Q&A  | 

Alexis Abramson and the importance of solidarity within science

"About half of the needs of our current workforce will no longer be necessary in about 50 years".

Tags: 'Alexis Abramson' 'artificial intelligence' 'Dartmouth College' 'Future of work' 'power skills' 'Thayer School'

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Alexis Abramson is the 13th dean of Thayer School. Prior to joining Dartmouth, she was the Milton and Tamar Maltz Professor of Energy Innovation at Case Western Reserve University and served as a director of the university’s Great Lakes Energy Institute focused on creating sustainable energy technology solutions.

During the Obama administration, Abramson served as chief scientist and manager of the Emerging Technologies Division at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Building Technologies Program. In 2018, she served as technical adviser for Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a $1 billion effort launched by Bill Gates to combat human-driven climate change. As a leader in sustainable energy technology and advanced energy research, Abramson has authored more than 60 peer-reviewed publications.

She has a BS and a MS in Mechanical Engineering by Tufts University and a PhD in Mechanical Engineering by the University of California.

Can you give us an overview of your work?

I have had the pleasure of serving as Dean of Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire, since last summer. At Dartmouth, one of the world’s eminent learning institutions, we are fostering future technology and engineering leaders to find solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, like climate change and energy sustainability, while making innovative advances in fields such as biomedicine. My goal is to play a part in revolutionizing the education of our students to create 21st Century leaders who are technologically savvy while remaining focused on the human condition.

What are power skills?

Power skills is a term coined by Dartmouth College President Philip Hanlon to describe abilities such as problem solving, collaboration, and leadership. While scientific knowledge and research are critical to innovation, power skills are also necessary to create positive change. In order to produce the best leaders we can, Dartmouth students are immersed in an experiential learning environment that requires hands-on, project-based, and problem-based learning. We teach them to tackle problems using a systems-based approach, leveraging critical thinking skills that tap into all parts of the brain. 

One of our PhD students, an international student from China who recently won the Anna Valicek Award, said Dartmouth’s well-rounded, comprehensive training was critical for his success as as an engineer and provided him the resources and support he needed to thrive in the United States.

How important are power skills going to be in the labor market of the future?

Without communication, experts are unlikely to see their research resonate with the policy makers and industry titans that will help get their work out of the laboratory and into the hands of those that need it. In other words, technical expertise alone doesn’t compensate for a lack of power skills. 

Without communication, experts are unlikely to see their research resonate with the policy makers and industry titans that will help get their work out of the laboratory and into the hands of those that need it.

Thanks to researchers, we already understand and have technology to combat some of the world’s biggest problems, but we also need to communicate and collaborate across cultures and international boundaries to take initiative and chart a path forward using all of our best ideas and assets. For this reason, at Dartmouth, the spirit of teamwork and problem-based learning are in our DNA. We tie coursework to real world applications so that our students are learning while pursuing solutions that aim to improve the human condition from all fronts. 

What are the consequences of a hard skills/tech focused education?

A background in the liberal arts is critical in order to experience deep learning and practice critical thinking by asking the tough questions. Technically-minded experts who weren’t privy to this type of environment may have trouble bridging political and corporate gaps and accomplishing tasks through the finish line. 

Embedded within our curriculum and culture at Dartmouth is the importance of a human-centered approach, with the belief that our work should always have a beneficial impact on the world in which we live. Along with expertise, leaders with an understanding of and compassion for humanity are needed to solve the world’s greatest challenges. 

It doesn’t matter how you approach a problem, because there isn’t just one path to success. Instead, we want to produce leaders who understand the problem from multiple angles, have the ability to influence others, collaborate across disciplines, and get things done.

Quoting Anand Argwal, one out of two jobs will be gone in 50 years. Do you agree with that?

While the thought is scary, I agree with Mr. Agarwal that about half of the needs of our current workforce will no longer be necessary in about 50 years. However, I firmly believe that our integration with technology will create demand for a new and different kind of labor, and it’s our responsibility to adapt and ensure all are prepared to lead successful lives in this new world. 

I firmly believe that our integration with technology will create demand for a new and different kind of labor, and it’s our responsibility to adapt and ensure all are prepared to lead successful lives in this new world. 

A member of Dartmouth’s faculty who specializes in artificial intelligence recently explained it to me this way — a small, local farm may choose to purchase an automatic milking machine, making manual milking unnecessary. This “smart” milking machine may automatically adjust milking to maximize output from the cow or even identify a health concern before the cow exhibits symptoms. Or perhaps the milking machine communicates with a smart feeding machine to reveal how changing what a cow eats affects milk output and quality. These machines must be designed, built, maintained, enhanced, marketed, and sold, requiring workers of varied skillsets. 

Artificial intelligence may be taking over some jobs, but it’s also producing new ones that are pushing our society into the future.

How is technology going to change the concept of knowledge in the labor market?

Technology is currently used to share and better the human experience, and I believe this will continue to be true moving forward. The Internet, which is available to us 24/7 virtually across the globe, made certain that information that once seemed important enough to write down or memorize now available with the push of a button. Easy and instant access to a near infinite amount of information provides us one advantage in the workplace. But even more, we now can use technology to analyze and understand complex information using data analytics, revealing patterns, correlations, and anomalies that have never before been available to the human mind. Couple data analytics with machine learning and artificial intelligence, and technological solutions are developing to understand, adapt, and adjust in ways that are advancing fields such as personalized medicine, autonomous vehicles, and building energy efficiency. 

 

In the future, I believe visionaries will have to find ways to learn about not just the human-made world, but also to integrate that knowledge with what we know of our engineered world in order to better the human experience. We will always need that human touch that machines can’t quite provide.

Is AI the most disruptive element in the labor market of the near future?

Artificial intelligence is the most disruptive element in the labor market today, and will continue to be in the near future, however I want to caution that “disruptive” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” As with any new innovation, after research has concluded, the first step to positive implementation should be the establishment of policies, guidelines, and rules for both creators and users. These could and likely should be common sense rules so that everyone is aware of the possible uses as well as advantages and disadvantages of the technology. Although we cannot prevent inevitable malicious actors, we can create and enforce legislation to limit their negative impacts.

Are universities going to be able to keep up with the demand of tech skilled talent in the labor market?

In order for universities to remain relevant and continue to produce high quality practitioners and scholars, we must keep up with the demand of the labor market but also ensure our students receive a foundational education.

At Dartmouth, we integrate engineering and sciences with the liberal arts so that our students can pursue a variety of interests and approach their selected studies through unique and individual lenses.

At Dartmouth, we integrate engineering and sciences with the liberal arts so that our students can pursue a variety of interests and approach their selected studies through unique and individual lenses. We strongly believe that this boundary-less and collaborative culture fuels a deep-seated desire in our students to learn, discover, and invent at the intersection of the human-made world and the human experience.

As far as the academic brain drain is concerned, does that pose a risk for universities?

Many of the problems that humankind currently faces, such as climate change and overpopulation, are global issues. In order to face these challenges with confidence, we need to remove barriers and work together to brainstorm and implement mutually beneficial solutions. It’s important to foster knowledge across international boundaries and bring different points of view to the table, as we have seen that tackling problems as individuals often leads to roadblocks and a negligible effect. The most important lesson I’ve learned is that the best solutions never come from a single person. The right kind of team almost inevitably produces amazing results, and you need to know how to work collaboratively in an effective manner to move great ideas forward. 

How should universities tackle the forecast talent gap of the labor market of the near future?

The most important thing that universities can do to minimize the forecasted talent gap of the labor market is to widen the definition of an engineer or scientist. Power skills such as collaboration and critical thinking are extremely important in science, and approaching the discipline through an interdisciplinary lens better enables us to tackle global problems. A background in the liberal arts will naturally unleash greater critical thinking, leading to innovation that considers the true needs of humankind.

The most important thing that universities can do to minimize the forecasted talent gap of the labor market is to widen the definition of an engineer or scientist.

How will the future labor market change the academic landscape?

First and foremost, it’s important to note academia exists in the real world. At our institutions, we are creating real-world solutions, albeit in an academic setting. The researchers and scientists at Dartmouth co-exist with the challenges we see in the world, and it’s our goal to be in line with or ahead of the changing needs of the global population. Of course, this means our curriculum needs to evolve to match these needs as well. 

Conducting research in an academic setting is a unique opportunity to confront society’s challenges in a new way via an exciting, dynamic, and forward-thinking environment. We are working collaboratively to design and deliver an educational experience that will impact generations of future engineers and society at large.