How Dr. Gilda Barabino plans to make science accessible to all

Gilda Barabino

In February, VentureWell board member Dr. Gilda Barabino assumed the presidency of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society. In addition to her primary role as professor of biomedical and chemical engineering and president of Olin College of Engineering, Dr. Barabino intends to dramatically expand access to scientific knowledge to under-resourced communities during her one-year presidential term. We spoke to Dr. Barabino about her strategic priorities as AAAS president, her experience working in collaborative, interdisciplinary teams, and her belief in the power of scientific entrepreneurship to change the world.

What are your top priorities as president of AAAS?

I’m really excited to bring science to more people through policy, education, and training. I want to make sure that science reaches everyone, with a particular emphasis on those who may not have the access—younger populations, marginalized populations, those who don’t see themselves as potential scientists. There’s a little bit of a scientist in all of us. Thinking more broadly about who sees themselves as a scientist or even connected to science is important.

Another priority I have that I share with the organization is around eliminating systemic racism in science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine. One of the things that I really like about AAAS’ strategic direction right now is that, similar to a number of organizations across the country, AAAS is paying special attention to racial equity and the fact that our nation is in a real moment of reckoning.

How can the entrepreneurial ecosystem better support educators who are teaching innovators to solve issues around the climate crisis?

The climate crisis is one of the biggest, most complex challenges that we’re facing—but it’s solvable by bringing science to the problem and working together across disciplines. If we are going to tackle that challenge well, we need to tap into as much talent as possible. Part of that is ensuring people understand the role of science in tackling problems like climate change; another element is enabling these different stakeholders to collaborate. From an educational standpoint, we need to ensure individuals are able to see and understand how to use knowledge creation and innovation. As a problem that is so complex, we need multiple perspectives and disciplines to understand how to apply the scientific knowledge we’ve gleaned from research.

What are some ways to help students think about solutions for the climate crisis?

We need to think across disciplines and boundaries. That’s where the true invention happens—when you connect a social scientist with an engineer, for example, and you link the human elements, the scientific elements, and the design elements. We don’t necessarily train scientists that way, and again, this leads back to being too siloed. Why don’t we think about everything like it’s a design issue? This way, we can break the problem into pieces and make it more solvable together in a team across disciplines and outside of the silos.

A recent example is how people came together across disciplines for the COVID-19 vaccines. It wasn’t just understanding biology and immunology—you really had to have people from multiple backgrounds, including engineers, because once you figure out the basis of the vaccine, you still have to scale it up, and then once you scale it up, you still have to distribute it. There were so many people who had to come together: scientists, engineers, industrial organization experts, etc. The vaccines are a tremendous example of the power of people partnering to solve a problem—and how innovative they can be when the pressure is on. We need to use that kind of motivation for climate change.

Tell us more about the philosophy behind your statement that science can be a global public good and equalizer.

Knowledge is power—and knowledge in any form can be a transformative equalizer, like access to education. The ability to create knowledge is a way of empowering individuals and society overall. How do we train and educate so that we can have maximum impact for public good? We need to make sure that everyone has had the opportunity to gain literacy in the humanities and the arts, in science and engineering, in mathematics and critical thinking, and in how we can and should care for one another. If we had those levels of literacy, I think we would all be so much more equipped for the kinds of problems we need to solve. If we developed an environment and culture that had this level of equalizing power, it would create much more of a level playing field because part of the problem is determining who has access to knowledge and who gets to invent.

If we could connect scientific knowledge with everyday problems, people will be able to see that science can actually make a difference not only in their own life, but in the lives of people around them and the world more broadly.

One of the reasons I started studying sickle cell disease in graduate school is because I was looking at the intersection of race, health, and technology—and how this disease disproportionately impacted the Black community. I was interested in how the access to the technologies was being used, so I applied engineering to study disease.

Tell us about the work you’re doing to create cultures that support a sense of belonging in science.

I’ve learned that we all want to connect and share our stories with one another. It’s amazing how much you can learn from hearing someone else’s story, and it’s amazing how much people can connect because they find out, “Oh my goodness, there’s something in your story that’s common to my story.” Stories help us understand each other, our communities, and the world that we’re living in. To create a sense of belonging, we need to value people for their whole selves so everyone can bring all of their identities to an environment, rather than check their identities at the door.

It’s also important for you to see yourself in the environment and to lead by example. You need leadership that can help set an inclusive tone and send the message that this is what we stand for. It’s important for people to articulate what their values are and share them broadly because one way to see if you really have an inclusive environment is to hold a mirror to yourself. How are your values being reflected and how are people experiencing your values? Does your environment let them have the space to talk about that?

That’s an interesting idea, holding a mirror to yourself when thinking about how others are experiencing the values that you’re attempting to bring into a space.

When I joined Olin College of Engineering, I said, here’s how you’re perceived, here’s how I perceive you coming in from the outside, and so, let me ask you to hold a mirror to yourself and ask yourselves, are you that? Are you who you say you are? It’s easy for us to say things; it’s easy for us to put mission statements out there. It’s easy for us to talk about who we are—and who we think we are—but how do you demonstrate that? How do individuals in your environment experience it?

I was asked once, “Are you going to issue a diversity statement?“ I said, “I don’t want to just make statements. I want my actions and the actions of those around me to reflect what we say.” When I started my presidency at Olin, I talked about a framework for strategic doing in response to the question, “what’s your plan?” Strategic doing provides a means for learning by doing, walking the talk and creating space for innovative approaches.

How has your work with VentureWell influenced your vision and strategy?

VentureWell excelled at how it addressed diversity, equity, and inclusion in innovation and entrepreneurship—both within the organization and with partners. And look at the work that VentureWell has done with NIH and the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx®) initiative. That’s an example of tremendous collaboration. I’m also impressed and inspired by the opportunities VentureWell creates for students to engage in competitions around invention, like working with the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering to produce the DEBUT Challenge for undergraduate inventors. I’m really interested in the idea that entrepreneurship is not just about starting a company. Entrepreneurial training and mindsets can help anyone become a better scientist, a better practitioner. Entrepreneurial training early on is very helpful, and I want to see us broaden how we reach people; right now, women and underrepresented minorities don’t necessarily see themselves as entrepreneurs. The more that we do to reach those underserved communities, the better they will be at using technology to create innovations for less resourced communities.

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