Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

The New Face of Leadership

Thayer's new dean, Alexis Abramson, talks about why she chose Dartmouth, and how she plans to keep Thayer at the forefront of engineering education and innovation.

By Kathryn Lapierre
Photography by Rob Strong

Dean Alexis Abramson

This fall, Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth welcomed Alexis Abramson, a mechanical engineer and a leader in sustainable energy technology, as its 13th dean. Abramson, a Cleveland native whose career spans academia to the nonprofit sector to policy development, joins Thayer at a time of growth and opportunity. As Dartmouth builds a new, $200-million facility to house engineering, computer science, and entrepreneurship, Abramson will oversee the next phases of Thayer's expansion to double the number of faculty and PhD graduates. Abramson spoke to Dartmouth Engineer about how her career and life experiences so far have helped prepare her for the role, what it's like to be a woman in a largely male-dominated field, and how she plans on keeping Thayer at the forefront of engineering education, innovation, and research.

What drew you to Thayer and to Dartmouth?

I truly believe we are at an inflection point in engineering education. I chose to accept the role of dean at Thayer because Dartmouth is at the forefront of a revolution that's necessary and critical for the future of our world. With all that's going on in society, it's extremely important that engineers are taught to tackle problems using a systems-based approach, with education that's grounded strongly in the liberal arts, so that engineers can invent and discover at the intersection of the human-made world and the human experience. Thayer delivers a "human-centered" approach to engineering education like no other—and I am excited to join an institution where we're leading the way.

Of course, what also drew me here is this incredible community—from the faculty and staff to our students and alumni and the Dartmouth community at large. Our faculty are scholars equally passionate about research, teaching, and mentorship, with a dedication to students unmatched at most large research institutions. We live and breathe collaboration and problem-based engineering that you see only sprinklings of at other institutions, but it’s part of our DNA here. To be part of that and to be a part of Thayer's future growth is very exciting.

Just the Facts

Alexis Abramson 
13th Dean of Thayer School of Engineering

Prior Roles
Milton and Tamar Maltz Professor of Energy Innovation,
Case Western Reserve University

Technical Advisor,
Breakthrough Energy Ventures

Director,
Great Lakes Energy Institute,
Case Western Reserve University

Interim Chair,
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science,
Case Western Reserve University

Chief Scientist and Manager,
Emerging Technologies Team, Building Technologies Office
U.S. Department of Energy

Education
BS, Mechanical Engineering
Tufts University

MS, Mechanical Engineering
Tufts University

PhD, Mechanical Engineering
University of California, Berkeley

How have your career and your life experiences, so far, prepared you for this new role?

I have always been drawn to complexities of where two ideas or worlds intersect, and that's led me to a number of different roles. I am somewhat of a traditional academic in the sense that I was a faculty member at Case Western Reserve University for 16 years, advising, teaching, and doing research. I've also had an opportunity to work in the nonprofit world in tech-based economic development in northeast Ohio, trying to figure out how to better catalyze commercialization, and spent time as a director of the Great Lakes Energy Institute, working in energy sustainability research. More recently, I was a technical advisor for Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a firm started by Bill Gates and others to invest in companies with a significant potential to mitigate climate change.

And, I've learned a lot of lessons along the way. The most important lesson I’ve learned is that the best solutions never come from a single person. The right kind of team ultimately leads to amazing solutions, and you need to know how to work collaboratively in an effective manner to move great ideas forward. Another important lesson I learned is the value of ownership—everyone, working toward a common goal, needs to fully know their role and responsibility and see the path to their own success in support of the organization's overall strategy. Lastly, we all need metrics. We need to have metrics so that we're all working toward a common and measurable goal, with markers along the way that let us know what worked and what didn’t.

What inspired you to become an engineer?

Growing up, my family was not engineering-inclined, but I got a lot of encouragement, especially from my family and teachers, to be the best version of myself I could be. And, I happened to be good at math and science.

I remember the day in first grade when I realized, for the first time, that some people thought boys were better at math and science than girls—I couldn't believe it. I had been so sheltered that up until that point, I had actually thought maybe girls were better than boys at that sort of stuff. That experience had a profound impact on me. I remember thinking at the time, "Well, if someone is going to say I'm not good at this, I'm going to prove them wrong." It was a huge motivator.

I also had a wonderful calculus teacher in high school who provided a lot of encouragement, and a physics teacher who pulled me aside and told me, "Gosh, you have a lot of potential here." Other than family, few people had formally done that before, so it instilled a level of confidence in me to pursue engineering in college. Without that kind of support from key people, which we all need in our lives, I'm not sure I would be where I am today.

You are only the second woman to hold the title of "Dean" at Thayer. What is the significance of that for you? What are some experiences that have helped shape the kind of leader you'll be here?

The significance is not lost on me. We live in a world where this is still uncommon, and reminding the world—especially our children—that women are not only valuable contributors, but also decision-makers and leaders in STEM is extremely critical for the future of science and engineering.

I certainly have encountered various challenges as a woman in a male-dominated field—I won't name them all here—but it has meant that I have had to try that much harder to prove myself a bit more throughout my career. That has required me to be more introspective about my own strengths and weaknesses and push myself to be a better engineer. It's required me to take more time to understand other people and where they're coming from. And, it has allowed me to better connect with a more diverse community and consider multiple perspectives in doing my work.

What do you enjoy most about being an engineer?

I think most engineers would say that they love being an engineer because there's often a definitive answer to the problems they are trying to solve. In life, we encounter so many questions that have no answers, and an engineer's job is to search for concrete answers and provide solutions that can have a great impact on the world. It doesn't happen every day, but when it does, it’s an amazing feeling. That potential for impact pushes us forward to continue the work we do as engineers. For me, as an engineer, there’s a level of comfort and a lot of joy in that.

What’s even more incredible is to teach engineering to young people and work with faculty who help push these discoveries forward. We all benefit from engineering—we drive cars to school, we use our iPhones—but how many of us understand how these thing work? To work with young people and open their eyes, to bring them to that "aha" moment, and to show them how they can impact society with their human-made inventions in new ways—there's really no feeling like it.

Being dean takes this experience to the next level. Engineering in an academic setting is a unique opportunity to tackle society's challenges in a new way and in 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. It’s something most people in the world just don't have the chance to do, and I’m honored I have the opportunity to do that.

Engineering in an academic setting is a unique opportunity to tackle society's challenges in an exciting, dynamic, and forward-thinking environment.
— Alexis Abramson

What are some of your near-term goals and what is your long-term vision for Thayer?

In the short term, I expect to spend a lot of time listening and learning, as well as set up opportunities for others to listen and learn together. I believe very strongly in working collaboratively toward a vision that everyone can believe in—and that can’t happen without a lot of dialogue, not just with me, but among all the stakeholders in the process. 

At the moment, I can point to three long-term goals. One of my ongoing goals is to raise Thayer’s profile and the external visibility of the school. Thayer is already an incredible engineering school, but we have room to take ourselves to the next level and should be sharing our story with the world. There are a lot of different ways we can do that, and I look forward to engaging my colleagues in determining the best path forward.

Second, as we double our physical footprint and grow as a school, I want to make sure that we grow intentionally and strategically—to attract top scholars in the areas where we want to lead, and do so with a faculty that reflects the diversity of our society.

Lastly, I want to help increase more cross-campus collaboration and external partnerships. There's already a lot of that going on at Thayer, and I want to find ways to support and encourage additional partnerships across campus, with universities, with corporations, with alumni, and with other members of the Upper Valley community. While we want to sustain the specialness of being in Hanover, I also believe that stronger connections with the external world can further enrich our experiences, lead to greater educational opportunities, and encourage unique discoveries in the lab.

There is nothing more exciting and challenging to me than taking ideas from our academic community and turning them into reality. I see a future ahead where we can have enormous impact, not only at our own institution, but on the world. I really look forward to working with the Dartmouth community to do exactly that.

Kathryn Lapierre is the senior editor of Dartmouth Engineer.

Categories: Features

Tags: engineering dean, engineering education, leadership

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