2023 Keynote Address

Investiture 2023 keynote address by President of Olin College of Engineering, Gilda Barabino:


Introduction by Dean Alexis Abramson:

Each year at Investiture, we honor a member of the greater scientific community for distinguished achievement and service in the highest tradition of our School.

In 1870, our founder Sylvanus Thayer and then-Dartmouth President Asa Dodge Smith tapped a 23-year-old Robert Fletcher, a young army lieutenant and mathematics professor at the US Military Academy, as our School's first dean and professor. In the ensuing 65 years, Fletcher left a lasting impression on generations of graduates, with his emphasis on engineering as a means to improve lives and serve society. The individual selected to receive the Robert Fletcher award must possess the qualities exemplified in his life and work.

Today, we are honored to name Gilda Barabino the 2023 recipient of the Robert Fletcher Award.

Gilda, throughout your life, you have not only achieved remarkable breakthroughs in your work as a biomedical engineer, but also demonstrated, by your life's example, what it looks like to break through—to break through barriers, through unforeseen obstacles, and through limitations posed by a world not yet ready for an engineer like you.

I understand that the younger Gilda did not listen to the naysayers who remarked—even as you took college chemistry courses in high school—that women could not pursue a career in the sciences. And later, as the first Black woman to be admitted to the PhD program in chemical engineering at Rice University—and only the fifth Black woman in the United States to then earn a doctorate in the field—your resolve and persistence, along with your incredible intellect and pioneering research, have made it possible for more young people to take the leap onto previously uncharted paths.

Your seminal work in sickle cell biomechanics have led to breakthroughs in the world's understanding of sickle cell disease and provided the basis for current therapies that continue to improve lives. You inspire and transform the educational institutions and scientific communities you have led or continue to lead—as chair of the board for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's leading interdisciplinary scientific community, to the founding executive director of the National Institute for Faculty Equity, as a member of the national prestigious academic academies, and currently, as president of Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. You make it possible for a new generation of engineers and scientists to chart their own breakthroughs—and also break through barriers, known and unknown.

Gilda Barabino, we are honored to present you with this award. Please welcome Dr. Barabino.

Remarks by Gilda Barabino:

Gilda Barabino
(Photo by Mark Washburn)

To Dean Abramson...To Provost Kotz…To the honored faculty...To all the family and friends who are with us to share this very special, actually a 'most incredible' occasion in person...thank you for the opportunity to be with you and to share a few moments of your day! I am truly honored and humbled to be with you here today at Dartmouth.

Dean Abramson, thank you for the distinguished honor of receiving the Robert Fletcher Award. He was a leader, scholar, Thayer's first dean, and I understand he was also a public servant. Fast forward 150 years…I know the two of us greatly valued our time serving the country in the Obama Administration. I often say I learned more in a few years serving as NASA Deputy Administrator as I have in the last decade as a professor. Technology and policy has enormous, real implications and impact in Washington, rather than being a bit more 'academic' on our campuses.

My sincerest gratitude to you, Dean Abramson, Provost Kotz, President Hanlon and Trustees of Dartmouth College for the honor of joining this distinguished academic community with an honorary Dartmouth degree. I'm especially pleased to join this year's graduates, class of 2023, of Thayer School of Engineering.

As the Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics, one of my greatest joys is seeing students like all of you turn your dreams into reality, often against all odds! One of my heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Believe in the beauty of your dreams." You've achieved not just believing in your dreams, but you have turned your dreams of becoming Dartmouth engineers into reality! Congratulations! Families, friends and dear graduates, how about a huge round of applause!

I've spent many years learning, working, and teaching at MIT, and I now call the MIT Media Lab home. Like Thayer, we strongly emphasize a transdisciplinary education that realizes synergies among the arts, sciences, design and engineering, with the goal of preparing creative, brilliant, minds to help lead in today's world of incredibly complex challenges. We envision educating and 'growing humans,' maybe it's 'growing humanity' as the foci of an engineering education.

Thayer is one of the oldest and most prestigious schools of engineering in the United States, and today 35% of the student body identifies as female—almost double the national percentage. Our hard work must continue until we reach parity.

Thayer distinguished alumni include Phoebe (Feebs) Suina '98 Th'99 Th'01 who founded High Water Mark in her native San Felipe, and Cochiti Pueblos in New Mexico is having significant impact helping to protect the natural and cultural environments for first nations peoples—locally, regionally and nationally. Her words, philosophy, and actions are powerful. I quote, "We’ve been in this landscape since time immemorial. First nations people were the first scientists, architects, engineers, botanists, astronomers, and ecologists here in America. [In celebration], we're dancing for everybody. They always tell us … the first dance is for the whole world, you're praying for the whole world. And the next one is our country, and the next is our state and the next is our pueblo communities. Then the next is for our family. And the last is us, for yourself."

These core concepts—especially in this current era — of thinking of the whole world, our interdependence, and that the air we breathe does not stop at borders, our water does not stop at borders, but rather that these elements and humanity are all interconnected suggests to me a life in balance and a life well-lived.

And Thayer alum Rose Mutiso '08 is now supporting female scholars and leaders in East Africa at the Energy for Growth Hub. Rose served in the Office of International Climate and Clean Energy at the US Department of Energy, and was an Energy and Innovation Policy Fellow for the US Senate. She authored several pieces of legislation that were signed into law by President Barack Obama. She earned her BA and BE in engineering sciences with a concentration in materials science from Dartmouth. Perhaps you might follow in her footsteps?

At the University of Notre Dame (many moons ago), I was one of only two women graduates out of 40 aerospace engineers. Don't I look like a rocket scientist and engineer? When I joined the MIT faculty, I was one of two women on the aerospace faculty with 35 male colleagues. I had the distinct honor to serve in the Obama Administration as the NASA Deputy Administrator (that’s the #2)—as the first female engineer to fill that role. I was the third female NASA Deputy, but the first female engineer and I was following in the footsteps of two of my great mentors, Prof. Robert 'Bob' Seamans who led Apollo and for whom my MIT faculty chair honors, and Prof. Hans Mark, who was the NASA Deputy during the Space Shuttle era and led all technical matters. Bob served as a science advisor to five US Presidents starting with President Kennedy. What an example of an 'engineer making a difference.'

I wanted to learn everything I could from him. Hans would send me three-page hand-written letters when I first arrived in DC. He was at UT Austin and the former Chancellor there after leaving NASA. The first page of the letter was all about great sailing tips in the Chesapeake Bay. We are both passionate about sailing and racing. What an incredible personal touch, old school, hand-written business letters. I kept every letter, every word. The next two pages included sharp critiques on some of my NASA leadership decisions, and he also shared some of his failures so that I wouldn't make the same mistakes.

At NASA, I gave an award for failure—Fail Smart and the applicants from across the entire agency were spectacular. I gave the first award to a 'failed' advanced lunar lander/LEM concept from our Swampworks at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. How many of you are comfortable with failing? Be honest, a show of hands please. Me neither, that's why I now try to teach my students that it's in our failures that we learn important lessons and all of engineering is iterative design. Try, try, try again. Always be persistent!

Lessons Learned:

  1. You all belong in our engineering profession. We need you. The world needs you. Let's all provide an inspiring, welcoming environment for our moon shots, our dreams for the future.
  2. Seek out incredible engineering mentors!
  3. Take risks and don't be afraid to fail, s-m-a-r-t-l-y.
  4. Being first, second, or third is not important. It's when we stop counting that we know we've succeeded. To achieve engineering excellence, we need infinite diversity in infinite combinations, or IDIC. Thank you StarTrek and Gene Roddenberry!

Now, I'd like to share four additional themes and lessons with you. Simple advice that I hope might resonate or kindle a spark for you. My teaching and research mantra is to: Love, act, discover, and innovate (or LADI).

LOVE isn't a word we hear a lot in engineering, but it must be at the heart of everything we do. One of the pledges of the professional engineers' creed is that we serve humanity. I quote, "engineers shall place service before profit, the honor and standing of my profession before personal advantage, and the public welfare above all other considerations." Service before profit, public welfare above all other considerations…That's love. It's love for our profession, compassion, empathy, and love for our fellow human beings, and love for our entire planet, which I call Spaceship Earth!

It is urgent that we heal Spaceship Earth! Our scientific data shows us, without a doubt, that Earth's vital signs are speaking to us, but are we listening?

Vital Signs:

  1. Temperature. Global average temperature is up 1oC since record keeping began in 1880, and 19 of the warmest years have occurred since 2000.
  2. CO2. This morning I checked, and CO2 emissions were at 417 ppm. We don't want to be above 400 ppm. Carbon dioxide levels in the air are at their highest in 650,000 years.
  3. Sea level rise. Ninety-nine percent of the world's fresh water is trapped in ice, specifically, the Greenland and Antarctic Ice sheets, and we're losing 427 B metric tons per year since 2002.

That's equivalent to the size of Texas, every year. Ice melting into the sea and causing sea level rise. If the Greenland ice sheet melts entirely, that's 6 m of sea level rise. If the Antarctic ice sheet melts that's 60 m of sea level rise and we wouldn't be having this discussion. These are the scientific facts.

The question is: What are we going to do to heal Spaceship Earth, keep our oceans, land and air healthy? We all live on this precious blue dot, together, in the same lifeboat, in the same Universe. We are the crew (the astronauts), and we urgently need to act to preserve it. We need the planet, we need Spaceship Earth—but Earth doesn't really need us.

I remain ever optimistic that collectively, we will listen, we will see and understand our impact, we will change our behavior, and we will take the corrective and regenerative ACTION for the betterment of humanity and for Earth. For our children and grandchildren, we should all commit to leaving Earth better off then how we find it today.

In the words of R. Buckminster Fuller: "Make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

What can we learn from other planets, what kind of scientific answers can we discover to help us understand life here on Earth? I believe that you, Dartmouth engineers will turn the impossible into possible! Ultimately, engineering, science, exploration and discovery are about raising humanity's potential. Investment in science, research and technology helps reimagine our energy distribution systems, helps cure disease and feed the world, and enable exploration of the oceans and planets. S&T research is the lifeblood of a high-tech economy and plays a critical role in the economic and personal well-being of citizens. In the US, we need to maintain our innovation edge and create new, equitable jobs to realize economic growth.

Graduates, a glimpse at your amazing dissertations thesis titles inspires me, and confirms that you're contributing to our most important engineering challenges. A few of your dissertation titles are:

  • Analysis and Design of Hybrid Switched Capacitor Converters—Energy, check!
  • Imaging for Fluorescence-Guided Surgery in Head and Neck Cancer—Disease, check!
  • Electrical Impedance Monitoring for Intracranial Trauma—Health, check!
  • Cotreatment of Cellulosic Biomass—Environment, check!

Amelia Earhart said: "Never do things others can and will do, if there are things others cannot do or will not do." As engineers, you live these words daily, turning science-fiction dreams into scientific fact. Your research, your technical ideas and inventions will expand the horizons of human possibility, lifting us all up!

I think one of the most important things we can do is advance transdisciplinary education and inspire young people to confront complex societal questions together, through innovative revolutionary technologies, disruptive business models, and equitable policies. Embracing ancient wisdoms, tens of thousands of years of human lessons—this is how your generation, the Mars generation, is literally going to take us to Mars. I call anyone in school today, the Mars generation, because one of you will become the first 'boots on Mars' in the 2030s! You are our national and world leaders of tomorrow, whether that's in developing innovations to get us to Mars to discover the evidence of past life from 3.5 B years ago when Earth and Mars both harbored life, or whether it's by directing your ideas and talents right here on Spaceship Earth to invent medical technologies to cure disease, provide novel energy and environmental solutions, or to serve in local government, or national roles—you will use your engineering skills to serve society.

As an aerospace engineer and rocket scientist, I have come to understand how critical bringing together many viewpoints, voices, and perspectives is to addressing society's biggest challenges. I have spent my entire career dedicated to furthering STEM education, but to make it more inclusive—to really encourage anyone of any background to engage with this field—I like to put a different spin on it: I call it STEAMD—I bring in the ARTS, I bring in DESIGN. Design and the arts are an integral part of how we explore, innovate, and embrace novel ideas.

At the societal level, bringing together diverse viewpoints and perspectives requires us to fully invite those voices to the conversation by making sure our universities, corporations, and organizations are welcoming, caring, and diverse environments for everyone. Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel into space, said, "You can't be what you can't see." Looking at all of you here today, I see the future.

Your time at Dartmouth has been indelibly impacted by tremendous global and national upheaval—from the pandemic, to wars and destruction, to devastating gun violence right here in the US. I commend you all for your determination and perseverance to get to this beautiful graduation day, and am so honored to be among the first to congratulate you. I encourage each of you to take the experiences, the insights, and the compassion that you have gained with you as you continue your professional lives of discovery, achievement and leadership. See and show love to those around you. Act wherever and whenever you can to help address social inequities and the health of the planet. And of course, always reach for the stars, Ad Astra—Mars is just beyond the horizon.

My wish for all of you is heartfelt love, that you act beyond your comfort zone taking those risks that might just pay off and turn some heads, that you DISCOVER your true passion(s) and use your engineering skills in those pursuits, and that we collectively INNOVATE a bright trajectory for future generations (seven generations in the future), a path forward where future worlds and societies flourish because we reflected, asked the right questions, listened to one another as well as the planet; and we chose love, compassion, and peace over hate, violence, and war.

"For unto whomsoever much is given, of him [them] shall be much required." [Luke 12:48]

Godspeed, Dartmouth Engineers of 2022 and my heartfelt CONGRATULATIONS!