at the poster, Barabino, says, "The best science is conducted when we have the most inclusive group of people involved. You can’t possibly have the best minds at the table if you exclude certain groups.”
Barabino is Professor and Associate Chair for Graduate Studies at Georgia Tech and Emory University. She has degrees from Xavier University, B.S., and Rice University, Ph.D. In 1994, she received the Outstanding Engineering Faculty Award and in 2007, she was a fellow at the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering. She’s penned articles for numerous publications sharing her research on adhesion mechanisms in sickle cell disease, cellular, and tissue engineering. Chemistry helps explain the substances we ingest through the air we breathe and food we eat, she said. As a chemical engineer, Barabino applies her knowledge to help solve problems in medicine.
While testing different experiments for her sickle cell research, she has learned, with medicine, “many times it is not the substance itself that is bad, but how it is being used,” she said. “We have an agent that will prevent your cells from sickling, but will cause other problems because it is toxic,” Barabino said. “If we use hydroxyurea, the body can tolerate that form, and we have an alternative antisickling agent.”
She credits her high school only educated parents for her ambitious track record. “They instilled in me every day that education is important.” A soft-spoken Barabino is quick to add, “In our family, it was just understood that you were going to college to obtain the highest degree.”
A naturally curious girl, she had multiple interests in school subjects."I loved everything," she says. It was her high school teacher who unknowingly set her down on a career path in science. “She told the class that chemistry was not for girls,” Barabino recalls. “I thought how dare you pick a group and say a particular subject is not acceptable for them!” The pupil with the wide attentiveness roped in her focus. “And that’s really how I got started in chemistry,” a proud Barabino said.
These days, she splits her time directing a laboratory and teaching chemical engineering courses and polymer science. She enjoys the research atmosphere, with lab benches as resting chairs, and bright colored molecules hanging up like wallpaper, just as much as she relishes sharpening future scholars minds in science.
“I am so passionate about broadening the community of science. I don’t want us to lose talent,” Barabino said. “I think it is important to give back because everyone does not have that same inner drive, some people need a little more nudging and support. I think it is even more important for people of color to give back. That’s part of my mission.”