Local college president who broke barriers encourages students of color to pursue STEM fields

NEEDHAM, Mass. — “Hidden Figures” is the hit movie that revealed the brilliance of a Black woman who worked for NASA in the 1960s and had to fight for respect – and access to a bathroom.

The movie depicted scientists and mathematicians who deserved to be recognized in fields dominated by white men -- and it wasn’t easy.

As we celebrate Boston’s Black History this month, we’re talking to a local woman who faced similar challenges in her career.

Gilda Barabino, Ph.D., is now president of Olin College of Engineering in Needham.

President Barabino has been a trailblazer in chemical engineering and is now working to get more young people of color excited about STEM-related fields.

Barabino has been the president of Olin College of Engineering since 2020.

To get there, she’s broken through many barriers.

She was the first African-American woman admitted to the graduate program in chemical engineering at Rice University.

She was just the 5th Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in that field in the entire country.

“When I walked into an engineering class, I didn’t see much diversity and I didn’t see many women. And I certainly didn’t see many people who looked like me.”

When asked about some of the barriers she faced throughout her career, Barabino said “The isolation that comes with solo status. The

marginalization that might come with solo status. The idea that there might be stereotypes because people have certain perceptions, particularly if you are presenting a package that they’re not used to seeing.”

One thing propelled her inner drive throughout this journey.

“For me, it always was the love of learning, just really wanting to learn everything that I could and share it with others.”

That’s why today, Barabino lights up when she’s around young people trying to find solutions to complex problems.

She is concerned, however, about the rate of young people of color getting into STEM fields.

“If you look at the statistics, there’s only 12% of the engineering workforce that is comprised of Blacks and Hispanics,” explained Barabino. “Some are not necessarily having the educational opportunities for the kind of preparation that it would take to pursue those kinds of fields. Sometimes it’s just not even knowing about the fields.

She says society loses if those fields do not include a broad spectrum of people.

“When we think about having an impact on society, the problems and challenges that we’re facing right now could not be more complex and they’re getting larger and larger. We need every piece of talent we can put our hands-on, which means we need diverse perspectives, we need people who have had different lived experiences, we need people from different walks of life, and if we don’t do that, we’re going to have a very difficult time solving these problems.”

All around Olin’s Needham campus are banners that say “Engineering for Everyone”.

It’s a slogan Barabino takes to heart.

“When we say everyone, we really mean everyone. We also mean that engineering should serve everyone.”

When Barabino was asked what first drew her into science, she said it was a chemistry teacher who told her that he didn’t think his class was meant for girls.

She said that made her determined to prove him wrong, and in the process, she fell in love with it.

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