by Deanne Stone, OLLI member
When Barbara-Ann Gamboa Lewis was six years old, her mother gave her a book about the lives of scientists; reading it lead Barbara-Ann to know, even as a child, that she would be a scientist.
Lewis’s Filipino father and her Irish mother met as students at the University of California in the late 1920s. Lewis was born in the Philippines. When World War II broke out, she was seven years old and living with her parents and two younger siblings in Manila. As the fighting intensified, the family fled to the countryside, ending Lewis’s formal schooling.
“My parents were progressive thinkers and raised us with few restrictions,” says Lewis. “I was homeschooled by my parents, so I wasn’t socialized like most girls brought up in the 30s and 40s. I’ve always been curious about how things work and why things are as they are. It never crossed my mind that I couldn’t be a scientist; I had the example of Mme. Curie.”
Despite the hardships of the war, Lewis had the freedom to climb trees, explore the nearby fields and creeks, and collect insects--activities that spurred her natural curiosity about nature. She also had time to practice the violin, which she started studying at age six. Her teacher, a missionary, fled when the bombing of Manila by the Japanese started, but she gave Lewis a violin and book to study on her own. She has continued to play the violin throughout her life.
At that time Lewis was growing up, Philippine society, in general, was not open-minded. Lewis and her siblings were taunted for being Mestizos. “We were stoned by the other kids because we were different. It wasn’t only being racially mixed that made us different. My parents were atheists, so we didn’t go to church as everyone else in our community seemed to do.”
Lewis wrote a memoir about her childhood, Barefoot in Fire: a World War II Childhood, which was illustrated by her daughter-in-law. The book was written for children and, in particular, for her six grandchildren. “Children born of mixed marriages can have questions about their identity,” says Lewis. “I thought my experiences might help them deal with some of the confusion they feel.”
Lewis’s formal education resumed when she was 11. She went on to study science in the Philippines before earning a Ph.D. in soil science from UC Berkeley in 1971. An associate professor emerita of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University, she retired from the faculty in 2006. Not one to be idle, Lewis enrolled in a full-time, three-year program in the Chicago School of Violin Making. Now living in Castro Valley with her husband, she opened a shop in her home to make and repair violins.
Lewis will teach a general interest science course this spring, Symmetry of Life: A Science Course. She hopes that students will leave the course with a feeling of awe at the wonder of nature and a curiosity to learn, an endeavor that has made Lewis’s own life an unending adventure. No prior knowledge of math or science is necessary to engage in and enjoy the class.