Department: Baskin Engineering Dean’s Office
Graduate Institution: UCLA, Linguistics, Ph.D.
Undergraduate Institution: UCSB, Linguistics, B.A.
Abigail Kaun joined the Baskin School of Engineering in 2017 as special assistant to the dean. She was later appointed as executive advisor to the dean. Her role as executive advisor entails three main functions: research, writing, and special projects. Since joining UC Santa Cruz, Abigail has been involved in several initiatives, including reshaping the engineering academic departments; expanding diversity, equity, and inclusion programming; and supporting new curricular partnerships and experiential learning spaces.
What is your role at Baskin Engineering and what does it entail?
As the executive advisor to the dean, my job is to support the dean in his efforts, which requires a lot of research and writing for the school and taking on special projects. I also get to partner with the Community Engagement team from time to time on different Baskin Engineering communications and marketing initiatives. A current special project that I’m working on—in collaboration with Associate Dean Jim Whitehead and colleague Tamara Ball—is the experiential learning facility that Baskin Engineering is developing. I’m also working closely on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in partnership with our new associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion Marcella Gomez.
For the past few years, I’ve been a part of TEQ Deck, a collaborative effort between engineering and the Center for Public Philosophy. We’re creating a deck of cards, where each card presents an ethical question that relates to some emergent or anticipated technology. The goal of the deck is to inspire creative conversations about technology and ethics.
Describe your journey to Baskin Engineering.
I grew up in Santa Cruz. My father and stepfather were early faculty members of UC Santa Cruz, one in literature and one in economics. I remained in the UC system for all of my education. I then started my career as a professor of linguistics. I first taught at Yale then transitioned to administration in 2000, first at USC and later at the School of Film and Television at Loyola Marymount University. I came to Baskin Engineering because I wanted to return to Santa Cruz to be closer to my family. I looked for interesting and suitable positions at UCSC and found this one. It’s a rather different position than the administration roles I held prior. This role works directly with the dean and the engineering school priorities, whereas the others were more focused on running the academic operations of the school. Coming from the previous roles I held across different disciplines, I’m positioned well to be an ambassador to other parts of campus. I’ve done a lot of work in the humanities and the social sciences, so I’m able to translate our work and represent the engineering school, while also translating their work and priorities into an engineering context.
As you’re nearing your sixth year at Baskin Engineering, what would you say excites you the most about being a part of this community?
The students. I’ve worked with students my whole career, in all sorts of settings and with all sorts of objectives in life, but I have never worked with students who were more creative, collaborative, and dedicated than the engineering students at UC Santa Cruz. I wish we had many more resources to support them because they are truly remarkable. What they are able to do with fewer resources than engineering students at schools like Stanford and Berkeley is mindblowing. I wish that my role allowed me more opportunities to engage with students, but when I do get to, it’s just a joy.
What is one of your favorite memories at Baskin?
One of my favorite memories is when I first met the Formula Slug team, who is involved in developing an electric race car to race in competitions. Early on in my role when I was trying to learn more about the different student organizations at Baskin, the team invited me over to their lab to show what they were working on. They were super excited to have me there and showcase their car and hard work. I even got my picture taken in the electric race car. It’s a really fun Baskin memory of mine.
What are two or three goals you have for next year?
Helping the high student-to-faculty ratio is definitely a primary goal of mine. I’ve been a part of several different efforts to get our student-to-faculty ratios under control. It’s important to bring the ratio down to better support our students. Another goal is to find ways to partner with different divisions across campus, particularly humanities and social sciences. Engineers need to have a grounding in humanistic thinking and understand the social implications for what they do, and the social sciences and humanities need to pay close attention to technology because it’s becoming more and more central to the human condition. It’s important to have that relationship between the divisions. I would also like to finish TEQ Deck by the end of the year.
What advice do you have for students?
Seek assistance. Never hesitate to ask for help. There are many resources available on campus to support students, whether it’s academic support, mental health, or basic needs support. Another piece of advice is don’t focus so much on what you should major in, focus more on what you want to do in your professional career and then map out your education pathway. College students have been students since they were five years old, so it’s easy to get so focused on academics and not really think about what it is they want to do in their lives after they graduate.
Interview Date: December 2, 2022.
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