Alumni Voices: Gabriel Barrios' Learning Adventure

What brought you to ISP?

I like science, building things, and music. These are things I’ve done since I was a child, sponsored by my grandfather who had a small workshop at his house. When I entered High school my interests grew, but none of these things where promoted in my previous school. Memorization was the only way to get through, and that’s not the way I learn. So naturally, my grades declined along with my moral, and my attention went to my hobbies. I asked my parents to change schools, but this is not something most parents take lightly. The decision to switch schools was final and immediate after a meeting my parents had with the school to discuss my performance. The school’s recommendation was that I should be grounded, my hobbies taken, and my drum set confiscated.

What did that change mean for you? What was the experience like?

It meant the world, literally. It was a radical change both in education and culture.

I remember at the beginning of the transition to ISP meeting with Mr. Morales, and he asked me something I had never been asked before. He asked: “what do you like, and what would you like to learn?” I’ve always had an interest in science and engineering, so after a brief chat, he offered to re-open the IB Computer Science class. WHAT? This man was about to open a class, for me? Just like that, he did. I ended going for the IB Certificate on all other classes too, even played in the school band. The change in my grades and mental health was immediate and clearly visible to my parents, and most importantly, to me.

Equally important to me was the change in culture. Everybody I met was different and nice, and everybody around them was comfortable with their differences. I didn’t feel pressured to fit a certain mold, which clearly had not worked out for me before. I could be me, so I was.

What are your fondest memories of ISP?

The whole time I was there is my fondest memory. I remember I used to willingly wake up extra early so that I had enough time to go across the city and pick up classmates to go to school. I’ve never been a morning person, except while at ISP. It was so strange to feel school was awesome when I had hated it my whole life.

I have not finished collecting fond memories from ISP (you didn’t say these memories had to be AT ISP). Our class is still very much a tight group and we still meet regularly. Last week I was hanging out with Luis Torres (class of 2001), who came to visit from Dominican Republic. 17 years later, countries apart, although older yet dubiously wiser, nothing has changed. That’s the kind of friends you make at ISP.

Where did you go after you graduated? What did you study?

I went to Old Dominion University, in Norfolk Virginia. The official degree description is “ComET”, short for Computer Engineering Technology. Which at the time was a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and a minor in Computer Science. 

How did ISP help prepare you for that next step in your education?

The first 2 years of the Computer Science program I went to class only to take the exams or deliver assignments. You may add a grain of salt to that, but that’s basically what happened. I was well ahead of the curve.

On the Electrical Engineering side of things, part of our course involved programming embedded systems or microcontrollers, using machine code. Having a solid programming foundation form ISP, adapting to the new language was easy. By the end of my first year, I was the annoying kid at the back of the class informing the teacher of his mistakes and of more efficient ways to code something. Fortunately, this was encouraged, and one day the teacher let me teach one class and I ended up joining his lab team. 

What do you do now? How did you go about creating your own company and why?

I run/own two wildly different companies, Marine Diesel and Refrigeration, Inc. and Controles Nacionales, S.A.

“MDR” specializes in yacht repairs and services and holds representation of several industry leading marine brands. Most notably among these brands is Seakeeper, which manufactures gyro-stabilizers for boats. It is an incredible technology which has revolutionized the marine industry by eliminating boat roll (the part everyone hates). We work locally and internationally serving boat owners or executing warranty services for the brands we represent.

Before this, I worked as the Procurement Manager for Electromechanical Works for the Panama Canal Expansion. 3 years of FIDIC Contracts worth over 500 million USD was about as much paper as I could push in a lifetime. When I was getting close to my last purchase contract, I was offered the opportunity to “Run” MDR, with ownership. I was ready for a change, and I jumped down into the entrepreneur rabbit hole.

To my surprise, “run” meant BUILD the company, from scratch. To date, we still use the company logo I made in MS Paint. I’m not kidding. I’m not changing it. 2 years later, after having to swim or sink, I had 2 full-time engineers, 4 technicians, a secretary, representation of 11 brands, and my own company coffee machine! 

After the first 2 years of MDR, I figured “hey, if I can build one company, I can build two”.

So, I made “Controles”, which is the business end of my “hobbies”. Controles Nacionales specializes in the design of real-time telemetry/data logging systems. Our Flagship product is the VaxPro, which I specifically designed for medical cold chain management. We currently work with companies dedicated to Vaccine Trials, Pediatric Centers and 3rd Party Logistics companies, ensuring proper keep of vaccines, medications, and biological samples. The VaxPro has been used (still is) in several clinical trials sponsored by large pharmaceuticals such as Glasko SmithKline, Sanofi, and also the Gates Foundation, which has been an honor. We are now in our 4th year of business and expanding to water treatment.

I credit the entire existence of Controles Nacionales to my days in ISP, specifically Mrs. Solis. BEST. TEACHER. EVER.

How have you started to reconnect with ISP?

I was invited to help with STEM Program, maybe there was some way I could contribute. I had always wanted to help but didn’t know how. ISP offered me an opportunity to be a judge at the Science Fair, which was awesome. I think I had more fun than anyone that day. Incredible projects, and even more incredible and capable students. I was particularly impressed with the chemistry projects and the students presenting them. Chemistry has never been a strong subject for me, or anyone I know for that matter, yet these students had such a clear understanding of the subject it inspired me to go back and study it.

What do you feel has changed the most or is changing regarding the way students are learning and the opportunities students have?

A movie quote/meme comes to mind: “SO MANY ACTIVITIES!”.

I think my first question the first time I went back was if I could enroll again. The science fair was unbelievable, the labs are incredible, and the Near Space Program is the coolest thing ever. I must admit I got a little jealous. I was impressed with how much hands-on experience they are getting, and the range of topics offered. For me it was very important to learn by doing so that I could make the link between theory and application. The students I met with were so clear on their subjects that I have no doubt the subjects being taught are being understood, rather than memorized.

You had an opportunity to have some ISP interns, what was that experience like? What did it grow in to?

Honestly, the brightest kids I’ve ever met. You never think about how hard it is to teach until you try to do it. Especially when the students are so capable. One of the students, Ines, was the leader of the Near Space Program. This girl led a project to build something and put it on the edge of space…SPACE!

At the time we started working on a small project, maybe a tad too ambitious, in my home lab. The project was an air filter mask that actively monitored the air quality parameters for a friend with severe respiratory issues. Like a Tricorder from Star Trek. Unfortunately, the project coincided with travel plans for some students with family abroad and my wife was pregnant at the time. My home lab quickly became my daughter’s nursery, and I became a dad.

It was not the best timing in retrospect, but I still work on the project whenever I get a chance. It’s a cool project, very much in line with what I do in Controles Nacionales.

We also heard you helped students who were creating their own gyro-stabilizers. How did that go?

I can’t take credit for any of it. I got a call from Jose Rios (HS Tech Teaching Assistant) asking if I could help explain the operating principles of the Gyro-Stabilizers we use on boats to the students, as they were trying to apply this to their glove. The glove was meant to stabilize the shaking hand of a person with Parkinson’s disease. I sent them a couple of videos of the gyros in operation and I happened to be onboard working on one that day, so I was able to provide a detailed on-site video explanation. In the capable hands of Mr. Rios, the students got to work and brought the prize home.

There is truly no place like ISP.


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