Gabriela Borin Barin

Gabriela Borin Barin was born in Brazil and had an interesting childhood—her mother’s job required constant relocation, so she didn’t attend the same school two years in a row before she got to high school. Always the new kid, and not being able to take six months to integrate, she had to learn how to communicate fast. Right before high school, her family moved from the south of Brazil to the northeast, 3,000 kilometers away. They’ve stayed on, but Gabriela left.  She completed a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and became more interested in materials chemistry towards finishing, prompting her to do a master’s degree and PhD in Materials Science and Engineering. She received her Ph.D. from the Federal University of Sergipe in Brazil, also spending a year during this program on a joint project with Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying the synthesis and characterization of graphene-based materials. She started as a postdoc at the [email protected] laboratory at Empa in 2015 and was named a research scientist there in 2019. Now married to a Swiss, she doesn’t have any immediate plans to leave. The defined seasons suit her—she particularly loves the cold and snow—and thinks that the country is overall a pretty good place to live. In her free time, she enjoys hiking and being out in nature as well as reading books not related to science and playing the piano.

Interview by Carey Sargent, EPFL, NCCR MARVEL

The biggest challenge women scientists face is...

I would like to divide my answer into two parts. I think for everybody, the biggest challenge is that there is a stigma that only geniuses and very smart people can do science, and this is not at all true. You might have a talent, but you need to work hard. You can be the most talented person, but if you don’t put the work into it, you don’t go forward, I think this is what is going to make a difference. But people also need to believe they can do it. I think a lot of people don’t go towards a science career or an academic career in general because they don't believe it is possible. 

Then, building on that, I think this is way worse for women. I think we are led to believe at a very early age that we are not good enough or that we cannot do certain things because of our gender. It’s better now, we’re talking more about it, different strategies have been taken on the governmental level, and also in schools to build up the confidence in women that they can pursue whatever career they desire. But we still have a long way to go. Not that long ago, we couldn’t even go to university or do whatever we want because of our gender (in some places in the world we still can't). This is still a very significant issue.  

I was discouraged when I chose to study chemistry. Not from my family, but from people around me. “Why do you want to do this?” For them, the only kind of doctor I could be was maybe a medical doctor or a lawyer, but not a scientist. This did not have any impact because I heard that from people who didn’t have any influence on me. I was pretty lucky because I had a strong female role model in my mother, who’s a physicist. 

 These issues are very personal to me because I know how we can be judged just because we are female. My mom’s first choice was not to be a physicist, she wanted to be a jet pilot. She went to the Army to apply for this position and they didn’t accept her only because she was a woman. This was in the early 1980s and that’s not that long ago. Can you imagine how frustrating it is not to be able to do something you want because of your gender? There was always a strong feeling in our house for me and my sister that we could do whatever we wanted.  My mother suffered discrimination because of her gender but she taught us that we shouldn't  have to. She was excited when I decided to go into science and we could talk about it and she supported me.  

I think increasing role models in general in science would help the younger girls that may doubt themselves.  Because all of this starts way before you arrive at university. When it’s time to choose your degree, you already doubt yourself, it starts in a much earlier stage. I think that having more women in committees, in leadership positions would make a huge difference.  

This subject is very important to me and I’m very vocal about it, also here at Empa.  Between my master’s and my PhD, my professors were both women and our labs were pretty much half-half, so I didn’t realize this bias at university. I only realized how bad it was when I moved to Switzerland.  In the US and Brazil people are more vocal, they talk about these issues – here not so much. When I came to Empa for my postdoc interview I enter in the room and was faced by 30 guys. My lab had no women scientist—zero. I was like “I have never seen this before”. Now we are two. At some point we were four, but Empa has a lot of work to do on that. Imagine if you come from a background where you didn’t have too many role models and you come to a place where you don’t see anyone who looks like you. You feel like you don’t belong.   

I chose a scientific career because…

I think the curiosity was always there, always in the house with both parents in STEM.  We were stimulated to ask why. I remember, since very young that every day when we got home from school my mother would want to know everything we had learned and so we would explain. I also had some great teachers, especially when I had to choose what I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure between chemistry or physics and I had an amazing chemistry teacher in high school—he was a retired university professor who decided to teach in high school. He would bring research articles to discuss and we didn’t even know what was that at the time. And so, he would teach us much more than just “you need to know what this reaction is”. He would show “okay, we’re learning this reaction, but it can be used for this or that.” For me it was very fascinating that you could use that knowledge to apply it and do something about it.  I was very lucky in this as well, having this great high school teacher, and I think that’s also why I decided to go for chemistry. 

If I weren’t a scientist, I would be… 

I always thought I would be involved in something having to do with learning. I think if I weren’t in physics or chemistry I would for sure go into languages, that is also something that I was very interested in since very early. Or gastronomy – I have many interests  - but that actually involves a little bit of chemistry as well, it’s not that different J Another thing I always liked was the arts. My mom had training in classical piano and she taught us when we were kids. Music was always in our lives, and it still is, though I don’t pursue it seriously.

What I like most about working with MARVEL is…

As an experimentalist, the thing I really enjoy is the collaboration with the group, the peers. MARVEL brings a lot of people together and so we can work together with the theoreticians to understand the problems, to understand the systems better.  That’s what I enjoy the most because we are not isolated. I also like that we can meet, unfortunately not last year, at the Marvel retreats and seminars and this can really forge collaborations between people. I think it makes the whole difference when you bring experiment and theory together.

My top two papers….

The first paper that I’m quite proud of is one of the first publications that I was involved with here at Empa. It is about device integration of graphene nanoribbons . Graphene nanoribbons, unlike graphene, have a bandgap, and we can control their electronic properties by changing their structure. My job as a materials engineer was to bridge these two worlds, to bring this fascinating material and apply them in a device. This work was the first time we reached a high-performance device with these graphene nanostructures, in 2017.  

Short-channel field-effect transistors with 9-atom and 13-atom wide graphene nanoribbons https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-017-00734-x

A couple of years later, in 2019, we also published a paper where we investigated in detail how we bring the nanoribbons from an ultrahigh vacuum environment to air. We showed all the necessary steps to make sure that these nanostructures are preserved and to assure their quality in order to be integrated into a device afterwards.

Surface-Synthesized Graphene Nanoribbons for Room Temperature Switching Devices: Substrate Transfer and ex Situ Characterization https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acsanm.9b00151